Confessions of a tweet addict
I admit it. I'm addicted to Twitter. Like many others, the first time I heard about this 'social networking tool', my initial response was, "What's the point?"
It was in spring 2006, at the end of a journalism fellowship in the US. "Try it," urged Jeb Sharp, a radio journalist. "It's cool. You can update friends about what you're thinking or doing and you have to do it in 140 characters or less."
Out of curiosity, I made myself a Twitter account. The whole thing seemed a bit silly. The Twitter icon is a little blue bird. The messages you post are called 'tweets'. It all sounds very fluffy and twittery. And why create a Twitter account if you have Facebook?
So my Twitter account just sat around until last year. I would occasionally post the odd tweet but what really sucked me into it was something my techie friend, Jehan Ara, introduced me to, while we were waiting to board a plane at Karachi airport. We had our laptop computers and wi-fi access, and I saw this application on her screen. As she explained it, suddenly, Twitter made sense.
It's called Tweetdeck. You can download it to your computer and it opens in its own browser-like window. Every time someone you 'follow' posts a tweet, or tags you, a little sound alerts you (if you find it distracting, you can de-activate it). The window, with several columns, is like a long Excel document; you can scroll left or right. One column might contain your timeline - your tweets, and those posted by people you follow. Another column might be dedicated to 'mentions', so you can see who is re-tweeting or tagging you with something for your attention. One column can have direct messages (DM) that are private and don't appear on your timeline - only people you follow can DM you.
Once I could see which of my posts had been re-tweeted, and who had messaged me, Twitter became more interactive and interesting.
I learnt that you can set up columns to follow something you're particularly interested in, say the floods that hit Pakistan barely two months later. I set up a column for the 'hash-tag' #Pkfloods, collating all the posts hash-tagged #Pkfloods. This proved to be a gold mine of information and a great way to coordinate relief efforts.
When the Egypt uprising began, 'tweeps' (as Twitter folks are called - yes, I know, it's silly) following #Egypt or #Jan25 - the date on which the uprising started - were getting blow-by-blow accounts of happenings there, often before the news channels reported them.
These days, it's #Libya.
Not surprisingly, the most 'trending' topics usually have to do with mindless entertainment - like the teen idol Justin Bieber or whatever. But as I write this, #Gaddafi is also trending as #Jan25 was some days ago.
So what? Well, it's another way of disseminating information, faster and more interactively.
Social networking or tweeting will never replace on-the-ground activism, but in today's digital world it can certainly trigger off that activism, as Egypt showed. It would be unfair to dismiss what happened there as a Facebook or Twitter revolution because even when Mubarak turned off all internet and cellphone connections, Egyptians kept pouring into Tahrir Square until there were so many that the dictator had no choice but to leave. But Twitter proved to be a powerful tool for getting the word out. Even major news channels quoted tweets from Tahrir to give viewers a flavour of what was happening.
Politicians and government functionaries on Twitter are more accessible and accountable. Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was a wonderful presence on Twitter, with an abundance of wit and political insights. His Twitter account is kept alive and so is the issue of his murder, to a far wider, global community than if the issue were restricted to local news channels.
My colleague Vidyadhar Gadgil of Himal Southasian in Kathmandu posted a cartoon on his Facebook account, with the comment: "As often before, Dilbert makes things clear. Now I know why I sometimes log on to social networking sites - it has become a job requirement."