(First published: New Media Age, 17.05.07)

I got three points on my driving license because of Twitter. What can I say? I was driving. There was a speed camera. My phone started buzzing with the latest frenzied Twitters from the launch of the Apple iPhone. What could be my defence? “My Twitter feed made me speed, M’Lud”

Blogging never landed me in trouble with the law. So why has this new Web 2.0 service suddenly got everyone talking (and twittering) about Twitter?

First the basics. Twitter asks you to post “what you are doing” in 140 characters or less from either the site, instant message or mobile SMS and then it re-routes the “tweet” to whoever has subscribed to you. While you can limit this to just friends you know, most Twitterers make their tweets public. These range from the inane (“having a sandwich”) to the significant (“having a baby”). But the resulting deluge of often personal conversations held in public has even lead to the coining of a new term: “microblogging”. Now celebrities and even 2008 US presidential election candidate John Edwards has a Twitter page.

Twitter is apparently addictive. Drew Benvie, an early Twitter adopter and account director with Lewis PR, says: “In my first week using Twitter I was not able to walk in a straight line or make 20 yards without hitting a lamp post. I was hooked to my mobile.” His blogging social network had become cumbersome, “but Twitter had sparked it to life.”

He believes Twitter has “the potential to change the way consumers interact with one another through social networks,” with big implications for digital marketers. He thinks Twitter will take off in the UK because we’re SMS addicts and its much easier and faster than blogging.

Tom Hume, head of mobile applications developer Future Platforms, also likes Twitter’s minimalism: “It just seems to do one thing well”. Hume thinks Twitter is demonstrating the value of “expressive presence”, a concept which is likely to last longer than Twitter itself and is rapidly being added to the business plans of social media sites the world over.

Of course, there are Titter sceptics. Alfie Dennan, co-founder of MoblogUK says: “I’ve found it annoying and intrusive to instant messenger and also it’s annoying on email. The constant updates on it are complete rubbish.”

But despite those put off by the inanity of most Twitter posts, the concept has spread like wildfire. Social network Facebook recently upgraded its ‘status’ updates to do a similar thing to Twitter and now Bebo has launched a similar feature. SMS functionality for both sites can not be far off. The Europe-wide Jaiku.com, based in Helsinki, has a similar service to Twitter which is heavily mobile oriented. Germany, for one, has gone literally mad for Twitter, with at last count five startups copying Twitter’s business model. Some even now say Skype could incorporate such a service.

But Twitter is also experiencing growing pains. Julian Bond, a veteran UK social web application developer with Ecademy.com, says Twitter is having trouble deal with its growth, and: “Twitter is really pretty nasty for replies, dialogues and group conversations. It’s been quite laughable watching people try to use the “@name” convention to kludge round this.”

Twitter will also need to make money out of all this messaging at some point. According to eBiquity Research Group at the University of Maryland, there are on average over 40,000 public tweets each hour, many of them not just Instant messages SMS which needs to be paid for. Currently it is funded by its Obvious.com, owned by the wealthy founder of Blogger.com, Evan Williams. So will Twitter join the line of startups knocking on Google’s door waiting to be bought?

Biz Stone, an engineer at Obvious, and a co-founder of Twitter is nonchalant. “We’re very happy with this growth” he says. “SMS is one way that messages are sent and received via Twitter – other ways include over the web and using IM. Paying SMS fees is part of what we consider the cost of running this business.”

Stone says they are “considering options” on how to create revenues. For now the focus is is on growth and new features. When revenue model arrives it’ll be implemented with “a strong regard for what our users want,” he says.

Observers in the mobile advertising space are also wondering where Twitter will head. Richard Marshall, CEO of Rapid Mobile, which develops a mobile advertising platform, suggests that a random Twitter post about coffee “Sponsored by Starbucks” might be possible, but could well have a negative impact for the brand. He suggests that some brands will – unwisely – start to to pretend to be users and post in product related Twitters anonymously, known as ‘Astroturfing’ on the web.

Amelia Torode, head of digital strategy at VCCP, says “serving specific ads like gmail” might be a possible route, but sponsorship might be another route, where “brands *give* you free twitters for a day. Friday twitters could be brought to you in association with Coca Cola for example.”

Robin Grant, emerging media specialist at agency CMW Interactive wonders if “at this early stage, how marketers can sensibly exploit this highly personal new medium, aside from cheekily using Twitter’s API as a free SMS gateway.”

And perhaps this is a hint of what the future holds. Stone says it is essentially a “device agnostic message routing system. Mobile phones, API clients, IM, and the Web are all devices in the eyes of Twitter.” Steve Bowbrick, new media veteran and Twitter afficionado says that’s a major factor: “People are going to build businesses on top of it, just as they’re doing now on top of Google and other web 2.0 businesses.”

Certainly after Twitter released a simple open API, a plethora of applications have appeared. Twittervision.com superimposes public Twitters onto a Google map. Twitterholic.com is a site which tracks the popularity of Twitterers. TwitterVerse displays shows what Twitterers are doing today. TwitterBuzz shows what they are linking to. The list of applications is booming.

This innovation is already extending to marketing offers. “Woot.com on Twitter in the US sends people relevant deals they’ve opted in to receive, and there’s no reason eBay couldn’t do the same,” says Andy Wasef, strategist with Mediaedge:cia‘s mec:interaction division. “There’s also the location-based elements… By sharing their location to people based on GPS, targeted opt-in messages could be supplied to them.”

He thinks that if Twitter turns out to be more than “another digital fad… [then] there’ll be quite a few marketers looking at how they can utilise it. A lot of the heavy Twitter users are influencers and opt-in to receive messages relevant to them.”

In the meantime, most observers are simply sitting back and wondering at both the inane and the sometimes beguiling public Twittering going on. And the points on my license? Put it this way, I’ve served my time. Now, where was that Twitter feed…

• A Brief history of Twitter

Twitter, Inc. was born out of the offices of Obvious in March of 2006, a 10-person start-up in San Francisco called Obvious lead by Evan Williams, the well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur who in the 1990s co-founder helped build Blogger.

How it works:

Twitter is a little like a MySpace-style community. You register your profile, but as well as posting your updates on the site, you add your instant messaging and mobile phone details. Twitter essentially asks that you post “what you are doing” in 140 characters or less. Your Twitter page includes everything posted by you and your conversations with your Twitter friends. Twitter is mainly a one-to-many medium. Although you can message people directly, most rarely do.

Key features:

You can update you Twitter page from the site itself, IM or SMS, or via a number of third party applications and widgets. Once registered you can follow anyone’s public tweets an have these sent to your prefered device. Plenty of news services now offer Twitter feeds, including the BBC and Al Jazeera News, though some more officially than others. It’s also possible to “subscribe” to service updates about the tube lines in London.

Other leading services offering similar functions

Bebo and Facebook were among the first social networks to allow people to ‘microblog’ their ‘current status’. Although Twitter is available almost globally, Germany seems to have taken it to heart as there are several clones including Frazr.com, Wamadu, Faybl, 1you, Sloggen, and Partnr.de. There are no Twitter clones in the UK, so far.