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Twitter's small but perfectly formed

Twitter's small but perfectly formed

If you've never been shown a Twitter account, don't fret.

First, business people were asked to come to terms with the world wide web and email. Then we had to get our minds around MySpace and Facebook and blogging. Now along comes Twitter, current king of the microblogging tools. At least a couple of times a day we're asked what it is and what it's for.

Think of Times Square with its ocean of billboards and imagine that anyone in the street could claim a board and send short text messages to it. Passers by might be gratified to look up and learn that Jimi loves Janet or that Bob X is munching on a burger.

Basically, that's Twitter. An army of tweeters post messages up to 140 characters long to a personal online billboard that passers by can subscribe to, if the mood takes them.

The original idea was that users would post notes on what they were doing at different times of the day. Predictably the service is now used for much more than that. Individuals post their random thoughts. New parents chronicle the early weeks of their pride and joy. News services post updates and links, and scammers are now posting rip-off schemes. It was only a matter of time.

If you've never been shown a Twitter account, don't fret. It's mostly dross, possibly engaging for friends of the teens who spend their days tapping out highly abbreviated epistles. But this is a subscription-based system, and members only see tweets from sources they choose to follow.

We subscribe to some specialist news services that add real value to our day. Simplicity of subscribing and unsubscribing set microblogging apart from email. If a source of tweets loses your interest it's just a matter of selecting it and clicking "stop following".

The highly constrained format is also a plus. In an age where many email correspondents seem to pride themselves on verbosity, Twitter imposes rigorous discipline. A post can include a web link if you really need to say more but otherwise it's 140 characters and no more. And it's all text, with no images or fancy fonts.

This discipline gives rise to business possibilities. The business boom in conventional phone SMS is counter-intuitive, given that an SMS costs a thousand times as much as an email to send and must normally be pecked out on a tiny keyboard.

We're convinced that many people think it's worth 20¢ a pop to force others to deal with them by a medium that won't brook wordy responses. A lot can be said in 140 characters by a focused mind.

With the rise of the smartphone, Twitter has gone mobile. The Apple App Store, for instance, offers a range of Twitter clients but our favourite is Tweetie.

Tell it the log-in and password for your account, set up at www.twitter.com and in a couple of minutes it will pull down the posts you're following each time you open the application.

You can post from your phone as well, of course, and give other folks the joy of following you. Alone with our thoughts on the morning train, we sometimes reach out to cyberspace with some deep and meaningful tweet.

An account can be made private so that only approved followers can get on board. As an alternative to email for closed groups like project teams, it works well. We'd never entrust to it any communications that require a permanent record under corporate control, but for relatively lightweight messaging, anything that keeps a group in step and doesn't involve another dozen emails a day is welcome.

Anything on the net with a use inevitably attracts abusers as well. It's easy to impersonate someone, and many tweeters do. Junk tweets are becoming common. Embedded links to malicious websites abound, Nigerian scam tweets too. All the old rules about talking to strangers and not opening unexpected packages indiscriminately apply, with a major twist.

Microblogging via a smartphone isn't protected by the same kind of sophisticated antivirus protection as most desktops. A visit to a harmful site won't trigger any alarms.

Even the law has caught up with internet short messaging. This month the English High Court was persuaded to allow an anonymous and mischievous Twitter impersonator to be served with court documents the only way they can be reached - by tweet.

Peter Moon is a partner in Logie-Smith Lanyon Lawyers.

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