The social networking tool Twitter, which the Sunday Times online edition will be hosting today, gained fame in recent weeks for helping Iranian protesters rapidly broadcast the latest news, photos and videos from coming within the country despite their government's attempt at a media blackout.
Apart from sparking would-be revolutions, the true nature and potential of Twitter still puzzles those who are yet to embrace it. People often ask what distinguishes Twitter from every other means of online communication. On behalf of my latest tech-addiction, please allow me to explain.
For starters, Twitter is simple. Users are asked to publish updates of 140 characters or less (affectionately referred to as 'tweets'). Users can subscribe to the updates of other users by choosing to follow them. When a user updates his or her twitter, all the followers of that user instantly receive it. All the updates that a user subscribes to are displayed on his or her Twitter homepage in reverse chronological order.
Twitter is a concise, but hugely effective, means of aggregating and dispersing information. Instead of constantly checking a variety of Web sites for updated content, users can subscribe to news outlets on Twitter. CNN and The New York Times tweet their latest headlines along with links to the full articles. Users often tweet links to videos and photos they want to share with their followers. By simply following the right people and publications on Twitter, users can find the finest information available on the Internet catered to their tastes all in one place.
Twitter gauges public interest. The trending topics feature on the sidebar shows the top ten most popular keywords users are including in their tweets. For the past week 'Michael Jackson has held the number one spot, with the topical nature of 'Iran Election and 'The Ashes' reflected by their inclusion on the list as well. A user can see all the tweets related to a keyword by clicking on a trending topics entry. As more people join Twitter, its ability to measure what issues garner the most attention will increase in accuracy.
Twitter is as personal as a user chooses to make it. Other than tweets, the only details a user displays are first and last name, a 140-character biography and perhaps a Web site. The intimate information overload that clutters Facebook with controversy is not apparent on Twitter. Unlike Facebook, the design of Twitter does not conspire to primarily publicize the personal lives of its users.
A warning - tweet at your own peril: The ruthless speed at which Twitter delivers updates does not exempt stupid or embarrassing ones. The succinct nature of tweets makes them easy to remember once read, even if the offending tweet is later deleted.
Join Twitter at https://twitter.com/signup. All you need to do is fill in your name, desired username, email address, password and - presto! - you have enrolled in an ever-growing technological cult. Follow us @TimesOnlineLK to receive tweets linking you to our latest articles (yes, we do publish stories online on days other than Sunday).