I was a little uncomfortable when writing my piece on Twitter for the Wiki Man column at the beginning of this year. Mindful that some of the magazine’s offline readership are sometimes faintly sceptical about newfangled gadgetry (the telegram, the Newcomen engine, the loom…) I was cautious about writing a fairly upbeat piece about a new form of communication which lies dangerously close to the line which divides useful innovation from senseless absurdity. Many would say Twitter lies on the wrong side of that line.
A year or so before I had registered http://twitter.com/The_Spectator, but mostly for my own amusement. I thought it useful to have updates from Coffee House, and used Twitterfeed to convert the RSS feed from The Spectator’s site into automatic Tweets. Every now and then I would get a message informing me that Suchandsuch was now following The_Spectator on Twitter. The thing remained popular among self-indulgent new-media obsessives, me included, but I was not confident, all the less so with the advent of Facebook, that Twitter would prove to be any more than a fascinating anomaly in the history of online social media. It seemed destined to be one of those things, rather like Pointcast (for those who remember it), which was acknowledged by Internet commentators to be massively important, but which was never actually successful.
From January on, however, and in Britain in particular, the thing has mushroomed. Its use in the UK has (according to Hitwise) trebled since the beginning of the year. In fact, in an impressive display of British weather obsession, live Twittering about the snow last week registered more noise than worldwide discussion of The Superbowl, which was happening at exactly the same time.
Press coverage has been part of it. The inauguration (#inaug09), the weather (#uksnow) and Australian Bushfires (#bushfires) have all been live breaking events which have lent themselves to individual microjournalism via Twitter. The adoption of the hashtag (eg #inaug09) which is a keyword prefixed by a hash-symbol allowing users to follow specific subjects has also helped.
Recent journalistic coverage has helped even more, though; in particular by popularising two highly talented celebrity Twitterers, Stephen Fry (http://twitter.com/stephenfry) and Jonathan Ross (http://twitter.com/wossy).
What makes this phenomenon more than a flash in the pan, however, is the fact that the Twitter API (the "application programming interface") is "open". Incomprehensible, perhaps, but very important. You see what this openness means is that application developers can develop any number of useful widgets and sites which use twitter data or feed data to twitter without needing even to ask nicely.
Here are a few things created on the back of Twitter.
www.twitterfall.com is an on-screen display of live Tweets, which you can filter by hashtag if you wish – a great way to follow a breaking event – and an especially good complement to television coverage.
www.tweetminster.com is a site for MPs (and peers) who Tweet. The Tories are being a bit laggardly in this area, I’d say.
www.cursebird.com is a live compendium of people swearing on Twitter.
www.twittervision.com is a map of the world showing Tweets as and where they appear.
www.tweetdeck.com is a downloadable application which becomes essential once you are following more than a few people.
Tweetie and Twitteriffic and a few others are iPhone applications which help you read post and add them yourself.
The ecosystem which is here growing around Twitter is important to its long term survival. Rather as the ecosystem of chargers, speakers and accessories around your iPod may force you to keep buying iPods, so the sheer weight of enhancements that surrounds Twitter makes it difficult to replace.
But, deep down, what’s is all about? Too many things to list things, I’d say. However its disproportionate popularity in London might be explained by a few factors. 1) Our internationalism – most of us will have friends overseas, and this is a marvellous way of keeping up with them. 2) The extreme difficulty of getting about in London – where it is an hour’s journey in both directions to spend an evening with friends. 3) The British love of chatter and gossip. But most of all 4) The smoking ban. This is the sole surviving way smokers can still be sociable without standing out in the cold.