For the past few weeks, I've been trying Twitter. (If you use Twitter yourself, you can follow me.) I'm only following a few people at the moment, because I'm primarily using the mobile interface (particularly nice on the iPhone), and I don't want to get a bad impression just because I'm overwhelmed with text messages.
While using Twitter, I am often reminded of IRC. For example, while attending ZendCon, it was as if I had #phpc on my phone. (One obvious difference is that you only receive updates from those you follow, so sometimes you only hear one side of a conversation.) Nat Torkington seems to agree with the IRC analogy:
Twitter is low-obligation, low-expectation, low-bandwidth IRC. Community without commitment.
It's true that most Twitter updates aren't important, and this is a natural criticism, but from a social connectivity perspective, Twitter is good. At a conference, if I'm planning to listen to a particular talk or attend a particular social event, I can let others know, in case someone wants to find me. Rather than a declaration of self-importance, Twitter updates are passive, non-intrusive, and humble. It's similar to saying, "If anyone cares, I'll be in Terry Chay's talk at 10." Those who care can follow you. No one else is bothered.
Another thing I've noticed about Twitter is that it's similar to blogging, but the barrier is small enough that many people who rarely blog are very active on Twitter. I realize this is the most obvious and common comparison, but it's worth acknowledging the value in motivating people to share their thoughts frequently.
For example, I know Ed Finkler is frustrated by OWASP's poor communication regarding his project Inspekt, Tim O'Reilly is preparing for interviews with some prominent people like Meg Whitman, and Matt Biddulph is "calculating coincidensity." From these few updates, I might try to put Ed in touch with someone from OWASP who can address his concerns, I might send Tim some suggestions for things to ask Meg, and I might look up what coincidensity means. :-) Whether I do any of these things is irrelevant; what's interesting is that this is all information I would not otherwise have received. And, this is just from the past few hours from the few people I'm following.
I suspect some people are taking advantage of Twitter's simple mobile interface to broadcast messages to a small group, much like a mailing list that uses SMS instead of email. During Midnight Madness this year (we won!), one person volunteered to be responsible for logistics. He used a web application to broadcast text messages to our entire team to keep us updated, because the team gets pretty fragmented while solving puzzles and racing around the city. This worked pretty well, but it would have been nice to use Twitter, where each of us could update the entire team directly, instead of having to contact one particular person who then sends the update. (Twitter supports private updates.)
I still find it difficult to truly appreciate Twitter, because it's such a simple application. This is compounded by the fact that it's slow and breaks a lot. But, for whatever reason, a lot of people are using it, and it has a lot of interesting uses. I'm sure I'll continue to try it out, and if I ever truly get it, I'll blog about it again.
Please feel free to share your own thoughts. I'd love to hear what you think.