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Twitter: Harmless Fad, or Web Revolution?

July 22, 2009 at 6:30 PM EST
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In three short years, Twitter has become one of the Web's most heavily trafficked sites. But is the micro-blog simply a fad, or a technological game-changer? Jeffrey Brown explores.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, another way to reach and to connect. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the latest thing, but what is Twitter? Useful or waste of time? And what can you say in 140 characters, anyway? Let’s find out.

DEBRA FISCHMAN: I am grateful for it that my eyes have been opened.

JEFFREY BROWN: Debra Fischman is talking about Twitter, the three-year-old technology that is either a harmless fad or a revolution in communications, or perhaps a bit of both. We met Debra at a recent all-day conference designed to help Twitterers, as they’re called, examine its many uses.

DEBRA FISCHMAN: I think that it gives you — instead of going to, say, just a coffee shop to meet up with people — it broadens your audience, because it is a global phenomenon.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Fischman, recently laid off from her job in the conservation field in Washington, does go to her local coffee shop. But what she calls her “community building” is done through her mobile phone and laptop, as she sends and responds to Tweets that she hopes will connect her with, among other things, a new job.

Twitter is a form of micro-blogging, sending you and your thoughts out into the world. It’s a free service in which a user sends out short messages of no more than 140 characters to anyone who’s signed up to receive them. These are dubbed “followers,” who could number a handful or thousands.

The starting point, according to Twitter itself, is a simple question: What are you doing?

Users can share links or photos with followers and use keywords to link their posts with popular topics. The hype and the number of users have grown dramatically.

According to the Nielsen Company, Twitter.com has grown from 1.2 million unique visitors in May 2008 to 18.2 million this year, more than 1,400 percent, making it the fastest-growing Web brand.

Software developer Bob Fine, who put on this conference, is himself a recent convert.

BOB FINE, Cool Blue Company, LLC: I was the last holdout to get a BlackBerry. Now I’m bumping into people, and I’ve become one of those people, you know, I did not want to become. And, unfortunately, but I think that’s the day we live in and the age. And, unfortunately, if you don’t kind of stay on top of this technology, you can fall behind.

Fighting for the soul of America

JEFFREY BROWN: Twitter gained some of its celebrity through celebrities, like Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher sending messages on their daily doings and reflections on life. That, in turn, made Twitter an easy target for jokes.JON STEWART, host, "The Daily Show": But let's begin tonight with the ugly word that encapsulates a battle for the very soul of America...

JOURNALIST: Twitter.

JOURNALIST: Twitter.

JOURNALIST: Twitter.

JOURNALIST: Twitter.

JOURNALIST: Twitter.

JOURNALIST: Twitter.

JOURNALIST: Twitter.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Twitter has also shown an adaptability well beyond "What are you doing?" Most notably, Iranian protestors used it to get out word of battles in the streets of Tehran. At one point, Twitter officials put off scheduled maintenance on the system at the request of the U.S. State Department so that the service would remain up and running.

News organizations, including CNN, now lean heavily on Twitter as a tool for gathering information, including from eyewitnesses, and disseminating it to their Twitter followers on stories like the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the emergency landing in the Hudson.

When Michael Jackson died, Twitter and other social media brought people together online and then some to the streets, a kind of flash mob that grew out of online communication. So many were online, the system crashed.

ALEX WELLEN, CNN: Twitter, you know, it's undeniable, basically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alex Wellen is CNN's deputy political director of digital content.

ALEX WELLEN: It's a very meaningful way to communicate news, to do news-gathering, to interact with our audience, to communicate with them about what we're doing. It's a piece of the puzzle.

The downsides of, like, information needing to be authenticated, vetted, that's never changed with any of our news. So that doesn't scare at least me in any way.

INSTRUCTOR: It is possible to make your account private on Twitter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Believing that Twitter may be here to stay, some current and former journalists have been learning the tricks of the new trade at the National Press Club.

INSTRUCTOR: If you were here earlier, we talked about blogging.

Religious and political tweeting

PASTOR MARK BATTERSON: Jesus on Twitter would have been a pretty amazing thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: You might expect Twitter on the news, but in the pews? Pastor Mark Batterson of the National Community Church in Washington, D.C., is another true believer, sharing moments of his daily life and spiritual thoughts with friends, family, and flock, and reading theirs.

PASTOR MARK BATTERSON: I think you often say more by saying less. And interestingly enough, I mean, Jesus really set the standard. I mean, he could say more with fewer words than anybody. Most of the parables were less than 250 words. And, boy, did he have some one-liners just packed with truth.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then there's the honorable Twittering gentleman from Iowa, Senator Charles Grassley, who at age 75 has seen it all when it comes to reaching out to constituents from the old-fashioned face-to-face town meeting to Webcasts and has now found Twitter. With about 8,000 followers, he says he's trying to engage in short bursts.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, R-Iowa: You're not going to have a policy discussion with only 140 characters. What you're doing is promoting and provoking thought about policy issues that maybe other people wouldn't think about. And you're trying to get responses from people accordingly. And just getting people to think about public policy is very, very important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Grassley recently became something of a poster child for the potential downsides of the quick Tweet when he took heat for what some saw as an intemperate blast at President Obama.

"President Obama, you got nerve," the senator wrote, "while you sightseeing in Paris, to tell us 'time to deliver' on health care. We still on schedule, even working weekend."

The senator was unapologetic about the sentiment, but that spelling?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Everybody tries to say things with as few characters as you can. It seems to me that people that Tweet understand it. The people that don't, don't understand it and think that you don't know how to spell. But the purpose is to communicate.

JEFFREY BROWN: But how much of all this is fad, how much important phenomenon? Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University, joined up to see for herself.

Constant availability is stressful

NAOMI BARON, professor, American University: One of the people I started following was Governor Schwarzenegger. I thought, "What the heck. Let's see what he has to say." And some of the things are, "Go check out what we're trying to do with our budget," and others are -- other posts or Tweets are, "I'm walking up the steps to the Capitol. Soon I have a meeting." Do I care?

One of the things that we know about Americans is, when a new technology come online, we tend to go a little haywire with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Baron, author of a book called "Always On," calls herself a realist when it comes to Twitter-style communications. She sees some benefits, but also some negative consequences.

NAOMI BARON: The new media technologies, starting with e-mail and then instant messaging and then blogs and then text messaging and mobile phones, and all those wonderful BlackBerrys, have made us feel we always need to be available to others, that we can't turn ourselves off.

We can't literally go on vacation from that feeling that you always have to be communicating with somebody else. Then the question is, is that a problem? Yes, people feel stressed. We don't talk about "crackberries" for nothing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Based on her studies, Baron also says people feel they may be missing something.

NAOMI BARON: They say such things as communicating on a mobile phone, and the same thing is really true of social networking sites such as Twitter, isn't really communicating. It's sort of a cover for what should be done face to face.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is some data to suggest that Twitter breeds quitters. According to Nielsen, about 60 percent of those who give Twitter a try stop within a month. To put that in perspective, Facebook and MySpace have 60 percent retention levels.

Even a committed Twitterer like Pastor Batterson says that all this reaching out and following can yield diminishing spiritual returns.

PASTOR MARK BATTERSON: And so what I've decided is, as many people who want to follow me as possible, that's fine, because that has no impact on me, but I only follow about 90 people. And the reason why I do that is, if I follow everybody, I think I'm following nobody.

JEFFREY BROWN: Follow everybody and nobody? Send a message, something to say? Anybody there? Welcome to the world of Twitter.

JIM LEHRER: You can follow us on Twitter from a link on our Web site, newshour.pbs.org. We post our broadcast segments, online extras, and breaking news there, and we'll respond to your comments there, as well.