How much can you really say in 140 characters or less? On the surface, not that much. I was skeptical at first when I heard about this new Web site on which you can “follow” people and read micro-blog posts, or “tweets.” Why did I need this in my life, exactly, when I already had Facebook?
When some of my favorite news reporters, like Larry King, started telling their viewers to follow them on Twitter for updates on their stories, I decided to get an account myself. But what could I possibly tweet about? My life is not interesting. I was averaging one tweet a week, and most of them were about how bored I was and how ridiculous I thought Twitter was.
But my fascination with the site picked up when I started following celebrities like John Krasinski and Rainn Wilson, two actors from “The Office.” Like TMZ and the paparazzi, Twitter furthers our obsession with celebrities by humanizing them. Because the real celebrities are the ones using Twitter, anyone can, say, send condolences to Wilson when he tweets that his son’s fish just died. While he may not respond (seeing as he has over a million followers), there is a good chance Wilson may personally gloss over the tweet when he is checking his Twitter account. It brings a refreshing level of intimacy to the celebrity-fan relationship.
There are people who think this kind of virtual interaction is unhealthy. When the site was first launched in March 2007, reaction from the web industry was mixed. Some users were uncomfortable with staying “too connected” and receiving constant updates on mundane topics like what breakfast cereal their friends were eating. But what has made Twitter so significant is not necessarily its concept or even what’s being said on the site itself. What’s important is how the site is being used.
When the post-election protests in Iran started on June 13, 2009, I had been using Twitter for two months. News outlets were reporting heavily on the contested elections there, where the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “defeated” the favorite reform candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Supporters of Mousavi organized protests in the streets of Tehran, and rioting eventually spread to other parts of the country. Aside from being the largest show of defiance there since 1979, the protests were intriguing because they were organized partly through Twitter. In a heavily censored country, such a simple micro-blog site is vital for communication because the site itself does not contain any insinuating content and thus can’t be blocked.
Even more interesting was how the rest of the Twitter community reacted. In this historic event, instead of just watching the news unfold, people got involved directly. Users were sharing links to anti-government sites and tips on protection from tear gas. I was sharing tweets with people protesting in Tehran. I was linked to a chat room, where one of the users was a woman from the Isfahan province. I was sharing video links with a 17-year-old novelist in California. Eventually, Twitter users were getting better coverage of the elections than people watching CNN, which was criticized for its lack of coverage (lending to the fact that the government had shut out most reporters from Iran).
But if you’re not into the whole protest thing, you can always tweet about other topics. A central part of using Twitter is finding a niche of people around the world who enjoy what you enjoy. What’s interesting about the site, and other communication tools on the Internet, is its ability to turn strangers into acquaintances. With Twitter, you can isolate content with hashtags. People will append these hashtags in front of their tweets if they relate to a topic. During the protests, tweets having to do with Iran had the hashtag #iranelection. If you want new music, you can search the hashtag #musicmonday. Want to hear what people are thinking about current movies? Search the hashtag #movies. Yes, there is even a hashtag for the show “NYC Prep.”
Older generations are fascinated by Twitter because it is part of the Internet culture that’s changing social conventions. We scoff because we’re used to being connected to each other all the time. So what new aspects can Twitter bring? It depends on how you want to use it. Each tweet is a look into someone else’s life, no matter how mundane it is or where the user is from. But it’s up to you to decide whether you want to pay attention to it or not. You can use it to talk about something important like the Iranian elections or use it to complain about your relationship problems. It can be a catalyst for change or just another social networking site.