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How Tweet It Is

Of course, not only is there no assurance that Twitter is going to be to instant communication what Google is to search, there’s no guarantee that this kind of instant communication is going to go as mainstream as search did. (Ask Dodgeball, the now-defunct Twitter-esque, what-bar-is-my-friend-at service that was once a hot item but was ultimately used by about 25 drunken bloggers to meet up on the Lower East Side.) At a certain point, even people who don’t spend all day at their desk surfing the web signed up for Facebook. It was so easy to use. It’s difficult to imagine the same people loading photos to TwitPic, attending meet-ups, and tapping out constant updates to “followers.” Williams is aware of this. Just ask his mom.

“We’ve heard time and time again: ‘I really don’t get it. Why would anyone use it?’ ” Williams says. “Often, three or six months later, they’ll say they love it. But obviously a lot of people don’t get to that six months later. People have to engage themselves, on their own.”

To its loyal users, Twitter is an invaluable part of their daily lives, and they don’t want it futzed with. But so far there aren’t enough of them. Will Twitter lose something as it becomes a massive, universally accepted fact of life? Any politician can tell you that you shouldn’t alienate your base. How big is Twitter’s base? Enough to believe in? Enough to rest the hopes of a company and a whole industry on?

That is to say: Are we really becoming a nation of people who reflexively share information with everyone the minute we have it? We might be. Twitter has no choice but to hope so. They might be right.

The first day I was in the Twitter office, I sat in the corner, playing with my own Twitter page, taking notes (it feels somewhat silly to write in a notebook there), and waiting to talk to Williams. For lunch, executives, including Stone, hosted programmers in the lounge to talk about some sort of open-source mumbo jumbo I didn’t understand. Their HD television was tuned to a still photo of a fireplace. They were wrapped up in the meeting. I attended to my computer.

And then I noticed something on Twitter Search. The first person was “manolantern,” who, at 12:33 local time, posted, “I just watched a plane crash into the hudson rive (sic) in manhattan.” After that, the updates were unceasing. Some fifteen minutes before the New York Times had a story on its website (and some fifteen hours before it had one in print), Twitter users who witnessed the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 were giving me updates in real time. One of them was a man named Janis Krums. Krums lives in Sarasota, Florida, and happened to be on a ferry navigating the Hudson when the plane hit the water. He immediately took a photo and posted it to TwitPic and sent a “tweet” with a link to the picture and “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.” He then, perhaps coming to his senses, began to help passengers off the plane. (He ended up giving his phone to one of them and didn’t get it back until that night.)

Now think about that for a second. In the midst of chaos—a plane just crashed right in front of him!—Krums’s first instinct was to take a picture and load it to the web. There was nothing capitalistic or altruistic about it. Something amazing happened, and without thinking, he sent it out to the world. And let’s say he hadn’t. Let’s say he took this incredible photo—a photo any journalist would send to the Pulitzer board—and decided to sell it, said he was hanging onto it for the highest bidder. He would have been vilified by bloggers and Twitterers alike. His is a culture of sharing information. This is the culture Twitter is counting on. Whatever your thoughts on its ability to exist outside the collapsing economy or its inability (so far) to put a price tag on its services, that’s a real thing. That’s the instinct Stone was talking about. If the nation has tens of millions of people like Krums, that’s a phenomenon. That’s what Twitter is waiting for.

Of course, no one at Twitter noticed any of this going on. This is the New Communication. There was no screaming and running through a newsroom, dispatching any reporter in the vicinity to the scene. For an hour, the boring open-source meeting droned on. No one in the room knew a plane had crashed. The next day, Stone would tell me that the site didn’t even get a traffic spike. “That’s only for huge shared experiences, like the inauguration, or Mumbai.” Twitter had unleashed something … and its executives were completely unaware, as its system worked on its own, without them. That might be what the future holds for Twitter. Or it might not be. It all depends on whether you’re willing to wait for something that might not come. It all depends on whether you’re willing to believe.

On his personal blog, Krums, five days before the crash, posted that one of his goals for 2009 was to “Have over 1000 followers on Twitter,” adding, “this goal has no real purpose other that to prove that I can do it. It will make me feel better about myself.” Needless to say, after the crash, it worked: He’s at more than 4,000.

He lost one, though, a week after the crash: Me. I don’t know Krums, and I don’t need to hear about his attempts to lose weight or what he thought of that night’s episode of The Office. He was getting kind of boring. Thanks for the photo, though, and for not making me pay for it.