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Last May on MediaShift, we wrote a series of articles about a new microblogging tool called Twitter, which was just beginning to gain visibility among the digerati. At that time, many bloggers were still on the fence as to how useful the service really was. Many thought it was a waste of time. Others just didn’t understand if it really had any practical uses in daily life.

In my post, I wrote about the potential uses for Twitter in the future, such as helping out in emergency situations or facilitating co-working for remote teams. One year later, I’ve found that Twitter has gone above and beyond my original expectations in terms of usefulness, allowing me to obtain and share information efficiently. But Twitter has also proven to be a tool that should be used with caution lest it become the opposite of useful: a time suck.

Last year, I was skeptical about Twitter becoming more than just something I used for fun, or perhaps to meet a few colleagues. But after I wrote the first story, quite a few people began to “follow” me (Twitter-speak for adding people as contacts). I have been adding everyone who added me, and to this day I only know 8 of my 867 “friends” in real life. As my circle of Twitter friends began to grow the service became more useful for me, because I could learn more about what friends were doing or reading, and I could share the same with them.

Perhaps the most surprising and important use I’ve found is for reporting. When I write stories here on MediaShift, I almost always turn to Twitter to cull opinions and find interviewees among my group of contacts. With reporting, the more friends you have the better, because if you put out a question to 800 people someone’s bound to have an answer; and if they don’t, they usually know someone who does.

I’ve found Twitter to be much more useful than Facebook’s “Questions” application, specifically built for putting out queries to your social network. More people seem to respond to “tweets” than to questions. In fact, while reporting on a story about Facebook, I found more interesting responses to my questions on Twitter than on Facebook itself. Other writers and bloggers have also found Twitter to be a powerful reporting tool as well.

More Useful Than RSS?

If I had the time to sit around and read Twitter updates all day long, I think I might find that they are more useful than the ridiculous number of RSS feeds I subscribe to for keeping up with news. When sifting through news every morning, my impartial feed reader provides no indication of what’s important and what isn’t. But on Twitter, if it’s hot news you’ll hear about it first. As humans are the best editors, it’s almost like a filter for what I need to know now.

Watching Twitter users on the East Coast react as the news of the Spitzer scandal= got out was like being able to watch a rumor zip through a village. And like in whispered private conversations heard in a cafe or bar, you’re likely to find out about things you’d never hear about otherwise. If many people are talking about the same thing, you’ll quickly find out why.

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Breaking News Headlines on Twitter

Plus, there’s the network effect of Twitter, helping connect me to more knowledgeable people and more diverse sources of information. When I see an interesting tweet from one of my contacts to one of theirs, I often click (via the @username formula) to see who my contact is talking to. More often than not, it’s someone with similar interests who has a blog about topics I’m interested in.

And then there’s the social usefulness. Twitter seems to have been created to help people who already know each other to stay up to date on what everyone else is doing. For me Twitter is proving useful for making contacts and friends I wouldn’t have otherwise met. I’ve caught up with old co-workers from a past job, followed contacts in San Francisco and Europe with whom I’ve met up with in person, and been invited to events and to participate in interesting projects thanks to my Twitter circle of friends.

Twitter’s Greatest Hits of Usefulness

One year later, Twitter has lived up to some expectations around its usefulness and even outdone some others. For instance, when many bloggers speculated that Twitter might be employed for use in emergency situations, we couldn’t have known how it would play out in real life one just months later. Twitter users in Southern California during the wildfires used the tool to do local reporting for the benefit of neighbors. Even for people who were evacuated and didn’t have a computer, they could follow the updates on their cell phones. Twitter users were also able to broadcast live updates on the Minnesota bridge collapse just minutes after it happened and before many news outlets could get the details out to the public.

The Iowa Caucuses were also covered by citizen journalists via Twitter, filling in the gaps left by local and national coverage. It also proved to be a good way to keep up with the results on Super Tuesday. We’ve also seen mainstream media embrace Twitter and other new media tools for reporting on important, time-sensitive stories.

More recently, Twitter was at least partially responsible for the release of a young journalist jailed in Egypt, who used his cell phone to send a one word cry for help: “Arrested.”

The Twitter Time Suck

But in all its usefulness, Twitter still does live up to some of the initial takes people had one year ago. It’s still pretty useless if you don’t have friends on the service. And if you have too many contacts, it’s most definitely a time suck for those who don’t have the discipline to stay away from it. In speaking to a friend last week about his Twittering boss, he told me “I just don’t have time to Twitter. I have to work.” Indeed, in signing on to Twitter and seeing some of the most well-known names in technology shooting off an inane missive every 30 seconds, one has to wonder: Does anybody work around here?

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More Friends, More Distraction

Last year, in a post here on MediaShift about social media and privacy, I wondered if an added disadvantage to the service might be the fact that anyone who takes you seriously, such as a boss, might be put off by the fact that you are online all day updating people on the minutiae of your life. I still think this could be a problem, as could all of your other activity at all the various social networking sites.

Speaking of wasting time, a lot of time is wasted — both suffering from and talking about — Twitter’s frequent outages. A big geek event like MacWorld can take Twitter offline from conversation overdose, causing a few users to call for a decentralization of the service.

And then there’s the amount of useless conversation hurled at you. On the flip side of Twitter acting as a filter for important news, if you pay too much attention to it and attempt to follow every conversation, you’re are bound to get lost. At first I followed the path that other bloggers were saying was best for getting the most out of Twitter, and reciprocated every follow I received. For a while this was working quite well. Most of the people I was following were updating less than 10 times a day, so the conversation was easy to keep up with.

At about 100 followers/followees, I started to feel a bit overwhelmed as it began to get chaotic and I was losing track of the conversations from people I was more interested in. Now I am tempted to not follow anyone else, or be a bit more selective about whom I add, since the more conversations I follow, the more tempted I am to waste more time on the site.

Last month, blogger and cartoonist Hugh McLeod made the decision to drop out of Twitter, leaving many in the blogosphere surprised and the story was widely circulated. But McLeod’s reasoning was that it was apparently distracting him from his real work, and he needed to delete his account to avoid wasting time.

I can relate to his reasons why, but I can also see why he came back only a couple of weeks later. It’s addictive because it’s fun, and while it may not save the world, it can be useful, especially for those of us who rely on fresh information for our jobs. In the end, like other technological obsessions, it all comes down to discipline and getting the technology to work for you, not against you.

What do you think? One year later, has Twitter changed your life or invaded it? Do you think Twitter is useful or has your interest in it petered out? What do you use Twitter for or why don’t you use it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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