Twitter's universe is expanding

  • Article by: RANDY A. SALAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 30, 2009 - 6:42 AM

The social network's reach goes far beyond its online confines.

Anyone who has ever doubted the usefulness of Twitter might want to check the latest news coming out of Iran. That's because much of what's happening in that media-restricted country is being reported by people there who are using the ubiquitous micro-blogging service to share their uncensored observations.

Twitter also gave us the breaking news that Kevin McHale was out as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, via the tweets of player Kevin Love. Even the White House is sending out regular tweets these days.

Twitter is more popular -- and relevant -- than ever in its brief history. Of course, with that popularity comes a host of things orbiting around the social network, where tweeple broadcast their messages to the world in 140 characters or less.

For example, Threadless has come out with a line of Twitter-inspired T-shirts (twitter.threadless.com; $18 each). Users nominate tweets, and the online community votes for the best. The winners, such as "I'm huge on Twitter," get emblazoned on a tee as part of the latest fashion trend.

But consider these other often-useful things that have sprouted on the, um, peripher-twee of Twitter.

Real-life meetings: Proving that Twitter isn't just an online social network, tweetups are get-togethers in which tweeps meet up in the real world, too. In fact, the Twin Cities faction, msptweetup (www.twitter.com/msptweetup), is gathering from 6 to 9 p.m. today at Great Waters Brewing in St. Paul. Co-organizer Ian Schwartz says tweetups aren't just about socializing; they also have given him useful contacts for his audio-production business, Studio Zero Seven. "Being able to make connections that you might not have made in the past is huge," he said.

Extra sensory detection: How about a device that automatically updates Twitter when a certain event happens? The Kickbee (www.twitter.com/Kickbee) is a sensor belt that wraps around a pregnant woman's belly and sends a message to Twitter whenever the baby kicks. Then there's the less practical Twittering Office Chair (www.instructables.com/id/The-Twittering-Office-Chair), a DIY contraption that sends an update whenever its seated occupant passes gas. Seriously.

Buzz tracking: Twitscoop (www.twitscoop.com) lets you see in real time what people are talking about at any given time on Twitter. It's a great way to monitor the pulse of pop culture and current events.

Bonus content: For when 140 characters aren't enough, there's Twitlonger (www.twitlonger. com). Through the Web portal, users can go over Twitter's limit and have a link posted to read the rest of their tweet. Twitpic (www. twitpic.com) works the same way to let tweeps post photos.

Easier shopping: A new service, RetrovoQ (www.twitter.com/retrevoq), could make gadget-buying more helpful. Use your cell phone to send a tweet to it that includes the brand and model, and RetrovoQ will reply instantly with whether the product is worth getting and how much you should pay. Cool.

Mock treatment: Of course, it's always easy to make fun of Twitter. First there was "Real Life Twitter," a hilarious send-up from College Humor (www.collegehumor.com/video:1909386). Now, "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien has joined the fray with his merciless "Twitter Tracker" (www.hulu.com/search?query=twitter+tracker and www.twitter-tracker.com), which lampoons inane celeb tweets. "That's definitely not worth all this excitement," he says, after hearing Reese Witherspoon's tweet that motherhood can be hard. Why the hate, Conan?

Cause awareness: When Web guru Drew Olanoff was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma, he came up with the idea of Blame Drew's Cancer (www.blamedrewscancer.com). Tweeps are asked to Blame Drew's Cancer -- by entering the term "#blamedrewscancer" -- whenever they tweet about bad or unhappy things. The tweets are then automatically displayed at Olanoff's website, which was inundated last week when Farrah Fawcett died. The goal is to get sponsors to donate $1 toward cancer research for each tweet.

Click here: Even spammers and hackers are taking advantage of the Twitter craze. "Your friend invited you to Twitter!" said one phishing e-mail I received recently. "To see who invited you, check the attachment." (Don't click on the attachment in any such e-mail.)

Too much information: You sometimes wonder whether people realize that their tweets can be read by the world. Whatever, Oversharers (www.oversharers.com) is there to spotlight those who say "really, really more than you want to know." Take, for instance, the North Dakota woman who tweeted: "Went tanning yesterday for a little too long. Now i'm burnt and I feel like my butt cheeks are on fire!!!!" Now, thanks to Oversharers, she's on a different hot seat.

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542

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