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Twitter: A Media Analyst's Take On The Tweet

Lately, the media world has been a-twitter about Twitter, an online service that's sometimes called "micro-blogging." It's caught on with the Internet-savvy, as well as with corporate executives, and even Capitol Hill lawmakers.

But as WBUR's senior media analyst John Carroll says, not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon.

CARROLL: Twitter is a bit like the credit default swap: lots of people have heard of it, but not that many know how it actually works.

So, a helpful twittorial:

Twitter — which asks the question "What are you doing?" — is an online networking site that allows real-time communication among unlimited numbers of people, or — as they're known — Tweeters. You post a tweet of up to 140 characters on your home page, and it also appears on the home pages of Tweeters who are "following" you. When the people you're following tweet, it pops up on your page.

As with many Internet innovations, some swear by it, while others swear at it. In the latter category is the Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson, who recently labeled Twitter "the newest of the new media. And the worst."

Ferguson wrote, "It's an ingenious way of keeping in touch, particularly for people who need to expose as much of their lives to public scrutiny as possible."

Twitter has also been called "a subculture of needy and annoying online souls," "the Pokemon of the blogosphere," and "a poor man's email system" — that last from Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who at this very moment is likely developing his own poor man's email system to compete with Twitter.

Some say the three-year-old Twitter has already jumped the shark, thanks to Beltway media elites and various Capitol Hill lawmakers tweeting like a traffic cop. Just last week the Doonesbury comic strip was sending it up, and Comedy Central's Jon Stewart was lighting it up.

STEWART: For the uninitiated, here's how Twitter works: I have no bleeping idea. I have no idea how it works or why it is.

CARROLL: To find out why, I tweeted some of the six million and counting Tweeters. One said, "We could all do with a bit more editing. Trying to say something worthwhile in 140 char. or less weeds out unnecessary rambling."

Another Tweeter wrote, "Look at Tweets on Mumbai attacks, USAirways & Turkish Airways crashes. There's news to be found on Twitter."

All kinds of news, according to an online how-to-Twitter video that follows a new Tweeter named Carla.

VIDEO NARRATOR: She began to see a different side of people she chose to follow. She didn't know that Stephen in Seattle was a baseball fan or that Julia in London was reading a new investment book. The little messages from Twitter painted a picture of her friends, family, and co-workers that she'd never seen before. It was the real world.

CARROLL: The real world in no more than 140 characters, please, which almost always means losing the texture and nuance and dimensionality of communication. From email to blog posts to text messages to tweets, what we say to each other seems to get more and more compressed.

Maybe — contrary to media guru Marshall McLuhan — the medium isn't the message in this case. It just might be that the 140-character message is the message.

John Carroll is senior media analyst for WBUR and a mass communication professor at Boston University.

This program aired on March 10, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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