The first time you heard the term, it sounded strange, like an activity for deviants. Twittering was easy to avoid, since only a handful of Geek Squad types were involved.
That’s changed. More than 8 million Americans send and receive text messages via the Internet-based social network Twitter, according to Web-tracker Compete. And that number is ballooning 33 percent each month.
Off to the show.
Is Bonanza Road closed again?
From its classrooms to its lunchrooms to its showrooms, Las Vegas is now thoroughly atwitter. Pam Prim, a 32-year-old geologist, uses the service to make dining and movie plans with 60 of her friends.
“We can’t use IMs (instant messaging) or chat rooms at work,” she explains. “But we can use the Internet and we can text.”
Twitter trounces regular texting because a message sent only once can be received by an unlimited number of people. (Texting can reach more than one person, too, but there is a limit to how many and it can be a hassle adding the additional phone numbers.)
“So it’s like a mass chat room,” Prim says. “We can all talk to each other at work and make outing plans.”
Users of the free service log onto twitter.com, either through their Web-enabled computer or cell phone, and see a box asking, “What are you doing?” They are given 140 characters to answer. This is called a “tweet.”
Facebook and MySpace members also can send short messages by cell phone to numerous users. But these social networks emphasize the user’s home page, where biographical information can be found amid a swirl of activity including comments posted about each message. Twitter is all about the tweet, and Prim prefers its simplicity.
“I just go there and my friends are always in the middle of a conversation or making plans,” she says. “It’s more like being there in person.”
Twitter was founded in 2006 by San Franciscan Jack Dorsey, who envisioned it not as a communications revolution but a way merely for him to track what his friends were doing.
Since then, it has given the world the first photo of US Airways Capt. C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger’s landing in the Hudson River. (Passenger Janis Krums posted the first photograph on Twitter’s TwitPic service.) It was used to organize protests following the Communist victory in the recent Moldova election, and it helped organize the Tea Party tax revolts against President Obama on April 15th. (One Oklahoma man was arrested for allegedly tweeting threats of violence in connection with those protests.)
Several local media outlets, including the Review-Journal (twitter.com/reviewjournal), report breaking news via Twitter accounts. And politicians love the end run their messages get around media outlets and directly to constituents and voters. President Obama still tweets from www.twitter.com/barackobama, his address since before the election (although it’s impossible to tell, without further verification, the true author of any individual tweet). Locally, Clark County sends news releases about public projects and activities from twitter.com/clarkcountynev, as does the city of North Las Vegas from twitter.com/cnlv.
Naturally, the most visible twitterers are celebrities. Because built-in fan bases seek out their Twitter pages, they amass huge followings with no promotional effort.
In April, actor Ashton Kutcher (twitter.com/aplusk) famously challenged his closest competitor in Twitter numbers, CNN (twitter.com/cnnbrk), to a race to the millionth follower. (Kutcher won.)
As of this writing, Penn Jillette, the talking half of Penn & Teller, has 635,181 followers. He joined at Twitter’s 2006 inception, but didn’t regularly use his account until eight months ago. Now he tweets two or three times daily.
“I love it,” Jillette says. “I think it’s great.”
Recently, Jillette tweeted about a new trick in his show at the Rio, which involves an airport security scanner.
“People who follow Twitter knew about it from the day we got the idea at Starbucks to the four months we worked on it, and the first night it went in the show,” Jillette says, adding that each of Penn & Teller’s regular post-show meet-and-greets brings two or three audience members who mention electronically tracking the trick’s evolution.
Nevada State College student Julie Valladares follows the Twitter feeds of Fall Out Boy singer Pete Wentz, and Kardashian siblings Kim, Kourtney, Khloe and Rob. She checks them with her Blackberry at least a dozen times a day.
“It’s pretty interesting to see what they’re doing,” the 26-year-old says. “You only see them in the tabloids. It’s funny to read the updates, because they’re just human beings like us — chilling at home, watching TV.”
Jillette isn’t just a tweeter, he’s also a follower. But he prefers following his civilian friends, not fellow celebrities.
“I want to know what they’re listening to, where they’re going, what they’re doing,” Jillette says. “I love having some sort of sense that the people I talk to every six months are still alive. I like seeing their name: ‘Richie Rich is going to the store.’
“I’m happy to see that.”
Not everybody is a Twitter fan. Valladares says she has tried turning her parents on to it, without much luck. While her dad created an account, he logged on once and never went back. Valladares says her mom has been trying, though, “since she discovered Oprah has Twitter account.”
Some Twitter detractors call it the latest nail in the coffin of articulate communication, as well as a tool for narcissists who think their every trip to the refrigerator is newsworthy.
“Of course, people should have more long-form conversations,” Jillette responds. “It’s not an either/or.
“And, yes, Twitter is very self-indulgent and narcissistic — just like having coffee with your friends.”
Avowed users have complaints, too. Prim loathes spammers who ride the Twitter wave. Once or twice a day, she finds her feed followed by a stranger hoping she’ll return the favor and follow them. (She never does.)
“They’re just promoting their books or whatever their job is,” she says.
By far the most common complaint is the 140-character limitation per tweet, which is arbitrarily set by the social network.
“The times when you really want to elaborate on what you want to say, you can’t do it,” Valladares says. “So people use abbreviations and shorthand, which makes it hard to understand sometimes.”
Jillette hails the limitation, however.
“I’m a big haiku reader, and I always believe art thrives in its limitations,” he says. “I mean, imagine how great Cirque would be if they didn’t have those budgets?”
Contact reporter Corey Levitan at email@example.com or 702-383-0456.