Why Twitter, anyways?

(This is part 2 of a chicken-‘n’-egg series explaining the usefulness of Twitter. If you get what Twitter is, but need help getting started, you might want to look at “A non-fanatical beginner’s guide to Twitter.“)

I’m tapping away furiously on my Blackberry as a friend arrives to join me for coffee. “Whatcha working on?” he asks.

“Just updating my Twitter,” I say. “Two secs.”

“Twitter, huh? I just don’t get it, I guess.”

“Oh, my. Allow me to get you to ‘get’ it, my friend.”

This is a conversation I have often, and while it might make some diehard Twitterers cringe, I relish this moment to expound and explain this little phenomenon that’s happening around Twitter and services like it. I’ve clearly drunk the Kool-Aid of the micro-blogging revolution, and I’d love to walk you through some of the ways people are enjoying it.

Wait, what is it?

Twitter is a service that functions like a giant bulletin board where anyone can stick a short note — 140 characters or less. These posts are called “tweets.” You can choose to read other people’s tweets (called “following” them), and other people can choose to read yours (these are your “followers”). Some people choose to keep their tweets private, and approve each request to be “followed.”

The most basic way to use Twitter is via the website, where a list of everyone’s tweets appears once you log in.  If you belong to Facebook, it’s similar to the home screen there (aka, the “news feed”)– which features a list of your friends’ recent activities. The main difference between the two services is that while all your friends’ activities appear in your news feed (though this is tweakable; another post on that another day), only people you choose to follow appear in your Twitter feed.

How do people use it?

There are two main groups of twitterers, and I want to address them separately — individuals tweeting on their own behalf, and organizations and business who are on Twitter. There’s some overlap, for sure, but have their own ends for which Twitter is the means.

Individuals: I am tweeting, hear me roar

Or purr, if that’s the case. Many people are on Twitter for some pretty basic reasons:

Organizations: It’s so much more than outreach

Sure, you can push out information all you want, but there are a lot of other ways for organizations to connect with their constiuencies:

A little story

This is one of my favorite, illustrative moments in for how Twitter humanizes our digital interactions: Last fall, I was visiting my parents after participating at a media symposium at Ithaca College. My mother knows I have a thing for shoes, so while we were shopping, she decided to mess with me. We were at a store with rows and rows of discounted awesomeness, and she called across several aisles, “Come look at these! Should I get them?”

I was greeted by a blinding set of cream-colored, bejeweled, pointy-toed, gold-stilletoed boots on my fashion-conservative mother. We fell over with laughter, and I sent this picture to Twitter with the question, “Should my mom buy these boots?” (Best response came from @rit, who said, “That depends. Is your mother Dolly Parton?”)

A few days later, I was on the phone with Pete Leyden to discuss a potential project. We played phone tag for a few days while I was traveling, and I was excited to finally hear what the project was about. “Before I get into it, though,” Pete said, “I need to know: Did your mom buy the boots?”

It was one of those moments that allowed this entirely personal — but not necessarily intimate or vulnerable — connection between me and a potential client. We had a great laugh over it. Following me on Twitter gave him a fairly rounded picture of the type of person I am, and it let me know that he’s appreciative of the level of silliness that often invades my brain. It humanized each of us in what otherwise is a connection governed entirely by ones and zeros.

What else to say?

Attention, Twitterati: what else is there? Tell me why you Twitter in the comments. Two great resources that I’d like to share before we go:

Later this week, I’ll  follow up with a post on the big picture of Twitter, and what it ultimately all means. See you then!

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