Those short (140 characters or less) messages could be as simple as "going to the movies" or "had a great meal at X restaurant", or as commercial as "Try a Lexus; you'll love it," posted on a site that was designed for Audi enthusiasts.
Among the users: the Swedish foreign minister, who used Twitter to contact his counterpart in Bahrain so they could talk diplomacy. And a Pakistani man whose sleep was disturbed by helicopters in his Abbottabad neighborhood and accidentally tweeted to the world that Osama Bin Laden's end was near. And the owner and cook of a hamburger truck in Oakland, Calif., who uses Twitter to inform his clientele where his truck will park at lunchtime, or after work.
What I discovered while working on a story about Twitter that will air on Tuesday's NewsHour broadcast, was that the service comes in many flavors depending on the skill of the tweeter. The simple tweet -- telling friends who "follow" you where you are or what you thought of the movie -- still exists. But the tech-savvy set has gone far beyond that. While the 140 character limit still is in force, many people are using Twitter as a search engine to find what people are saying about any given subject, be it a celebrity or a foreign policy issue. Some entrepreneurs are developing applications to use with Twitter that can refine searches or filter out "noise" -- the many tweets that don't interest most people. In fact, Twitter reports that some 600,000 developers -- trying to catch hold on the company's rising star and massive user base -- have created about 900,000 applications related to the social media service. Twitter, for its part, has tried to discourage some of these apps, which might compete with the mother company for advertising dollars, while encouraging others that the company finds acceptable or helpful.
Twitter is increasingly useful to journalists, who can read -in short bursts --what's going on in a country under siege. On the NewsHour's recent trip to Bahrain, producer Joanne Elgart Jennings read tweets daily to make contact with sources and to keep posted on events that weren't reported in newspapers or on television.
Twitter's co-founder, Biz Stone, has become a celebrity of sorts, appearing in the media, doing a commercial for booze and touting his very hip company. I talked with him recently at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, first about Twitter's role in breaking news around the globe:
Meanwhile. Twitter is expanding, and trying to figure out what it will be a few years from now. It often gets criticized in the press or by people in the tech world for not having a clear business plan, for not accumulating enough advertising, for shuffling its management. Stone had quite a bit to say about all that as well:
Twitter remains a private company. Stone is convinced it will succeed and grow. To prove it, he points to a big building in San Francisco that company has bought where it intends to house its rapidly growing workforce. San Francisco - also convinced of Twitter's viability -- was so eager to keep the company that it offered the company concessions on payroll taxes so it wouldn't move south to Silicon Valley.