Two years ago, a few savvy web developers posed a question to the world: What are you doing?
Turns out, that innocuous opener for all manner of human interaction is tough to ignore. People numbering in the millions have since logged on to twitter.com to post answers and read those of friends, family, or whomever else they may find compelling. (Like Google, Twitter knew it had struck a chord when it went from being only a noun to being also a verb.)
James Karl Buck, a graduate student from the University of California-Berkeley, joined the cultural phenomenon this past spring-and not a moment too soon. A week after opening an account on the site, he and a translator were arrested in Mahalla, Egypt, as they sought to cover an anti-government protest. On the way to the police station, Buck connected to Twitter via his cell phone and fired off a single-word distress signal: "Arrested."
In an instant, that "tweet" popped onto the computer screens and mobile devices of every person following Buck's feed. Friends sprang to action, and subsequent updates helped trigger intervention from a university-hired lawyer. Less than a day later, Buck sent out another one-word tweet: "Free."
Few Twitter users could report such drama in their interactions with the micro-blogging site. For most, the service represents an invitation to broadcast life's mundane moments in the required brevity of 140 characters or less. But stories like Buck's serve as public-relations gold for Twitter's creators, pressing many micro-blogging skeptics to give tweets a chance.
Indeed, company co-founder Biz Stone reports growth of 600 percent in Twitter accounts over the past year. And individuals are not the only ones discovering the site's lure. Businesses, political campaigns, and even churches are now leveraging the social networking tool.
The draw: simplicity and immediacy. Unlike Facebook, MySpace, or other social networking sites, Twitter strips away clutter in the name of one dynamic, ever-updating feed. Users can follow whomever they choose, aggregating content from neighbors to NASA to presidential candidates. And unlike "traditional" blogs, which require time and thought to produce worthwhile content, tweets roll out with stream-of-consciousness ease.
Case in point: I'm writing an article on Twitter.
But for all its popularity, Twitter has yet to turn a profit. The site's sleek and mostly ad-free environment accounts for much of its draw and precludes significant advertising revenue. What's more, most Twitter users rarely visit the website, accessing the service instead through downloadable programs. Stone reports that traffic on such programs is about 20 times that of actual site visits.
Still, considerable profit seems inevitable. "We're not sharing a specific timeline regarding profitability, but it is certainly our intention to be a sustainable business," Stone told WORLD. "We're looking at the significant amount of commercial usage taking place on Twitter as a good starting point."
Major companies like Dell, General Motors, Cisco Systems, Kodak, JetBlue, Comcast, H&R Block, and many others are using the tool to connect with customers and field feedback on products and services. News outlets, including the BBC (and WORLD), have likewise picked up on the opportunity to reach followers instantaneously.
On a more local level, Twitter's searchable base of rapidly updating information renders it a first destination for breaking news. First-hand Twitter reports of a local fire or bank robbery often beat out the first reports from professional print or broadcast journalists. And for gauging the level of buzz around such news or other local happenings, no other outlet compares.
It all adds up to a dynamic tool for building participatory community, a function that grabbed the eye of artist and evangelical innovator John Voelz, a pastor at Westwinds Church in Jackson, Mich. At first, Voelz simply introduced the service into the church office as a means to foster staff dialogue and connection. But his penchant for experimentation soon birthed a far grander, albeit more controversial, idea.
On June 1, Westwinds hosted its first "Twitter Sunday," projecting a feed with content from churchgoers onto auditorium screens throughout the entirety of three services. The tweets poured in: I love this song . . . Somebody turn Jimmy's guitar up . . . Thank God for coffee at church. And on a more serious note: The more I press in to Him, the more He presses me out to be useful . . . It is easy to give Him credit after the fact but it is my prayer to see Him now . . . sometimes healing is painful.
Reaction to the event was mixed among congregants, many of whom took church-run Twitter classes prior to the Sunday experiment. "The naysayers thought it was a joke and who cares, but I was saying, 'No, this is an avenue for participation.'" Voelz said. "This is another layer of engagement for people. Some people are going to hate it, but some people are going to hate everything we do. People hated it when we put projectors and screens up 20 years ago."
Voelz says most people must transition through a progression of lessening resistance before ever embracing Twitter: "At first, they don't get it. Then, they get it but don't understand its importance. Then, they try it, aren't sure what to think about it, but wonder if it's just them, 'Maybe I'm just stupid.' And then, as they start hooking up with friends, they get to a point where they don't want to miss out on the conversation."
Since its initial Twitter Sunday, Westwinds has brought the technology into several more services in a smaller capacity, using it for Q&A sessions or during a dedicated time of prayer and song. "The greatest things from Twitter for us have not really been what's happening on the weekend. That's fun, but that really just fuels what happens throughout the week, our Twitter community," Voelz said, pointing out the opportunity for greater connection between church leadership and the 1,000 people in the congregation. "I can't be everybody's buddy, but I can be everybody's Twitter buddy. That's easy."
Such benefits have attracted interest from other churches, several of which have contacted Westwinds with practical and technical questions about how to duplicate the Twitter Sunday idea. Voelz is tickled to function as "a kind of Petri dish" for the broader evangelical world.
Outside the church context, other evangelical leaders are likewise touting the service. Michael Hyatt, president of Thomas Nelson Publishers, recently blogged 12 reasons to start twittering-among them, practicing tight writing, staying connected with people, and creating new relationships. Hyatt committed to use Twitter for 30 days and found it led to more intentional living. He came to view the question, "What are you doing?" as an opportunity for personal reflection as much as one for recording the mundane.
Nevertheless, skepticism among Christians remains prevalent. Much of the outside feedback filtering in to Westwinds has proved negative. Critics charge that the public projection of comments during worship is little more than an occasion for exhibitionists to steal focus away from God. Voelz admits that some inappropriate content has made it to the screens, including the occasional expletive. But it's worth it, he says: "In some ways I think I'm a Twitter evangelist, not in a let's seal the deal with Jesus kind of a way. But in the way that I'm spreading good cheer. I think Jesus would use Twitter."
Some left-leaning political zealots may think he already is. Barack Obama has used Twitter to update supporters throughout the presidential campaign. His account has close to 100,000 followers, many of whom believed the Democratic candidate's vice presidential pick would leak through Twitter before it ever showed up on mainstream news reports. The Obama campaign officially announced its selection of Sen. Joe Biden via text message, but scores of fans soon generated a massive Twitter buzz to help forward that news.
The Twitter presence of supporters for Republican candidate John McCain is far less significant-perhaps indicative of the site's still baby stage. Indeed, new uses for the social networking tool seem to spring up daily like a toddler discovering language: updating the mission of the Phoenix Mars Lander; coordinating fights against California wild fires; helping consumers find fuel during an Atlanta gas shortage.
Twitter's tweet: I'm going mainstream.