It's not something one readily admits to in the company of the geek elite, but prior to last week's South by Southwest I was something of a closet Twitter refusenik. Sure, I'd signed up along with everyone else back in 2006 and sent a few tentative tweets but I couldn't quite work out what all the fuss was about. Turning on mobile alerts didn't help and if anything, just cemented my view that it was an intrusive waste of time ('beep beep - X is having a sandwich' 'beep beep - Y is clipping their toenails'). Meh.
That all changed last week when Twitter played a major role in shaping my experience of SXSW. It started in Chicago airport when, waiting for a connecting flight, I exchanged Twitter handles with a bunch of fellow geeks, also on their way to Austin. Suddenly I was part of a mini community with a shared purpose and the tweets coming through felt super relevant and interesting ('X is talking in Room 8 right now and she's awesome' 'I'm grabbing some lunch at the Halcyon - anyone want to join me?').
Where previously I thought of Twitter as being like SMS or IM but more spammy, I started to see the benefits of its one-to-many format. It was possible to throw a thought out there, with people able to respond or not, without obligation - something which definitely isn't true of SMS or IM, where an unreplied to message usually goes down like a cup of cold sick. The beauty of apps such as Twitterific is that your friends' twittering becomes an almost ambient side-channel with you free to dip in a out as your time and interest allows.
Another interesting use of Twitter at SXSW was as a back-channel during the sessions, enabling attendees both within and without of a session to have a near real-time conversation about it (with well documented consequences in the case of the Zuckerberg keynote). Of course, the smarter session chairs pulled the back-channel up on screen so they could gauge the mood of the audience and respond accordingly.
Of course, Twitter isn't all joyous. Like any medium, it can be used for both good and not-so-good (someone should tell Doris Lessing, who somehow managed to get a Nobel prize without seemingly giving any serious thought to the medium/message blame equation). At the moment, however, the good far outweighs the bad and Twitter is shaping up to be a fascinating and complimentary new medium.
Tweet me @fabricoffolly.