"Twitter" had entered my consciousness, peripherally, but I had not the foggiest idea what it really was. About half the group (probably the youngest half) raised their hands. The organizer told them he had set up a Twitter group for the conference, so that people could Tweet one another about what was going on. Then someone explained Twitter to the rest of us. Basically, it's microblogging—Twitter posts are limited to 140 characters, and the idea is to post them as you go about your business so that your friends will know what your doing, how you're feeling, where you are, whatever you want them to know about you at that very moment. Twitter feeds can arrive on your cell phone or on your computer.
Getting an explanation of Twitter doesn't really tell you what it is, however. The usual reaction is, "Why would I want to know exactly what everyone is doing all the time?" Adherents say that you probably need to use it for while to get it. If you're not inclined, or equipped, to do that, well, Clive Thompson of the New York Times Magazine was brave enough to give it a try, and to explain it to us last Sunday in a piece entitled "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy."
He explains that living with a constant stream of Twitter and Facebook updates from a cloud of friends provides "ambient awareness":
Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.... The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life....What does this have to do with news? Well, various media are starting to cover news via Twitter. (On occasion they're getting in trouble for it, for example by Tweeting the funeral of a 3-year old in Denver.)
“It’s an aggregate phenomenon,” Marc Davis, a chief scientist at Yahoo and former professor of information science at the University of California at Berkeley, told me. “No message is the single-most-important message. It’s sort of like when you’re sitting with someone and you look over and they smile at you. You’re sitting here reading the paper, and you’re doing your side-by-side thing, and you just sort of let people know you’re aware of them.” Yet it is also why it can be extremely hard to understand the phenomenon until you’ve experienced it. Merely looking at a stranger’s Twitter or Facebook feed isn’t interesting, because it seems like blather. Follow it for a day, though, and it begins to feel like a short story; follow it for a month, and it’s a novel.
Many sports reporters (who are often on the cutting edge of journalism) have started live-blogging by posting 10 or 15 times during games, and some are micro-blogging via Twitter. I don't think this kind of unidirectional microblogging is the best use for the technology, however. Twitter is by its nature a group awareness system.
So, soon, you might find Twitter groups forming at sports events, allowing fans to comment on the plays not only with their immediate neighbors in the stands, but with people seated throughout the stadium, or watching at home. Twitter also makes sense at other crowd events such as the recent political conventions, which were highly Twittered (or is it Tweeted?—whatever). But those were individual feeds (for example), not groups. The real potential is for a constant flow of messages from a posse of reporters, bloggers and even rank-and-file attendees at such an event creating a sense of the ambient flow and mood of the gathering. I'm not sure that spontaneous Twitter groups of this kind are happening*, yet, but it makes sense that they would develop. They would help reporters cover an event by providing another way to capture the mood, while at the same time providing an instant "ambient awareness" flow for anyone tuned in.
*(Steve Meyers at Poynter did set up a group called DNCJournalists for the Democratic Convention, which still has a bit of chatter on it, but it seems to have picked up only a miniscule following)