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When I first signed up for micro-blogging service Twitter last September, I remember reading that day that Evan Willliams, one of Twitter’s founders, was in a horse drawn carriage winding through the streets of Marrakech. I found that fascinating. That day, I wrote one update (“I’m blogging…”) and didn’t sign in again until April of this year. Why? Because at the time, like many new users to Twitter, I didn’t get it. Wasn’t it just voyeurism?

But last month I noticed more of my friends had joined so I decided to try Twitter out again. With a group of people I actually knew on the service, I was enticed to use it. While most people see Twitter as something akin to blogging, I saw it as a healthy alternative to chatting. Plus, I’ve found that many people consider it a great way to help them do business, stay connected to co-workers and even possibly save lives in an emergency when other communication modes go down.

Twitter has allowed me to be aloof, standing on the sidelines as people talk to me, and I choose whether or not to participate. I’m privy to a conversation without the obligation of, as per social norms, nodding in agreement or formulating a response.

Twitter critics have said the service is innately boring because people’s lives are boring. But unlike other forms of digital communication, such as blogging, Twitter readers don’t expect brilliant ideas to emerge from your keyboard. Via its 140-character limit, Twitter empowers us to share banal information about our lives with its eternal question “what are you doing?” which in its simplicity makes sharing that information — interesting or not — seem okay. At times my reply is something terribly dull. Does anyone care? I don’t know, because no one responds positively or negatively and they aren’t expected to respond.

Direct conversation, at least in my Twitter social circle, rarely happens. And because of the nature of Twitter communication, I often hesitate before responding to someone or simply don’t respond lest that glorious “no pressure” feeling leave my Twitter experience. Alas, I don’t know if this is good or bad. Are we replacing real conversation with people we actually know and like with superficial conversations with people we know of and don’t know enough about to like?

Some Twitter detractors have said that the application is the ultimate time-suck. Blogger Robert Scoble (not a detractor) wrote a few months ago: “Productivity is up 200%: Twitter is down”. He noted on his blog this morning that Twitter might be having some scaling issues, as the site has been difficult to access lately. Maybe that’s good for all of us who have deadlines to meet, “real” friends to talk to or other non-Twitter matters to attend to.

Twitter for Business

To those of us who like Twitter, it’s fun. But as its popularity has grown, more and more people are suggesting that Twitter might have some viable business uses. Longtime blogger Tris Hussey even suggests that it could be effective for business travelers who spend a lot of time on the road and can’t always get online to update co-workers on projects. It could be an effective collaboration tool, he points out, as long as you keep your business Twitter account separate from your personal one.

And speaking of business, what about the networking potential of Twitter? Blogger Chris Brogan writes that it could get your foot in a closed door, as it allows you to communicate with important people to whom you wouldn’t normally have access.

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CNN headlines via Twitter

Those of you who are already using Twitter might have thought of the marketing possibilities the service offers. The CNN feed has been impressive on Twitter because of the frequency with which they send me updates. And what about PR? The fact that presidential candidates are on Twitter is an obvious one, but there are even more possibilities. Companies can communicate directly with members who actually want their updates, announcing news to a wide group of people with an affinity for their brand or products.

On the flip side, prominent PR blogger Steve Rubel saw the power of Twitter when he posted a comment about throwing away each issue of PC Magazine. Rubel later had to apologize in an open letter to PC Magazine’s editor in chief. “I learned a valuable lesson,” Rubel wrote. “Post too fast without providing context and it can elicit an unintended response. While the item is true, it does not reflect my full media consumption habits.”

Twitter posts, which can be deleted from your own web feed, live on on the phones of your followers for as long as they want.

Twitter for Good

For those that say Twitter is a big waste of time, how about updates that actually save you time on your commute? London blogger Tom Morris has created a few Twitter feeds for his city’s subway system, as well as for the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART.

Could Twitter be used for even nobler causes, such as saving the lives of thousands of people in an emergency? Blogger Andy Carvin thinks that with a little tweaking of the functionality, it could be possible:

Well before any disaster, groups of first-responders would set up accounts on Twitter, then mark each other as friends. After that, they might remain dormant until a disaster happens, but then they’d fire up their mobile phones and start texting each other through Twitter’s short code. Almost instantaneously, messages would get routed to everyone in the group, allowing them to keep in touch with each other even when other networks crash.”

What you think of Twitter? Is it a new way of communicating or a fad? Is it a burden on your productivity or a platform for the greater good? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

For more on Twitter, check out MediaShift’s Guide to Micro-Blogging and Twitter, as well as an in-depth Q&A with Twitter’s founders.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.