The glowing aqua swimming pool at The Pearl Hotel is about the only thing that's placid and serene tonight. The crowd surrounding the water is pretty bubbly, partly a result of the free drinks but mostly because it's a San Diego Tweetup, a real-world meet-up of people who, for the most part, sit at the glow of their computer screens all day slaving away at work and Twittering for fun when their bosses aren't looking.
“Twitter's, like, my favorite way of text-bombing people,” says an ex-Marine to a group of fellow 20- and 30-somethings. “I used to say, ‘Hey, I'm going on deployment, and be, like, boom—text-message bomb—and 16 people would get the message on their cell phones. Twitter's just a more enhanced version of that.”
Brian Lewis, vice president of Engine Ready, one of the web companies that sponsored the Tweetup, leans in to listen and says, “I'm here because I want to figure out how to monetize Twitter for business purposes—or maybe that's bastardizing it. Maybe it's a social network and it shouldn't be used for business purposes.”
“I don't know,” answers the Marine, “I think you can kind of use it for virtual door-to-door customer service.”
The Marine's right.
Twitter is both an online and cell-phone micro blog and social-networking tool that allows its users to receive 140-character messages from those they've decided to “follow”—meaning mark as a friend or contact—and send messages to those who've decided to follow them. The service was started by Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey, a couple of web developers from San Francisco who first launched it as a fun side project based on the simple idea that people like to know what other people are doing at any given moment. Inspired by the status setting on most chat and instant-message systems—the button that says “Out to Lunch,” “Available,” Busy” and whatnot when you're logged into the system—and relying on the same technology that drives text messages (known as short message service, or SMS), the pair first tried it out on people they knew, but it didn't take long before they saw Twitter's larger potential.
“When we first created it, it was very conceptual,” Stone says. “Coworkers and friends thought it was fun, but then we had an earthquake and the first thing we reached for was Twitter, and we thought, Wow, there's something more to this—it's the place you go for real-time access to information.”
Now, less than two years after its official launch, businesses, journalists, government agencies and even the Los Angeles Fire Department have found different ways to use the free service. Thousands of San Diegans, in fact, were first introduced to Twitter during last year's wildfires. While news websites were failing and emergency-services websites were crashing because of the huge amount of traffic—and even KPBS, the local National Public Radio affiliate, was off the air for some time because of fire damage to its transmitters—people like Nate Ritter (1,347 followers, following 269), a local freelance web developer, were using Twitter to collect information and links to maps of the fire from both traditional news sources and blogs, then disseminate the data to a large audience desperate to know what was going on.
“I had joined Twitter,” Ritter says, “but I didn't yet know how it could be useful, and when the fire happened, I found out what it was for—emergencies is one of the applications it's perfect for.”
Ritter says that the immediacy of Twitter, plus the fact that it's limited to short text messages that can be sent directly to cell phones, makes it the perfect tool to disseminate important information quickly and succinctly. The fact that Twitter, for whatever reason, ranks high on Google searches, helps, too.
When its signal went down, KPBS didn't take long before it, too, took to Twitter. Nathan Gibbs (225 followers, following 166), a web producer at KPBS, says that about 10 employees took turns updating the Twitter feed during the fires, and they still use Twitter today to promote content on their live shows, engage with their listeners and find contacts for story ideas.
Comcast, one of the country's largest telecommunications corporations, famously started a Twitter account after a popular blogger used it to complain about terrible customer service. Comcast employees were monitoring the Twitter feeds for mentions of their name, and when the blogger started to bitch, they responded to him directly and had a repair van out to his house within the hour. Comcast still has an account and responds to as many costumers and complaints as it can.
Seeing the public-relations and promotions potential of the site, NASA started a Twitter account this year to promote its Phoenix Mars Lander mission (37,071 followers, following 2). They anthropomorphized the cute little robot vehicle and wrote the updates of the mission in real-time and in first person: “Whoa, so much sadness about the heater turning off,” read a recent update after some technical problems occurred due to bad weather conditions on Mars. “Thx, and I hope to hang on several more weeks so you will be hearing more from me :-).”
And those who are just using Twitter for its fun, social-networking side still seem to be the so-called “early adopters”—people like techies, journalists and PR specialists who are constantly on the lookout for new communications technology. Everyone at the Tweetup at The Pearl that night fell into those categories, but, at least to the techie crowd, it's a good start.
“If you go to the standard technology meet-ups,” says Gabriel Lawrence, director of IT security at UCSD, the glow of the pool reflecting in his glasses, “it's all a bunch of geeks standing around lecturing each other. But look at this: There's all kinds of people here. There's the technology people, so, if you want to talk tech and be like 1, 0, 1-1, 0, 1-1, you can. But then there's marketing folks, there's radio personalities, there's newspaper media—I mean, everybody's here. Eric Bidwell, a candidate for mayor, is here. I voted for him because I met him at a Tweetup. This is what it should be like—you get to meet lots of people, there's lots of ideas and it's a fun environment.”
Lots of people, ideas and fun—sounds a lot like the real-world equivalent of a day spent on Twitter.