Greg Dennis: The tweet life, 140 characters long

When Twitter announced it was planning to sell stock to the public and make its founders richer than God, millions of people responded to the news by wondering, “How can a company named after bird sounds be worth $10 billion?”
Millions of other people scratched their heads and wondered, “What in the world is Twitter?”
It’s a social networking (or, if you prefer, “microblogging”) service that until recently limited users to 140-character messages. Photos are now possible, but most users stick with word updates.
That tight limit on verbiage is a boon to all the unemployed newspaper editors out there. Having spent years honing the skill of compressing complex issues into just a few characters, these ex-editors can now spend their days at home in their pajamas, living on Twitter.
Posts on the free service vary from the trivial (“Man, I sure was tired when I woke up this morning”) to the potentially momentous (“I’m running for president,” or, if you are Twitter and want to announce you’re going public: “We’ve confidentially submitted an S-1 to the SEC for a planned IPO. This Tweet does not constitute an offer of any securities for sale.”).
The name of the service is of course a stupid one, probably chosen because “We can’t think of anything better” was taken.
Most regular users have gotten past the embarrassment of saying with a straight face that they “tweet,” even though they will not be flying south for the winter.
Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s founders, has been quoted as noting that one dictionary definition of Twitter is “a short burst of inconsequential information.” And, said Dorsey, “That’s exactly what the product was.”
It’s anybody’s guess how many short bursts of inconsequential information have been conveyed on Twitter since its founding in 2006. But with something like 500 million users, Twitter has definitively made the world safer for inconsequentiality.
The service turns out to be mildly addictive. I use it for both work purposes and for tweeting on environmental topics. Which means I have two more identities to add to the already schizophrenic face I present to the world.
One reason people get hooked on Twitter is that there’s a ton of information out there in 140-word bursts, on pretty much every topic.
For sports fans, political junkies, anybody following breaking news or an issue such as healthcare reform, an entire universe can be found full of pithy news, views and humor.
It’s like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. And with the intermittent reinforcement of having one’s own posts spread to others (“retweeted,” in the inevitable parlance), users get hooked even more addictively into the Twitterverse.
So ubiquitous is Twitter, in fact, that it’s often the best source of immediate information about a changing topic, and the emerging consensus about it. No need to wait for the evening news or, heaven forbid, the morning’s newspaper.
If it’s happening now, it’s probably being reported, commented on and joked about on Twitter.
Adding to the fun is the ability to mark a topic in a tweet with a hashtag. Most of them are pretty common — #fracking, for example, or #Obamacare.
The real fun starts when people get clever with hashtags. “Nofrackingway,” for example, or “ObamaScare.”
When Texas Gov. Rick Perry proposed legislation that would ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, the Twitterverse lit up. Women pointed out that it’s not always possible to tell you’re pregnant in the first six weeks, and so was born a mocking hashtag: “ThingsThatTakeLongerThan6Weeks.”
Among the tweets that followed: “Rick Perry learning how the female reproductive system works. #ThingsThatTakeLongerThan6Weeks”.
Though Twitter has yet to make much of an impact in Vermonters’ lives, there’s no shortage of local material on the service.
One day earlier this week, for example, you could find there:
•  The governor telling everyone how excited he was to meet the Middlebury College and Norwich students who built houses for the national solar decathlon.
•  Word about an impending thunderstorm.
•  Vermont State Police undertaking a drug sweep in St. Albans.
•  SkiVermont promoting Back to Ski Week and winter vacation discounts.
•  A Vermont native and his wife scheduled to compete on “Survivor.”
•  Cabot Cheese reminding us all about Dead Creek Wildlife Day. (“Break out your binoculars for some wildlife peering.” And thank goodness they didn’t leave the “r” out of “peering.”)
•  This post: Leaders in Vermont — where fracking is banned — tout economic and environmental benefits of natural gas: http://bit.ly/1d2uCGI.
The biggest challenge about Twitter is how to get followers. Unless you hop onto a tweet meme, your own posts are unlikely to be noticed at first. Individuals first have to agree to follow you on the service (meaning your tweets appear on the screen when they sign into Twitter). Building followers is a time-consuming process for anyone not named Justin Bieber.
Which is to say this entire column has been a roundabout way to note that you can find me on Twitter @greengregdennis.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. And did we mention that he’s on Twitter? 

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