Twitter seems to have gone well past critical mass, this week in particular for some reason, and everyone's writing about it. Since I tweet both personally and professionally, I thought I'd note a few things.
1. It's seemingly the most successful technology to imitate water-cooler socializing, or at least the first really great one since IRC and chat rooms. That is not a bad thing. I have little tolerance for people who run down online socializing as a simulacrum of interaction. There are lots of people (people like me) who are nonfunctional in real-life social situations but thrive in online environments. It's an old theme on the Web, which you can trace back from Twitter to World of Warcraft to AOL chatrooms to IRC and beyond. It causes dysfunction, but it also allows a lot of people to lead more confident, interesting lives.
For me, I get to interact with people I know by reputation but would probably never meet and would probably not know what to say if I did meet them.
I suspect one of the reasons Twitter has taken off in journalistic environments is that, in writing, you get a lot of people who are verbose and attention-driven behind a keyboard but normal to retiring in real life. I'm on the extreme end of the spectrum, but I doubt I'm alone on it.
There are actual dangers for people who like to write about the world. (If I read another story about "25 Random Things" I'm going to wipe my hard drive and then hose down my computer.) It is just another thing that people like to do, and a comparatively small and self-selecting group at that. And it carries with it all the dangers of a technologically and economically self-selecting group does: in other words, you risk turning into a Web 2.0 version of the New York Times Style section. Guard against it, but don't freak out.
2. It probably won't make you a better journalist, but it might make you a nicer person. One of the dangers of writing, and blogging in particular, is that as a one-sided dialogue it doesn't demand the sort of personal and professional tolerance that a conversation does. Twitter is somewhere in between. If it serves to take the edge off Web users, that's something to be said for it.
3. In re tolerance, to address some of Eric Zorn's Twitter politesse questions:
As a courtesy should you "follow" the posts of everyone who elects to follow your posts?
No. You should follow the people who you want to follow. It's worth being egalitarian within those parameters, but reasonable people should assume that, given the nature of the medium, no one should feel obligated to follow you and thus water down their own use of the form.
Should you post about your routine, daily activities? I tend not to, but we've been involved in a Tribune company round-robin e-mail discussion today about a letter from a reader who argued that too many Tribune Tweeters weren't coming off like "real" people.
Argh. Things like this make me worry that critical thinking is dead. Eric Zorn is 1) a real person 2) a professional newspaper columnist. They aren't mutually exclusive. What I do is a considerable part of "me" as a "real person" and I expect that anyone who dares follow me on Twitter, or comes over to my apartment, or generally associates with me in any way, will expect that. I have a lot more flexibility as someone with a comparatively low public profile, but I'll defend anyone's right to not post about their lunch by way of putting on a veil of authenticity, which is just another way of creating a persona. I'll take it on faith that Eric Zorn eats lunch. I twitter about things that I think are interesting within the context of that social medium, just as I speak differently to strangers on the bus, colleagues at work, or friends at a party.
(What you should not twitter about: new Starbucks products, snuggies, that fucking Forbes misery index, how smart you are about how newspapers are dying. I am right sick of all that.)
In short: Twitter is just another way in which people interact. And you should extend people the courtesies that you would extend in other social environments. Give dap to people who you think deserve it, from big-paper reporters to obscure blogs. Politely instruct people who are abusing the medium; there are a lot of n00bs out there and they're learning. Give people technical assistance if you have the knowledge to do so. Don't push your agenda on people, but share the stuff you do that you're proud of and interests you.
Shorter: my only strong opinion on how to behave in the Twitter environment is: be nice, and that includes being tolerant of the ways in which other people choose to use it.