The allure of Twitter, the latest Web sensation.

Culture and technology.
April 10 2007 4:15 PM

What Are You Doing?

The allure of Twitter, the latest Web sensation.

Twitter. Click image to expand.

Twitter is the newest assault on your attention span. Once you've signed in, the Twitter site immediately prompts you with a question in bold type: "What are you doing?" Below, there's a blinking cursor and a blank white space where you have 140 characters with which to answer. That's basically it. Here are some twitter messages, known as "tweets," culled this morning:

limburger2001 watching csi, and preparing for our work meeting tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. Thank god for coffee ...

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jeremias listening to Curious George in the background while drinking terroir coffee whose headquarters happen to be 5 minutes away

tiroriro Che! Me voy a cocinar

nikomiとなりの801ちゃん(本)で"「そううけほん」でぐぐれ"とか書いてるのに当の801ちゃんのblogがトップでヒットすんのは絶対罠だ

Geewiz Just recovered from a night of playing WoW.

These messages are culled from Twitter's "public timeline." Most tweets are viewable by all. They join a stream of tweets from around the globe—a ticker tape of quotidian detail. The tweets you write are also sent to designated friends via text message, e-mail, or instant message. Finally, strangers can elect to "follow" you and receive your updates. According to tracking site Twitterholic, the top 10 twitterers have thousands of people following them—a literal cult of personality. Paul Terry Walhus, a gray-haired Austin coffee-shop blogger who has 8,789 friends and 1,722 followers, is currently the most popular person on the site. His latest tweet: "5:33 am cst L:78704 starting work week ... full plate today ... toast, mango yogurt and coffee w half and half."

The rise of Twitter goes against other productivity trends. The corporate world has seized upon the idea that e-mail and instant messaging can be a time sump. The ambitious are tuning out distraction while executives resolve to beat their addiction to Brick Breaker. But that hasn't stopped Twitter. A lot of tweets are sent from work: "Waiting for a meeting to start. Why is it so hard to be on time," "Pouting. People aren't returning my emails, and I have post-annual-report-submission anxiety." And Twitter is not a mere procrastination tool. It acts as a mental escape hatch. When answering the Twitter prompt—"What are you doing?"—people have a way of checking in with their essential nonwork selves: "thinking about fried pickles for lunch" or "daydreamng about a boy that i fancy and how i can snog him." It's the 21st-century equivalent of passing notes in class.

Twitter is also a Web 2.0 sensation that's hyped on all the blogs, which means it's a motley free-for-all environment: You have the BBC sending out official news alerts and also some guy pretending to be Darth Vader. (Sample quote: "Simba, I am your father!") John Edwards jumped aboard early, and he thanked everyone for sending tweets about Elizabeth. Recently, his staff seems to have taken over: "(from staff): Sen. Edwards is in Chapel Hill with his family." Stephen Colbert is halfheartedly gathering a flock in an attempt to overtake the popular Darth Vader, and his writers blithely mock the form: "I've got truth fever ... seriously, I've been throwing up all day." There is also a fake Borat, a fake Homer Simpson, and a fake Condi ("Stuck in traffic on Pennsylvania Ave and guess who pulls up next to me. Colin in his Avalanche! AWKWARD!"). People are playing with Twitter like this is 1995, when you would send an e-mail just for the connective thrill.

The Willy Wonka of Twitterland is Dave Troy. He mashed-up Twitter with Google Maps to create Twittervision. Open the URL and a world map appears on your screen. Little messages then pop up and disappear from their place of origin every second or so. The result is either a mesmerizing piece of desktop installation art or a banal text-based Jumbotron. Watch for a few minutes and you can track the ebb and flow of daily life around the world. Someone rolls out of bed in San Jose, while in London another twitterer chimes in with a simple "Zzzzzzzzz." (Everyone seems to be keeping it fairly clean, i.e., no tweets like "just had sex.") Often a conversation will bubble up, such as on a recent night when a cross-ocean debate occurred over the merits of Guitar Hero 2. In my time observing the site, I've identified one world constant: People love to twitter about coffee and tea. They also need more sleep.

Watching Twittervision is akin to sitting at a sidewalk cafe and letting a slightly nerdier version of the real world go by. Active twittering is getting up onstage for open-mic night. Ego-wise, it's both deflating and affirming. Do my friends really care what I am doing? Unlike open-mic nights, getting tweets from people is enjoyable. There is a pleasant sense of faint connection, as if you are standing silently next to them. It's also a quick shot of empathy: You imagine where they are and what they might be seeing. Because Twitter reaches into phones and computers or wherever a person might be, it's intimate, a friendly buzz in the pocket. I suspect this goodwill is mostly due to my uncluttered Twitter life: no spam, no work e-mail, no need to reply, and no ads. That last part will likely change. Obvious, the San Francisco company behind Twitter, will obviously want to make money.

The Twitter downsides are also obvious. Prufrock mourned how he had measured out his life in coffee spoons, and Twitter can be nothing more than an hourly confirmation of our pointless daily round. And, as a friend explained, there is a Heisenberg Uncertainty problem with the site. The correct answer to "What are you doing now?" is always "Typing something into Twitter." But I suspect that it's the open-ended charisma of that question that is propelling the Twitter phenomenon. Life is filled with distraction, and here is this simple Web site asking us to stop and think: "What are you doing?" It's micro-therapy, 14 times a day. Or a new kind of Zen koan. Is it possible to twitter yourself to enlightenment? Twitter is asking us to pay attention, to account for our time, and even to gather a sense of our purpose and usefulness in this world.

Or, maybe not. Maybe everyone sounds profound at 140 characters.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.