Twitter: It's not just for earthquakes anymore.
Three years after its launch by a small San Francisco company, Twitter -- once an experimental, vaguely cultish application for Internet geeks -- has, it seems, been officially discovered by the "thought leader" crowd: TV anchors, domestic divas, members of Congress and the journalists who cover them.
Once mainly a tool for breaking news by citizen journalists reporting from the scene of disasters in China or Mumbai or the Hudson River, Twitter appears to have become the biggest social networking phenomenon since Facebook -- only with 6 million users compared to Facebook's 175 million.
First, a quick tutorial: Twitter users post messages on a Web account to a personally created network of "followers" in short bursts of 140 characters or less, and those followers can post -- or "tweet" -- right back.
In early February, U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra raised a ruckus during a top-secret trip to Iraq when he "tweeted" followers, prompting complaints he violated national security. And yesterday, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Twitter enthusiast, was posting -- cheerfully -- from inside President Barack Obama's Fiscal Responsibility Summit. ("Surprised at how productive breakout session was on procurement.")
The Washington media has gotten into the act, too: TV pundits George Stephanopoulos and David Gregory have been dueling on Twitter about their Sunday show guests, while Washington blogger Ana Marie Cox, one of Twitter's earliest adopters, did some tweeting during yesterday's White House press briefing on Mr. Obama's summit. ("WH briefing leaving me strangely empty.")
All whimsy aside, many are finding Twitter seriously useful.
"It kind of reminds me of when I first started contacting people in what we called 'user groups' on the Internet in the 1990s," said Nancy Shute, a senior writer on health and medicine at U.S. News & World Report.
She found Twitter particularly helpful after the Food and Drug Administration's recent recall of peanut products after a salmonella outbreak. After writing a story and posting the link on her Twitter account, she received numerous "tweets" from people eager to share their own experiences.
"It's a great tool for reporters," she said, noting that unlike Facebook, which is restricted to people who are "friends" with each other, "Twitter is a broader, looser network and you can be connected with people you don't know very well and exchange information in a way you can't with e-mail."
Twitter users can have just a few followers and keep posts private, but that's not really the point, she said.
As more and more people sign on to Twitter, the networks are getting larger: President Barack Obama has 265,000 followers on his Twitter account, the most of any, although he hasn't used it since being elected in November.
Amy Lenhart, senior researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, said Twitter's appeal is that it takes Internet interaction and distills it down to its essence. "Twitter is the haiku of social networking, a more scannable product, if you will. You can glance at a list of very short messages or dive down quite deeply. You can embed links, photos -- you can engage content on a number of different levels."
"Twitter is known for being notoriously difficult to describe to a nonuser and incredibly easy to get once you are past the initial hurdles," said Jay Rosen, a media critic and professor of journalism at New York University, who calls it his "hand-held tipster network"
Mr. Rosen's followers on Twitter, who are scattered around the world, "edit the Web for me, let me know of new and cool things they like, make sure I don't miss important stories on my 'beat' -- blogging, new media and the fate of the press -- and also entertain me with their insights and commentary."
As Twitter's audience grows, corporate America is paying attention: Banks, airlines and other companies are seizing on Twitter as a way to stay in touch with their customers.
In the past month alone, the number of people with Twitter accounts who have contacted JetBlue has risen from around 20,000 to 75,000, said Morgan Johnston, manager of corporate communications for the New York-based airline.
Mr. Johnston uses Twitter to put out brushfires -- such as the time customers "tweeted" him about the lack of ground personnel at a gate. He was able to defuse the situation, he said, by explaining that staffers were helping some special needs passengers for a few minutes.
Customers "tweet" him with all kinds of questions, in fact -- from where to eat in Kennedy Airport's Terminal 5 to where to go on vacation.
"A few weeks ago someone 'tweeted' us asking where he should go -- Las Vegas or New Orleans. I posted to everyone who is following us on Twitter and said, 'Hey, this person has a question, what do you have to say about it?' and within a half hour had 100 responses."
There are a few drawbacks, perhaps. Every time Mr. Johnston gets a "tweet," his computer makes a chirping sound.
"Yes, I do jump. It's a bit Pavlovian," he laughs.
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949.