Twitter, a micro-blogging tool
that slipped a 140 character noose around the neck of the net's geekish crowd about a year or so ago and has kept them on that short leash ever since, has also proven to be a useful kind of cattle prod in the task of shocking newsrooms into the 21st century. The very first time I showed a roomful of journalists and advertising reps David Troy's Twittervision, (a mashup of Google Maps and the public Twitter stream of 'tweets') the universal look of incomprehension on the gathered faces was like a frigid blast of winter air greeting a gardener on a spring morning.
Ah, well, I thought, we have some work to do.
I explained the "what are you doing?" concept, the 140 character contstraint, following and the conversations it was enabling. I asked one veteran reporter what she thought of it. "I think these people should get a life!" she hissed, with ill-concealed disgust.
Part IRC, part SMS, part Social Network device and totally simple to use, Twitter spread like cheap heroin in artists colony - and proved to be just about as addictive. And with that addiction has come innovation — as it often does with the malleable tools that get tossed into the mosh pit of the web. Fishing in the public stream of tweets I've seen bands linking to mp3s of their songs, marketers offering 1 hour only sales, lovers making dates, parents reaching out to other adults - any adult, please! - novels being written 140 characters at a time, earthquakes being announced, forest fires being tracked and conference keynotes being reported on. Dozens of newspapers have even taken to alerting readers about breaking news via Twitter (One dedicated fan has collected a list of those papers using Twitter).
When you're teaching, one of things that you live for (you shouldn't, but you do) is that look - the dawning comprehension, the 'Aha!' moment. None of my lessons produce that look quite as often as the Twitter lesson does.
That first disgusted veteran? She, alas, hadn't changed her mind by the end of her week at WebU, but many others have as they've come to see the ways people are using Twitter and begin to imagine ways they might use it too.