randysalas @neilhimself I'm writing about Twitter basics for the Mpls. Star Tribune. Citing you as a notable example. So ... why do you Twitter?

neilhimself @randysalas Why Twitter? To connect, I think. Initially just with friends, and now with the world. And I'm fascinated by what it may become.

When bestselling author Neil Gaiman recently won the top prize in children's literature, one of the first things he did was to tell his 32,000 followers on Twitter about the honor. Like all people who use the Internet's hot social-networking tool, "neilhimself" kept it short in his "tweet":

"neilhimself About to drink second cup of tea without Marmalade this morning. Also, I just won the Newbery Medal for THE GRAVEYARD BOOK."

Gaiman, who lives near the Twin Cities in western Wisconsin, is one of about 6 million people who use Twitter as a form of micro-blogging. In open-ended text messages of 140 or fewer characters, they continually answer the question, "What are you doing?"

So many followers want to know the answer that Twitter (www.twitter.com) has moved from the 22nd most popular social-networking website a year ago to No. 3 today -- behind only Facebook and MySpace, according to Compete.com.

"I'm really fascinated by Twitter," said Betty Shin, 25, a student at Normandale Community College in Bloomington. Shin, who considers herself a Twitter neophyte, began tweeting last summer under the user name betty952. She says she loved it right away because, unlike texting, it's a more casual way of communicating with no obligation to read or reply.

That is Twitter's grand appeal, says power user Andrew Korf, 40, a user experience architect at Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis who joined Twitter in "the early days" -- two years ago. It's a concept called "ambient intimacy," a term coined by online researcher Leisa Reichelt.

"It means you can follow or be somewhat intimate with people without needing to directly engage them," said Korf, who has 486 followers under the user name andrewkorf.

For example, Gaiman didn't have time for an interview by phone or e-mail for this article, but when sent a tweet, he replied from his travels in England within an hour. (His reply, above, was exactly 140 characters.)

Shin has 60 followers on Twitter and is following 82, including celebrities such as Dane Cook and Yoko Ono. In turn, Ono is following Shin. Ironically, Shin has never listened to Ono's music but admires her avant-garde art and activism, which is often the subject of her tweets, along with peace and good vibes.

"I just love her, and she's doing good things -- humanitarian things -- such as Twestival," Shin said.

That event, held Feb. 12 in 202 cities worldwide, raised $250,000 to help bring drinking water to developing countries. Korf and Shin helped put on the Twin Cities version at Minneapolis restaurant moto-i. It was all coordinated through Twitter.

But there's more to Twitter than hobnobbing virtually with celebrities and promoting charities. Besides people, users can follow organizations to get updates on, say, the daily specials at a local pizza shop or headlines from the Star Tribune. They can keep up on government issues through tweets from President Obama and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. There are always friends and family members to stay in touch with, too.

Among the 475 people whom Korf follows on Twitter, many share his professional interest in Web design and computers, and some are leaders in the field. Through their tweets, he gets the latest industry news filtered through the lens of an expert.

"I couldn't imagine not having it at this point," Korf said. "Twitter is unmatched in providing really relevant, really current information, whatever your area of interest is."

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542