A twit's paradise

Is the internet "inane"? Yes, and my friendships are all the stronger for it

"Emergency. Not enough Sunday left - do I install new software, write my column, or take down the Christmas tree?" Just a few short weeks after Doris Lessing condemned "the inanities of the internet", I joined seemingly the most inane group of internet users out there. Although Twitter has been around for more than a year, you may not have heard of this social networking service. Unlike Facebook, there are no zombies, no online games of Scrabble, and no one-click facility to arrange birthday drinks or leaving parties. Twitter asks one simple question - "What are you doing?" The task of the Twitter user, or "Twit", is to reply in fewer than 140 characters, several times a day, no matter how boring your life is.

"Feeling overfull. Really nice salmon cakes downstairs, but they didn't feel so filling until I got back to my desk!" I had been a Twitter refusenik since I noticed that the geekier of my friends had started getting more SMS messages than me. Twitter, you see, crosses the web/mobile divide, letting users opt to receive updates from their network of Twitter friends and contacts on their phone, in real time.

What could be the point of receiving a text message letting you know that your colleague has overcooked his spaghetti? Or that your favourite blogger is stuck in a European airport with no good wifi? Yet after a few months, such questions became so burning, that even I had to join: "Yay, the boiler man has just fixed the boiler. Now I can go out."

Twitter was co-founded by Evan Williams, the man who sold the blogging platform Blogger to Google. Back then, most people thought blogging was inane and pointless, so it may follow that in a few years' time we'll all be tweeting on Twitter (or similar sites, like Jaiku and Pownce). In a recent article for MIT's Technology Review, Elizabeth Lawley, director of the social computing lab at the Rochester Institute of Technology, described its appeal: "The question 'What are you doing?' is exactly the thing we ask people we care about." It's "almost as if you're seeing a pixel in someone else's life".

"Bloody hell, it's awful out there. We are staying in, cooking a tagine and listening to music. Feels like a Sunday." After a week on Twitter, I'm coming round to Lawley's point of view. I get a chance to meet up with each of my friends properly (ie, in a pub) about once every two months. By then, there's so much to catch up on, that the small stuff gets lost. Bumping into a girlfriend a few days into my Twitter experiment, I find we are smiling about my Sunday Christmas tree conundrum and her bad pizza last week. The events may not be newsworthy, but the shared knowledge of them brings us closer.

So I'm sticking with Twitter. It may not be as revolutionary as blogging, but so far, it's fun. "Finished my column: off to have veggie curry in Stroud Green."

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked