If you've ever felt the need to know what every single one of your chums is doing at every hour of every day, then count yourself lucky. They may now volunteer to surveil themselves for your amusement and edification, all thanks to an emerging breed of mobile messaging services with names like Jaiku, Twitter and Dodgeball.
The idea is simple: you sign up, your buddies sign up, you send texts via your mobile phone to the messaging service, and then it routes those texts to everyone on your contact list. At the coffee shop with nothing to entertain you? Let them all know. Walking your dog in the park? Let them know. With your mom shopping for socks? Dammit, let them know.
Only, you have to do it in 140 characters or less, which is a wee bit longer than the sentence that you've just finished reading.
Biz Stone is the co-founder of Twitter, the most pared-down and quite likely the fastest growing of the pack. He's quick to clarify that Twitter is technically a "device agnostic message routing system," which to most of us means that you can send and receive messages – "tweets" in the brand lingo – in a number of ways, including the Twitter website, mobile phones, instant messaging clients and downloadable desktop applications.
"The day-to-day advantage," notes Stone, "is the ability to stay connected with friends and family members any time using a variety of devices."
Sound nifty? It can be. Consider the ease of checking in to see if anybody wants to join you in an hour for yakisoba, or to catch the Porky's retrospective at that eastside rep cinema.
Take a look at the public message history on the Twitter homepage, though, and it becomes apparent that this isn't the only way, or even that primary way, that people are using the service. The first thing you'll notice, at least as an outsider, is the relative banality of the tweets – there's a preponderance along the lines of "Watching Jimmy Kimmel embarrass a couple of high school kids in Scrabble," or the shorter and sweeter "Wasted. Loving it."
Charles Klein is an Arcata, California-based web designer who has been using Twitter for the last five months or so. "I find I use Twitter as a mini-blog," he explains, "tending to post random thoughts and feelings in addition to things that I am doing. I also like to post links to random things I find throughout the day."
Klein even has praise for the pithy nature of the medium, saying, "I tend to favor the use of Twitter over a blog because it is so quick and to the point, and can accomplish basically the same thing."
Fellow Californian and Twitterer "Adora" might agree. The self-described "web 2.0 voyeur" got onboard a couple of months ago and says, "I try to update with items of interest to everyone following me. Neat geeky things I do through my job and website, the wacky things that I catch myself doing . . . I recently cut my thumb in half with a butter knife (don't ask) and after I pulled the knife out my first thought was 'Oh man, I know I'm bleeding everywhere, but I just have to Twitter this.'"
Adora and Klein have one more thing in common, an expected consequence of granting people the ability to spontaneously contact just about everyone they know, wherever they are: they've both had to nix people who Twittered too often, too inanely.
"It was a person that I did not know except through Twitter," Klein reveals, "Once he posted one too many play-by-play accounts for that evening's Dancing With The Stars, I promptly removed him from the list. As ridiculous as this service is, that somehow seemed to push the limit."
While Stone acknowledges that some users require "an adjustment period coupled with feedback from friends to find just the right level of participation," he also points out that Twitter lets people manage how, when and from whom they receive messages. As to why certain users don't easily glom onto the fact that they might be pestering their pals, Stone suggests that Twitter differs from other means of communication because "users do not expect replies to their updates nor do they feel obligated to review friends' updates with any significant comprehension. This shift in expectations means friends and family members can stay connected in real time as it suits them in an ambient, non-disruptive manner."
Connecting without disrupting? If that sounds like an unlikely combination, perhaps you've been wasting too much time rubbing elbows with other messy flesh bags, and not enough time amassing armies of "friends" on MySpace and Facebook. Much like those other social networking revelations, Twitter is – for better or for worse – a love letter to the open-door policy, and for every user who is merely there to keep in touch, there has to be at least one crashing bore of a showboat, careerist self-aggrandizer, or compulsive self-archivist.
Happily, since Twitter's one-text-for-all spirit allows you to treat the individual entries in your contact list as essentially interchangeable, you can afford to be a bit mercenary in dealing with such riffraff.
"The majority of the people I've added are people I've never met," explains Adora, "but if their updates aren't consistently humorous or inspirational, I'm not getting much value and I'll stop following that person. It sounds a bit harsh, but we are talking about immediate 24/7 interruption here."
"The people I really know," she adds, "I put up with whatever they broadcast."