Do you Twitter?
Twitter is a fast-growing phenomenon backed by venture-capital of dot com proportions, but is it more than another internet seven day wonder?
You may have heard of Twitter. It has been around for about two years now and is rapidly becoming a buzzword uttered by people who want to appear "in the know", but it also has a loyal fan base and some serious business uses. Like all good ideas, the concept is remarkably simple. People who twitter send one line messages (a maximum of 140 characters) to their Twitter account answering the basic question "What are you doing?". That message is then distributed by the Twitter service to other users who have subscribed to their Twitter feed.
Some have called it "micro-blogging" and a type of social networking. Others have likened it to an SMS broadcasting service. Indeed, one of the features of Twitter is that you can use your mobile phone to send in your twitterings using SMS text messaging, allowing you to keep your friends appraised of your activities no matter where you are or what you are doing, which has resulted in some surprising tweets. For example, just before Christmas, a 737 crashed off the end of the ice-covered runway in Denver. Whilst other passengers were scrambling out of the jet and counting their arms and legs, Mike Wilson pulled out his mobile phone and twittered "I've just been in a plane crash", followed shortly after by a comment that his glasses had fallen off as he left the plane.
Less dramatically, at the start of February, actor and TV celebrity Stephen Fry twittered the following message: "Ok. This is now mad. I am stuck in a lift on the 26th floor of Centre Point. Hell's teeth. We could be here for hours. A**e, poo and widdle." During the 30 minutes that he and four others were trapped, he posted a running commentary read by an estimated 108,000 readers.
But is Twitter just a voyeuristic fad? There is a more serious side to Twitter that is beginning to emerge. News sources such as the BBC have started using Twitter to disseminate breaking news headlines, and some large businesses including IBM are using the service to provide top-line market data and product information. Estate agents are using Twitter to keep potential purchasers up to date with new properties coming onto their books, and associations are using it to send out snippets of information and meetings reminders to their members. Unlike the Facebook fad, where companies were creating Facebook pages which often competed and clashed with their main website, the way that Twitter is being used by businesses is often complimentary to their main website.
Will Twitter continue to grow or fall out of favour? Will it eventually be bought out by one of the existing big players like Microsoft or Google? And will it one day justify the more than $30 million that has been invested in it so far? Only time will tell.
As with all good things on the internet, there are also downsides. Earlier this month, the Twitter account of the Dalai Lama, which had attracted 20,000 subscribers, was revealed to be the work of an imposter, and last month the accounts of 33 celebrities, including Britney Spears, were hijacked and had offensive messages posted in their name. The hackers gained access through one of Twitter's own admin accounts which had a weak password which was guessed by the hackers, and is a reminder to us all that passwords need to be cryptic.
And of course there is spam. An option of the Twitter system is that a user may allow other subscribers to post follow up comments to their Twitterings, an option which the majority of Twitter subscribers currently have enabled. This is beginning to be exploited by spammers creating fake Twitter accounts and using an automated tool, Tweet Tornado, to spam their message across thousands of Twitter feeds.
21st February 2009
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