Twitter emerges at Washburn

Travis Perry

One-hundred-and-forty characters is a small number, but it has been enough to make Twitter a big name in the social media universe.

The brainchild of Jack Dorsey, now Twitter Inc. board of directors chairman, the basic idea behind Twitter is for users to post messages, about the size of a standard text message, online from either their computer or mobile phone. Its popularity has grown exponentially since its inception in Aug. 2006, and ballooned to roughly 4.5 million users by the end of 2008.

But what exactly is so popular about Twitter, a social networking site that offers minimal features other than what some may call glorified status updates, and seems simple when compared to the online behemoth that is Facebook? Victoria Ukaoma, a senior at Washburn, says it is that simplicity which makes it so attractive.

“The drawback to a lot of these social networking sites is that you have so many applications you can add that it gets unorganized,” said Ukaoma, whose Twitter screen name is victoriau. “Twitter really sticks to keeping it simple and clean for everyone.”

Ukaoma is one of only a handful of Washburn students who have registered Twitter accounts, but says she finds Twitter to be an enjoyable experience simply because of how pliable that experience is.

“You don’t have to use it all the time to get better at it,” said Ukaoma. “With Facebook, if you’re off for a week and you get back on, there’s just so much stuff that gets built up.”

A mantra that has risen quickly is that Twitter is what the user chooses it to be. Whether the user wants his or her feed to be updates on family and friends, celebrities or breaking news from various media outlets around the globe, the experience is truly customizable.

The social networking site has established its claim to breaking information for quite a while now, from journalists such as Ron Sylvester, of the Wichita Eagle, posting real-time “tweets” while covering court cases to bloggers and videographers conversing at the massive interactive media conference South by Southwest. However, Dorsey’s creation smashed into the limelight with the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, India, which left 172 people dead in the aftermath of the massacre.

During the three-day-long siege of the city, many under attack posted first-hand updates of their experiences, cataloging miniscule bits and pieces of the massive event.

Chris Leach, director of finance for Washburn, clearly sees the benefits of such rapid breaking news, but because the information isn’t coming from a traditional media outlet, he’s taking it with a grain of salt.

“You’ve got to invest a little more time in ascertaining the credibility of the source,” said Leach, who operates a Twitter account for the university finance office (WUFO), which he describes as “a work in progress.”

While he operates his own personal account, Leach set up a feed for the finance office as yet another way to spread important information to students. WUFO tweets usually include some kind of update regarding important payment dates and finance office activity. At this time, WUFO only has 24 people following its updates, with roughly half of that number being WU students. So why does Leach persist? Simply put, he said, because it’s free.

“The cost-benefit is so good on it, it literally pays for itself if it helps one person,” said Leach, who added that until it shows negative results, he’s going to continue the account. “If [students] want it [the information], it’s there, they can grab it. I can’t push it to them.”

It is what you make it

While the instantaneous communication aspects of Twitter are obvious, it’s not simply limited to the ebb and flow of breaking news. Ukaoma said she has two brothers who utilize Twitter for two contrasting purposes. One, she said, is a realtor and uses the site to post information about various properties for sale, while the other is always on the look out for emerging hip hop artists and posts links to their music.

Leach, on the other hand, has tailored his personal Twitter feed to best suit his views. Through the use of “hashtags,” which utilize the “#” symbol followed by various taglines, users can further specify the type of tweets they wish to see. Essentially, Leach said this allows users to roll their own media feed.

In the end, he added, Twitter is something that a person must try to fully understand it.

“Having someone tell you about it doesn’t really describe it,” said Leach.