Twitter and tweeting are rapidly becoming part of the lexicon, at least among the digerati who have discovered the jouissance of followers and following. Twitter hasn't unleashed a unique technology, but an inspired broadcast pivot on existing messaging models. As the generation that has grown up texting rather than e-mailing takes over the planet, Twitter and its ilk will go mainstream.
With Twitter, you have followers (those who subscribe to your 140-character-limited tweets) and following (those whose tweets you follow). As you can see from the graphic below, Twitter usage comes in all shapes and sizes.
At the top end of the scale, TWiT.tv's Leo Laporte has the most followers to date, with 32,728 (see Twitterholicfor the top Twitterers list), followed by Barack Obama. You'll note that the digitally savvy Obama (the Obama camp, not the candidate himself) follows practically every follower it has, whereas Leo follows on 427 Twitterers.
The Obama camp is definitely not prolific--only 119 tweets to date to thrill and inform its more than 32,000 followers. Leo is more generous with 895 tweets, but the most energetic and prolific man of Twitter is Robert Scoble.
He follows almost as many people as those who follow him, and has showered his fans with more than 12,000 tweets to date. On Saturday, he scribed 103 tweets to his more than 20,000 followers.
Paying attention to the daily tweets of 20,000 to 30,000 people, even at a maximum of 140-characters per pop, isn't remotely possible unless you spend your entire day and night in the Twittersphere.
As with Facebook, you can collect thousands of friends and followers but only a small portion will matter. Leo's ratio of followers to following--32,728 to 427--is a more realistic and practical approach to using Twitter.
Search and filtering applications for Twitter help to reduce the Twitter overflow. FriendFeedand Alert Thingy (a desktop app for FriendFeed) vacuum up Twitter, Flickr and other feeds into a single, uber stream. Summizetracks Twitter conversations in real time.
As a communications medium, Twitter is a self-promotional mechanism, as in the Twitter feed of CNET News headlines, as well as a vehicle for people to share random and often useless data, such as what you had for breakfast. Twitter can get noisy, but essentially it's an efficient broadcast and sharing conduit. For example, I first learned about the recent earthquake in China and ongoing developments from my Twitter stream.
Twitter is a complement, not a substitute, to blogging (also called "writing"). With its roots in SMS and instant messaging, the 140-character limit forces thought economy, saying more with less.
It's also having a side impact on blogging, implicitly training writers to write more succinctly, conserving bits even though they are in near infinite supply. A person's time and attention don't have infinite supply--getting to the point without rambling is a plus in our data-rich and continuously partial attention world.
One of the potential downsides of Twitter and other short-burst messaging apps is that context can be lost or it is very loosely coupled, which makes connecting the dots more difficult. On the other hand, if you consume a big enough supply, and the most salient, bite-size chunks of data, the bigger picture will come into focus.
The reality is that humans in the early 21st century will be required to process and buffer more discrete, loosely coupled bits of data than in the past of human history. Over the next few decades, more intelligence will seep into the network, filtering the overflowing stream for each of the 7 billion or 8 billion inhabitants of the planet and shaping more meaningful connections.
See also: What Twitter brings to the party