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Following the explosion of Twitter

The Baltimore Sun

It may have been the celebrity gossip headline that alleged Jennifer Aniston broke up with singer John Mayer because he was spending all his time on Twitter.

Or maybe it was the MSNBC story about someone whose Twittering may have cost him employment after he wrote: "Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work."

Or possibly it was the photos a smiling, bandaged Lance Armstrong couldn't wait to post on Twitter after busting his collarbone during a nasty spill from his bicycle.

All of that buzz within a few days last week made me wonder: When did Twitter take over the universe? Or put another way, when did a Web service that transmits messages of 140 characters or less, that apparently makes no money and is used by 3 percent of the U.S. population (and probably less than that) become the greatest thing since mint chocolate chip ice cream?

Don't get me wrong. I like Twitter. It has evolved into a fascinating stew of the macro and the micro - real-time news from around the world and small-scale chatter from around the block. It's one of the more useful toys on the Internet. And at least for now, it's free.

But it's one of those technologies that mystifies people even as they become addicted to it, sort of in the way that people began calling their BlackBerry their "crackberry," acknowledging their unnatural obsession for it.

"More people are hearing about it than actually using it," Nicholas Carlson, an editor for the Web site Silicon Alley Insider, said of Twitter. "A lot of people using it are professional media who already love to talk for a living. We had CNBC on yesterday, and we counted and they said 'Twitter' 24 times. The media used to say, 'If it bleeds, it leads.' Now if it tweets, it leads."

In his blog post "100 Things More Popular Than Twitter," Carlson included Niagara Falls, AARP's magazine and the summer TV filler America's Got Talent. In fact, "Catwoman the movie was even more popular than Twitter," Carlson noted. It's been estimated that Twitter has 7 million users, although Twitter does not release its usage figures.

As Twitter continues to grow at a rapid pace, its duel identity as both cultural obsession and national punch line was brilliantly captured by a cartoon clip made for Current TV, the tech-savvy channel started by Al Gore and others several years ago.

Since airing on Current TV nearly two weeks ago, the cartoon has been watched 1.2 million times on YouTube and spurred more than 3,500 comments online. It led pop star Katy Perry to opine about it on her blog, "This is pure real life truth. Swallow it!"

In the 4 1/2 -minute cartoon titled "Twouble with Twitters," a young man is aghast that his co-worker is unaware of Twitter and exhorts, "You are a young, hip, tech-savvy, 20-something and I will not let you turn into your father." The co-worker remains unimpressed and can't see the value in exchanging "detached, bite-sized yippety-yap" with people he barely knows. In a modern twist on The Emperor's New Clothes, the "Twitterverse" crumbles when the unimpressed co-worker informs all the Twitterers that they've been deluded into thinking Twittering is like real friendship.

Even one of the inventors of Twitter found it a riot.

"That video was hilarious!" Biz Stone, who co-founded Twitter in 2006, wrote in an e-mail response to a question about whether he'd seen it. "Very well done."

Josh Faure-Brac, 35, the animator who came up with the cartoon, can't get over the reaction. He scripted and drew the cartoon last fall in preparation for the recent launch of Current TV's "Super News" segment on Friday nights. He even feared Twitter would be passe by the time the cartoon aired. No such problem.

"Our timing couldn't have been better," Faure-Brac said. "The irony is that in making fun of Twitter, Twitter users have made me a Twitterlebrity."

His spot-on satire was based on his introduction to Twitter by an enthusiastic colleague.

"Her reaction was 'You don't know Twitter? It's amazing.' I signed up and started following people I work with and was instantly confused. It was people in short form telling me they ran out of Raisin Bran that morning or they were taking their dog for a walk. I don't know what to do with that information. What's cool about the Twitter community, though, is they seem very self-aware of the silliness of it. It's just good, clean fun."

Andrew L. Russell, a Johns Hopkins University doctoral graduate who teaches history at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., said ambivalence about "micro-blogging" echoes the empathy movie audiences felt 70 years ago when they laughed at Charlie Chaplin's slapstick depictions of the work world getting carried away with automation in the silent film Modern Times.

Some people who study technology aren't sure Twitter will endure.

"Frankly, I think a lot of twittering is somewhat faddish, whereas I never thought Facebook was. ... People I interviewed and surveyed would talk of serious feeling of deprivation without Facebook and I've hardly heard anyone say that about twitter," Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor who teaches the sociology of technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, wrote in an e-mail. "Will people Twitter five years from now? Perhaps, but I would not be surprised if they did not, or at least as much."

But Twitter has grown so fast, it must be relevant at some level. It has touched a nerve.

"I cannot envision that this tool is just a fad; it's far too powerful and still has so much potential," said Tracy Gosson, a Twitterer and president of Sagesse, a Baltimore marketing firm. "If they continue to innovate, I would put it close to the evolution level of Google. My elevator pitch for Twitter is that that Facebook keeps you in touch with people you know. Twitter connects you with people you didn't know you needed to know."

"This real-time ability to understand what is happening at the moment, it's a sea change," said Jeff Pulver, a technology entrepreneur who has been involved in Internet telephony. "This is not just geeks. This is decidedly ungeek."

Pulver is working to organize a conference about Twitter at an off-Broadway theater in New York in June where he hopes to assemble 140 "characters" - meaning people - to discuss Twitter's influence and possibilities.

He said he'd love to get Aniston there.

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