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The World According to Twitter Excerpt from The World According to Twitter

by David Pogue

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"Why Should I Care What You Had for Breakfast?"

"WHY SHOULD I CARE WHAT YOU HAD FOR BREAKFAST?"

ARRRRGHH!!! I can't stand it when people say this about Twitter!

OK, asking that question is a fairly normal reaction when someone first hears about Twitter. I admit it: That's the reaction I had when I first heard about Twitter.

But that is not what Twitter is about -- even if the little box you type into is labeled, "What are you doing?"

ABOUT TWITTER

Now, let's get one thing clear upfront: This is not a book about Twitter.

Twitter just happens to be the first communications channel in history that could have made possible a book like this: real-time, interactive collaboration with half a million smart, funny coauthors. What you'll find on these pages is their wit and wisdom, with very few references to Twitter itself.

But, in case you care, Twitter.com is a Web site where you can broadcast very short messages -- 140 characters, max -- to anyone who's signed up to receive them. It's like a cross between a blog and a chat room.

Your "followers" might include six friends from high school, or, if you're movie star Ashton Kutcher, 2.5 million faithful fans. At the same time, you can sign up to follow the "tweets" of other people, which scroll up your screen in a big column, all mixed together, like the screenplay for a global cocktail-party scene.

Fortunately, most people do not broadcast the mundane details of their lives. Instead, they make wry observations. They send links to interesting stuff they've found online. They pass along breaking news. (All kinds of news breaks on Twitter before it hits the mainstream media: Barack Obama's choice of a running mate, the plane landing in the Hudson River, the Mumbai earthquake, the rebellions in Iran, and so on.)

And, oh yeah -- they ask questions.

ABOUT MY CONVERSION


I'll be the first to admit that I was a Twitter skeptic. Like most first-timers, I found Twitter to be filled with confusing conventions, rules, and shorthand. The first time I covered Twitter for the New York Times, I wrote, "Like the world needs another ego-massaging, socialnetworking time drain?"

But that's the thing about Twitter: it takes a week or so to get it. And the possibilities slowly began to blow my mind.

My transformation into a full-blown Twitterphile began the day I served as a judge on a grant committee. I watched as a fellow judge asked his Twitter followers if a certain project had been tried before. In thirty seconds, his followers replied with Web links to the information he needed. I was amazed at the quality and quantity of the responses.

So a week later, I conducted a similar experiment myself. I was giving a talk in Las Vegas, and trying to explain Twitter by demonstrating it. As the audience watched, I fired up Twitter on the big screen and typed to my 5,000 followers: "I need a cure for hiccups . . . right now!"

Within seconds, responses came pouring in from all over the world. They were weird, wonderful, funny:
We were all cracking up. This wasn't like anything else on the Internet. No Web page, chat room, or e-mail could have achieved the same effect, in real time, with this many participants. (The results of the hiccup-cure experiment are immortalized on page 74.)

It was rapidly becoming apparent that people on Twitter are not the same people who populate MySpace, Facebook, or YouTube. (Have you seen the level of discourse on YouTube? "Your such a tard" . . . "no U are!")

Twitterers are a different breed altogether. According to studies by PEW and Quantcast, we're an older, better-educated, higher-earning group. About 80 percent of us are over 25, and two-thirds of us have college degrees.

The bummer was that my followers' brilliance was trapped. Not just on Twitter -- on my screen. With certain exceptions, when you get a reply on Twitter, you're the only person who sees it.

When I got home from that speaking trip, I mentioned that problem to my wife, Jennifer.

"You know what you should do," she said. "You should ask a question every night, and then publish the best answers in a book."

Now, Jennifer has always been a walking idea machine -- her new-business ideas could fill a Wharton School catalog. But this one hit me right between the eyes.

This, I thought, could be a really interesting social experiment -- and a darned entertaining book.

ABOUT THIS BOOK

And so it began. Every night, at about 11 p.m., I posed a new question to my followers on Twitter. "What's your million-dollar idea?" "What's your strangest habit?" "Make up a clever title for a sequel to a famous movie." (The time -- 11 p.m. -- was designed to maximize the number of people who'd be on Twitter: night-owls on the East Coast, after-dinner tweeters on the West Coast, and maybe even some early risers in Europe.)

Then, for the next two hours, I'd sit there on the couch, reading the replies and cackling like a deranged person.

But even then, nobody could see these responses except me. After a couple of nights, I couldn't resist: I began retweeting five of the best responses. That means rebroadcasting them, passing them on to my entire group of followers, so that everyone could see them.

I used the standard retweet format, where you begin the message by crediting the original author, like this:

RT @justinchamber: "Snakes in the Terminal"

(RT means "retweet," and the @ symbol denotes a Twitter name. For example, my address on Twitter is @pogue.)

I've never had so much fun putting together a book. Apparently, the Twitterverse public also enjoyed the ride; during the three months of Twitter-booking, I somehow picked up 495,000 more followers.

Not everyone was happy, however. Bloggers, who can always be counted on for snarky reactions to anything, were quick to pile on.

Two things seemed to bug them. First, that I'd be taking credit for a book that I didn't actually write. "Apparently the days of actually 'writing' a 'book' are slowly coming to an end," wrote one blogger. "You know, craft, art, substance, the actual minutiae that all go into making a book a piece of work."

Second, the bloggers feared that I'd get rich off my followers' brilliance: "If you, lucky you, end up being selected to be a part of Pogue's scam project, you get compensated, right? Of course you do. Per Pogue himself, he'll send you 'a free copy of the book, inscribed to you.' Oh, wow, lucky day!"

Hmm. Well, on the first point, compilations are nothing new; consider Zagat restaurant guides, Bartlett's Quotations, joke books, household-hints books. As long as the micro-contributors all participated willingly, I didn't see the problem.

On the compensation point -- well, this book's contributors knew the terms of the arrangement from the outset: If I include one of your tweets, you get an autographed copy of the book. And, as one participant noted, "I wrote 1 sentence and got a $13 book. That works out to $4,680 an hour. I'm OK with that."

In the end, I posed 95 questions. They generated over 25,000 responses. It took my editor and me weeks to winnow them down to the 2,524 winning tweets in this book. A book like this is typically shelved in the Humor section of the bookstore, but to my delight, it evolved into something that goes way beyond jokes. Here are life stories, greatest regrets, poems, brilliant inventions, advice for lovers, wry observations, hopes for the future, and words to live by . . . here's the whole world according to Twitter.

And a lot of great jokes.

As you'll soon see, this book's coauthors are some of the wittiest, sharpest, most interesting people on the Internet. They come from all over the world, they sleep in every conceivable time zone, they represent an astonishing range of life experiences.

And, thanks to the unique, real-time, communications channel called Twitter, they've successfully completed a massive collaborative experiment.

Too bad we'll never meet.

The above is an excerpt from the book The World According to Twitter by David Pogue. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2009 David Pogue, author of The World According to Twitter