As the election in Iran boiled over into demonstrations and violence last month, we learned that a revolution in communication is reshaping the way news is gathered and disseminated throughout the world. The revolution is Twitter. The messages are Tweets. The users are Twits. The followers are Tweeps—ordinary Tweeple like you and me.
I'm all for new technology, but can't we come up with some better names? Or at least get Barbara Walters off the naming committee?
Can you imagine watching an ashen-faced Katie Couric urgently break into the weather report saying something like, "This Tweet just in. Martians have landed in New Jersey. Twits from the Twittersphere are urging Tweeps to run for their lives."
OK, well try imagining Brian Williams saying it.
So what exactly is Twitter? In simple terms, Twitter gives us the ability to instantaneously send and receive short messages from anywhere in the world to and from any mobile communication device that has a keypad smaller than a postage stamp.
It is kind of like email and kind of like text messaging, but much more complex because it requires learning a new language to describe it.
The basic Twitter message is called a Tweet.
Here is a sample Tweet:
Tweedle Dee twice twittered twelve twisted tweets to twin twerps in Antwerp. How many tweets did Tweedle Dee twitter?
The good news is that that you don't actually have to say this. The bad news is that you may have to tap (Twiddle) it on a cell phone. Therefore, a Tweet is limited to 140 characters because anything longer can cause permanent thumb damage.
Think of it this way. Tweets are picture post cards without the pictures sent by people who feel compelled to let you know what they are doing all the time. In some cases these people are very important and have really interesting things to communicate. In other cases these people are Oprah.
It is easy to understand the appeal of Twitter. Imagine receiving a post card from one of your friends, or maybe even a celebrity. On the side with the picture of Mount Rushmore there is nothing. On the side that says "having a wonderful time, wish you were here" is something insightful and evocative, like "having a wonderful time standing in line at the post office, wish you were here." Now imagine receiving these post cards every hour of the day on your cell phone or computer. That is the power of Twitter.
As a concept, Twitter is not new. In fact, it was first introduced by Lewis Carroll in 1872. He was standing in line at the post office and sent the following short message from his Blackberry:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe: all mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe.
What he was trying to type was: OMG, if I have to stand in this friggin line any longer I'm gonna go postal. But his thumbs were too big.
Later he would refer to his series of poorly typed postal rants as Jabberwocky; which if you ask me, is a far better name than Twitter.
For those of you still not convinced that Twitter is indeed a revolution, let me share with you my own personal experience. One day not too long ago, while Iranian students were mobilizing in the streets of Tehran and Oprah was posting eloquently about the ticks on her dog, I was Twitering like a canary surrounded by alley cats.
12:20pm: It's raining and I let my three kids and two of their friends talk me into taking them bowling. Shoot me now.
1:15pm: A lot has changed since I last went to a bowling alley. For instance, the two tone shoes are now in neon. Orange and green.
1:26pm: Bowling is a game of finesse and control. Hurling the ball as hard as you can works pretty well too.
1:32pm: If you throw the ball too hard it can jump lanes and break the automated pinsetter used by the bowling league.
1:34pm: The bearded guys next to me are pissed. They are on a pro team called the Bowling Ayatollahs. It's embroidered on their bowling shirts.
1:42pm: One of the Ayatollahs picked up my ball by mistake. I wouldn't care, but he just had his finger up his nose. I'll have to use his ball now.
1:46pm: I didn't think it was possible to get a thumb stuck in a bowling ball. Maybe some pizza grease will free it. #$?/#* that's hot!
2:05pm: Thumb swelling real bad now. Must dial 911. Afraid the ball will crush my Blackberry.
2:19pm: Paramedics want to cut it off. I hope they mean the bowling ball. Worried I may never Twitter again.
2:24pm: I'm free! The Ayatollah guy wants me to pay for his ball. His name is Bob Khomeini. That's what it says on his pocket. Wasn't he in ZZ Top?
3:05pm: Finished last with a 78. The kids scored over 100. I'm no math wiz, but if there are ten frames with ten pins, how is this possible?
3:10pm: These automated score keepers are rigged. The Bowling Ayatollahs scored over 200 points with nothing but Xs and /s.
3:12pm: And why do I have to rent these ugly shoes? This game is oppressive.
3:20pm: Tweeps unite! This alley is fixed. Throw your neon shoes in the snack bar at 1530. I think that's in ten minutes.
3:30pm: No one is here. Isn't anyone reading my posts? Oh oh. Here come the Bowling Ayatollahs.
3:55pm: I'm back! Big Bob Khomeini returned my phone after I paid for a bowling ball, a replacement pinsetter, and a pair of size 13 bowling shoes.
4:10pm: The sun is out. My kids and their two friends want to go miniature golfing now. Do I need shoes for that?
6:30pm: Just turned on the evening news. OMG, Martians have just landed in New Jersey! CUL8R!