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In defense of Twitter

Can you really be productive with this 'microblogging' tool? No, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Images: Two takes on Twitter

Editor's note: CNET News.com is running dueling perspectives on Twitter. To read why senior writer Elinor Mills thinks the service is a pointless waste of time, click here.

"I saw Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream at the deli. Wanted it. Sore throat would not be pleased, though."

That was me, at 11:27 p.m. on May 24, gazing longingly into the frozen-food aisle of my neighborhood's late-night convenience store. I'd seen a pint of the recently released Ben & Jerry's flavor, named after my personal political hero, for the first time. I love ice cream. But seasonal allergies had turned the back of my throat into a war zone, and a thick and creamy dessert with chunks of cone in it likely wouldn't help.

It was disappointing, and I wanted to make my disappointment known. So I took out my cell phone and texted the aforementioned thought to Twitter, the much-talked-about "microblogging" service that lets users tell the world anything and everything--as long as it's 140 characters or fewer. Then I picked up a pint of dairy-free lemon sorbet instead of Americone Dream.

That's the thing about Twitter. You don't need a reason. Randomness isn't just tolerated, it's encouraged. Sure, a few people on my Twitter friends list might complain that a "tweet," or Twitter entry, consisting of "Cheez-Its? Where's my orange soda?!" is dumb (that was my nod to Funny or Die earlier this month, by the way), but I say they're missing the point. (Twitter tip No. 1: Turn off the SMS alerts that ping you every time a friend posts a tweet altogether. They're annoying. Use the mobile Web site to check your friends' updates from your phone, unless you're at an event or conference where people might be Twittering location or get-together details. You'll thank me later.)

The beauty of Twitter is that, unlike a full-out blog, there's no obligation to be philosophical, thought-provoking or grammatically sound. Because it doesn't require that kind of extra effort, it's great for people like me who want to jump on the social-media bandwagon but don't have the time to set up something elaborate on WordPress. And unlike social-networking profiles like those on Facebook and MySpace, it's free-form. Instead of filling in a text field to add "running" to a list of interests, I can announce on Twitter that I just ran 6 miles and am desperately seeking pizza. (Twitter tip No. 2: You can learn a lot from your own "tweets." Me, I learned that I post a lot about food.)

That being said, I'm of the opinion that no piece of social-media software is for everyone, and Twitter is no exception. I have friends who are so frustrated by Twitter's lack of functionality and frequent site outages that they've given up on it altogether, or abandoned it for rival Jaiku. There are certainly a fair number of inconveniences, and if the concept of Twitter doesn't exactly strike you as an awesome idea to begin with, the drawbacks can certainly outweigh the benefits. But if you find "microblogging"--posting short blog entries as opposed to long missives--to be a perfect fit (like I do), I can attest that you'll be able to deal with the occasional outage.

There's also the privacy issue: With the 140-character maximum, it's indeed difficult to say a whole lot about yourself in one tweet. But in a series of a dozen or more posts, especially given the propensity of Twitter users to broadcast where they are and where they're going, it's possible to reveal potentially sensitive information. I must say I'm kind of taken aback at some Twitterers' willingness to post details like their children's names, the precise locations of parties they're attending, and which gym they can be found at after work. (Twitter tip No. 3: If somebody random adds you as a friend, feel no obligation to add that person back. You can also opt to only share posts with people you designate as friends.)

That's an especially imperative point, in my opinion, because Twitter's getting bigger. Until very recently, its user base was largely restricted to the bloggers, podcasters and developers who joined up via word-of-mouth when Twitter hit it big at this spring's South by Southwest Interactive festival. But now that there are a whole host of third-party integration apps, from a Firefox plug-in to the new Facebook F8 platform on the popular social-networking site, it has the potential to break out of the geek squad and reach new audiences.

I believe that's ultimately a good thing, because all privacy concerns aside, Twitter's a welcome addition to the Internet. It requires a significant time commitment to actively participate in many of these trendy new forms of social media, like podcasting, blogging and video sharing; but Twitter just doesn't require that kind of effort, giving it the potential to be adopted by a broad niche of Web users who are looking for something more interactive than a MySpace profile but lower-maintenance than a blog. And, I should add, in a digitized world where companies openly state their mission is "to organize your life," randomness can be a lovely diversion.