While Facebook took a few years to grow from adolescent chat site to its current broader appeal (no doubt to the displeasure of the college kids), Twitter has leaped into the public consciousness in a much shorter time.
About a year ago, the free micro-blogging service got about 100 mentions in all media in a given week. Maybe a dozen or so of those were in major newspapers and magazines. Last week, by comparison, Twitter was mentioned more than 1,000 times in all media, and more than 200 times in major publications.
Twitter users are overwhelmingly young, but unlike most of the other social networks, Twitter is not dominated by the youngest of young adults, according to a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The median age of a Twitter user is 31, compared to 27 for MySpace and 26 for Facebook. (The business networking tool LinkedIn skews much more heavily to an older audience. Median age: 40.7.)
"What we don't see with Twitter ... that we do see in [social network service] use, is a decline in use in the 25-34 age group," Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist for Pew in Washington, wrote in an e-mail. "I think that's one of the more surprising findings."
Twitter epitomizes how new media improves as more people find new and different ways to use it. The earliest Twitter users, in 2006, basically shot each other tweets about what they were up to at that moment. Knowing that a friend was "eating a sandwich" or "out shopping" might be useful to know now and then, but Twitter wouldn't have gained many users or attracted major venture capital if its utility had ended there.
It's estimated that 6 million people use Twitter.com, maybe up sixfold from a year ago. Since the company doesn't release numbers, measuring the Twitter-verse is an educated guess. It could be two or three times that many people, since the Pew folks estimated that 11 percent of adults are on a service like Twitter, and there are now roughly 200 million adults online in the U.S.
Like any communications tool beyond cup and string, it gets more useful as more people use it. And as people and companies find new ways to put out information (beyond what they're eating at that moment), the service keeps getting more interesting.
As with Facebook and the iPhone, the creative applications - the "apps" - that various people have developed for Twitter improve it all the time.
The Museum of Modern Betas, an online "museum" of Web sites being tested, recently ranked the 100 most popular Twitter apps. Below are 10 of them, not the top 10, but a representative sampling of the amusing apps that Twitter users - not the inventors of the service - have been cooking up. Their ability to come up with words derived from "twitter" or "tweet" is almost as impressive as their apps ingenuity:
1. Twistori.com With the 1960s' feel of Yellow Submarine and Peter Max posters, this app is modeled after a popular Web site called wefeelfine.org. It sorts all twitter posts that mention Love, Hate, Think, Believe, Feel and Wish.
2. Twitterholic.com With the tagline "Don't your thumbs hurt yet?" it ranks the leading twitterers based on the total of their "followers" (although remember never to judge your self-worth by that). The top 10 include very familiar names - and some not-so-familiar: Barack Obama, CNN Breaking News, the English actor and comedian Stephen Fry, Twitter, tech innovator Kevin Rose, Britney Spears, New York Times, Lance Armstrong, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and Al Gore.
3. Twellow.com You can search all the twittering on a given subject, everything from aerospace to cooking to motorsports.
4. Twitturly.com Tracks the Web sites that receive the most Twitter links that day - a snapshot of the subjects transfixing the world at the moment (or at least transfixing the people using Twitter).
5. Twitscoop.com Extracts the words mentioned often in hundreds of tweets a minute and turns them into "tag clouds," visual depictions of what people are tweeting about. Theoretically, the cloud could alert you to something major going on slightly before the main news channels are attuned to it.
The last time I checked in on it was the morning after the British music awards. The cloud included such words as "U2," "Duffy" and "Fish and Chips" leading some wag (or maybe a gecko with Cockney accent) to comment: "A lot of twit-chat is about the Brit Awards. C'mon rest of the world, claim back your share of the twitter cloud ;-)"
6. Twitbin.com Lets you scroll tweets down the side of your browser so you can follow them while you do actual work on your computer.
7. Strawpollnow.com You can create, and get real-time results for, an instant "straw poll," such as "Better potato chip snack: Pringles (1) or Doritos (2)?" It could save America a lot of money at election time.
8. Twitxr.com You can send pictures from your mobile phone to Twitter.
9. Twuffer.com Allows you to compose a list of future tweets and schedule their release. Could be useful for hourly or daily announcements, appointment reminders or to notify subscribers about coming podcast or video episodes. Or to perplex people by appearing to never sleep.
10. Twittersnooze.com This one doesn't work as well as I'd wished, but the concept is tremendous. You can temporarily turn off, or "snooze," someone you follow on Twitter but who has gotten on your nerves with frequent, incessant tweets. The flaw in this app is that when you "unsnooze" someone, he gets an e-mail that you're following him again, so it's the same as if you had shut him off for a while. In a perfect Twitter world, you could snooze someone for a while without his knowing: You may be fed up with his tweets, but you don't want to embarrass him.