Twitter's everywhere, or so it seems. From celebrities to brand managers to college-age kids, people around the world appear to be hell-bent on racing Ashton Kutcher to amass as many "followers" as they possibly can.
But every overhyped trend sparks a reaction, and in Twitter's case, commentators from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to Republican ad guru Mark McKinnon have rushed to mock or dismiss it. At the same time, politicians and journalists adrift in a new communications environment have grabbed hold of the technology like desperate homeowners facing down a wildfire with a garden hose.
Regardless of the hype, Twitter is more than just a clever name. It's a versatile service that blends some of the best of the current generation of online and mobile technologies — allowing users to publish short messages to the Web or to the cell phones of people who've opted to receive them. Like text messages, individual posts ("tweets") are limited to 140 characters. Like blog articles, Twitter messages are usually posted for the public to read. And like Facebook "friends," Twitter "followers" must choose to receive someone's updates.
Individual users, companies, government agencies and organizations across the globe are trying Twitter for a variety of communications tasks, from organizing political action to serving as a journalistic live-coverage tool to providing a venue for reputation management. Here in the United States, Republican activists in particular have flocked to Twitter, perhaps in response to the perceived Democratic online domination in 2008.
They're joined by hundreds of print and broadcast journalists — including Doonesbury's fictional Roland Hedley — anxious to find a fresh outlet as newsrooms shrink. And in the same way that blogs now influence what appears on the evening news, Twitter discussions have begun to drive media coverage, if only because so many reporters and politicians participate.
But I doubt that Twitter is destined to revolutionize the way most of us in the wider world consume information online, and here's why: The tool's strengths embody critical weaknesses, and it's likely to remain the province of a relatively small number of enthusiasts for now.
Twitter's immediacy, its brevity, its reach and the social connections it offers have drawn millions of users, but each attraction contains the seeds of eventual discontent. First, let's think about the immediacy. When that US Airways 737 landed in the Hudson in January, for instance, twitterers posted photos and updates even as the rescue boats went to work, providing up-to-date information to readers around the globe.
But for every news event or public moment shared on Twitter, we endure hundreds of updates about someone's breakfast. The flip side of immediacy is narcissism and lack of reflection, and as Texas congressman Joe Barton recently found out — after catching flak for advising Twitter followers from the House floor to tune out President Barack Obama's February speech to Congress — some tweets are best not sent at all.
Twitter's brevity is similarly double-edged: The length limit forces writers to cut to the chase and lets readers consume messages from many people at once, but only so much rational thought can fit into 140 characters. Twitter may be many things, but a forum for in-depth analysis it's not, and it's revealing how many tweets are just links to articles or blog posts with room for substance.
Even Twitter's ability to create social connections is restricted, since following isn't reciprocal (e.g. you may read Ashton Kutcher's tweets, but I guarantee he's not reading yours). So while Twitter may be a powerful social tool, many politicians and journalists alike are essentially using it to broadcast trivia to a passive audience, not exactly a world-changing application.
As my friend and longtime journalist Terry Samuel said the other day, "Twitter's new, but it gets old fast." But despite what some might wish, it's not going away tomorrow. People into Twitter are "really" into Twitter, and even though 60 percent of new subscribers abandon their accounts within a month, it or a similar service seems destined to be with us for a while.
So if you're wondering about the future, here's my take: Twitter alone will neither destroy established media nor save them. Instead, it'll just provide another channel, and whether we use it for substance or trivia is up to us. So far, the trivia seems to be winning.
Colin Delany is the founder and editor of Epolitics.com. Reader may send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.