Twitter is the new CB Radio for the Internet Era

By Steven L. Lubetkin

Copyright (c) 2008 Steven L. Lubetkin. All rights reserved.

WORD COUNT: 667

Last month’s column described how AliveInBagdad.org mobilized online donations using Twitter.com, an online chat service. Twitter is Citizen’s Band radio for a new generation of Internet users.

In the 1970s, learning from truckers, who popularized the use of the two-way radios, CB users built an online community on the highways, telling each other where to find good restaurants or how to avoid police radar units, and eventually meeting face-to-face for coffee or lunch, sometimes after speaking on the radio for months.

Twitter builds the same connections online. People connect with others and arrange meetings in “real” space. While CB radio was limited to about two miles in range, Twitter is global. Someone in Asia can hear you just as clearly as the person next door.

San Francisco-based Twitter was developed by Evan Williams, who may be better remembered for founding Pyra Labs, creator of Blogger.com, the free blogging platform now owned by Google.

Twitter posts cross between cell phone texting and web based chatting. (Make sure your cell phone plan has unlimited messaging before you plunge full tilt.)

Twitters (or “tweets”) are limited to 140 characters (the exact limit of a cell phone SMS text message) to answer the question, “What are you doing now?” People now use Twitter to engage in a robust, random, and eclectic conversation.

To start, you invite people you know to join, or browse among the people already using it to find someone interesting, and then “follow” that person’s updates.

You can send random thoughts to everyone on Twitter or send “direct” messages privately to one individual user.

The connections become part of what the poet Marge Piercy called the “great web of being joined together.”

Twitter has become one of the online tools I don’t want to be without. And it leads to some unexpectedly helpful connections that I’ve blogged about elsewhere (http://tinyurl.com/ysbojg).

Twitter provides the office water cooler social context of other people working independently, but linked together in a sort of online workplace solidarity.

That solidarity became obvious when a Washington, DC area blogger named Susan Reynolds got a breast cancer diagnosis and started blogging about her cancer treatment journey (http://tinyurl.com/2y8dvm).

When Twitter buddies learned she used bags of frozen peas to soothe discomfort from a needle biopsy, they added images of frozen peas to their Twitter profile photos, dubbing them “peavatars.”

One member of Susan’s Twitter circle, Connie Reece, started the Frozen Pea Fund (http://tinyurl.com/34nwq5) to raise money for breast cancer research. Since December, it’s collected more than $7,000.

Susan was profiled in the Washington Post (http://tinyurl.com/278m2q) and in a video blog posting by another Twitter user, Jim Long, an NBC News videographer (http://tinyurl.com/384crd). Before hearing about the frozen peas on Twitter, Long had never met Reynolds.

Long, who uses the screen name NewMediaJim on Twitter, uses the service to give people a behind-the-scenes look at his “old media” work for NBC News.

Long frequently Twitters updates as he shoots video for NBC News White House correspondent John Yang. He posted tweets from Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia as he covered the President’s recent trip to the Middle East.

“You start to identify with the little moments that other people are talking about,” Long said in a telephone interview last week while he was driving to an assignment for the Today Show. “You begin these little conversations and relationships, and care what these folks are doing.”

Traditional broadcast media need to embrace social media forms like Twitter, Long said.

“People like to see how the sausage is made,” he said of his posts on Twitter. “The notion that a big media company is smarter than its audience is something we need to dispense with. We need to give people an opportunity to participate in what we’re doing.”

As this column was about to close, we learned of another fundraising initiative via Twitter. Whitney Hoffman, producer of the LD Podcast on learning disabilities, is raising money for a school for autistic children in China. Contribute to that effort at http://tinyurl.com/23vr3h.

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