What is Twitter and why we should want to know

As familiar as I am with some dimensions of blogging, I am rather more unfamiliar with other personal networking technologies.

For example, what is TWITTER, anyway?

I got interested on knowing about this whole twitter thing because of the following CNN story:

Student ‘Twitters’ his way out of Egyptian jail

By Mallory Simon

(CNN) — James Karl Buck helped free himself from an Egyptian jail with a one-word blog post from his cell phone.  [Something I think we might all find useful!]

 Buck, a graduate student from the University of California-Berkeley, was in Mahalla, Egypt, covering an anti-government protest when he and his translator, Mohammed Maree, were arrested April 10.

On his way to the police station, Buck took out his cell phone and sent a message to his friends and contacts using the micro-blogging site Twitter.

The message only had one word. "Arrested."

Within seconds, colleagues in the United States and his blogger-friends in Egypt — the same ones who had taught him the tool only a week earlier — were alerted that he was being held.

Twitter is a social-networking blog site that allows users to send status updates, or "tweets," from cell phones, instant messaging services and Facebook in less than 140 characters.

Hossam el-Hamalawy, a Cairo-based blogger at UC-Berkeley, was one of the people who got word of Buck’s arrest.

"At first I was worried about his safety," el-Hamalawy said.

Then, el-Hamalawy took to the Web and wrote regular updates in his own blog to spread the information Buck was sending by Twitter. Nobody was sure how long Buck would be able to communicate.

 But Buck was able to send updates every couple of hours saying he was still detained, he had spoken to the prosecutor, he still had not been charged, and he was worried about Maree.

"Usually the first thing the police go for is the detainees’ cameras and cellular phones," el-Hamalawy said. "I’m surprised they left James with his phone."

Twitter is normally used to keep groups of people connected in less urgent situations.

But Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, said he and others knew that the service could have wide-reaching effects early on, when the San-Francisco, California-based company used it to communicate during earthquakes.

Stone said that as the service got more popular, they began to hear stories of people using Twitter during natural disasters with a focus on activism and journalism.

Buck’s urgent message is proof of the value of Twitter, Stone said. Buck’s entry set off a chain of events that led to his college hiring a lawyer on his behalf.

"James’ case is particularly compelling to us because of the simplicity of his message — one word, ‘arrested’ — and the speed with which the whole scene played out," Stone said. "It highlights the simplicity and value of a real-time communication network that follows you wherever you go."

Initially, the Twitter message was a precaution — something people could trace in case anything went wrong, Buck said.

"The most important thing on my mind was to let someone know where we were so that there would be some record of it … so we couldn’t [disappear]," Buck said. "As long as someone knew where we were, I felt like they couldn’t do their worst [to us] because someone, at some point, would be checking in on them."

Buck began using Twitter as a way to keep up in touch with the bloggers at the heart of his project and the events going on in Egypt that he intended to cover. Buck was working on a multimedia project on Egypt’s "new leftists and the blogosphere" as part of his master’s degree thesis.

Buck found out from a Twitter message that a planned protest against rising food prices and decreasing wages in Mahalla had been shut down by Egyptian authorities April 6.

The next day, tensions rose as family and friends of protesters who had been detained took to the streets, eventually throwing Molotov cocktails and setting tires on fire, he said.

On April 10, Buck returned to Mahalla, where protests continued.

"I was worried about getting arrested, so I made sure to stay at a distance from the protest so there was no way I could be accused of being part of it," Buck said. "Mohammed and I had a bad sense; it was really tense."

When the men tried to escape, they were detained. That’s when Buck thought of Twitter and sent out his message.

Buck and Maree were interrogated, released and then detained again by the same police officers.

"We are really worried that we are off the radar now," Buck said.

Eventually Buck was released, but Maree was transferred to another police station.

As he left the station, Buck reached into his pocket, as he did less than 24 hours earlier.

Another one-word blog entry said it all: "Free."

As happy as he was to be free, Buck said, his biggest frustration was leaving behind the translator who helped protect him during the riots.

Although the Twitter message helped him find contacts to get out of prison, he says it was more the power of the network he had as an American that enabled him to be released so quickly.

"Mohammed was sitting next to me," he said. "But he didn’t have the network to call. I tried to use my network to shield him until they tore us apart."

Twitter may not have been able to secure Maree’s release, but Buck hopes his initial reason for using Twitter will help find his missing friend.

"It was my big hope that people would get [the message] right away and at least put a thumbtack on the map as far as our location," Buck said.

There has been no official confirmation regarding Maree’s whereabouts.

Attiya Shakran, press counsel for the Egyptian Consulate in San Francisco, said Maree was released April 13.

Maree’s brother Ahmed Maree said that he had not heard from his brother and that he believes he is still in jail.

Government officials in Egypt could neither confirm nor deny Maree’s release, despite repeated requests for comment.

Buck is now using his story and Twitter page as a way to rally people looking for answers about Maree’s status. He’s gone as far as publishing the phone number of the press counsel of the Egyptian Consulate in San Francisco and posting a petition for Maree’s release.

For Buck, the main story is no longer about his quest for freedom from jail; it’s a quest to find answers and, eventually, find his friend.

And I hope he does.

But the fact remains, I think we could use some discussion of Twitter.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Shin says:

    A moving story, which almost makes me wish I used a cellphone more often.

    But not quite, since I’m not travelling the world it’s not necessary and I like to be a little more free from the many charges associated with such devices.

  2. FrWithFaculties says:

    I could twitter, “Denied right to say private mass in Springfield(fictitious diocese)” and bloggers could storm the local chancery with calls allowing me to open the doors to faithful in minutes!

  3. Maureen says:

    It’s a good service for people who don’t want to blog, or who just want to provide their friends with little updates on what’s going on. For example, when Dom Bettinelli’s second daughter was coming, he kept using Twitter to talk about baby status.

    It’s also a very good medium for storytelling.

  4. So… how many of you twitter?

  5. JustDave says:

    I have a twitter account, but I rarely twitter. I use it more to follow blog/podcast personalities that I am interested in. The people over at Rosary Army use it to keep their listeners up to date on when there is a new show being recorded (they stream it live on Ustream. They have also set up a prayer request twitter account that people can use to request prayers. I think it is very useful if you have a large audience that you want to keep updated or mobilize to action on something important.

    Fr. Z: There is no doubt in my mind that if you created a twitter account and let people know about it, that a large group of people would follow your twitter posts. That might be useful to you as a communication tool.


  6. FloridaJohn says:

    I had a Twitter account but because I don’t have any friends who use it, it became a bore reading other people’s twits. Besides, there is a lot of foul language being propagated on the network. It reminds me of CB Radio. That started out great for communication between home & car but after awhile the airwaves got so bad with filthy language and over-crowded that it became useless for plain chat.

  7. AMDG says:

    Stealth trumps twitter every time. Do we NEED to be this connected and to update and each others every breath and so on? This, like so many other social networking sites are just more and ingenious ways to isolate and separate and disctract people under the guise of useful and cool etc.

    So, the adolescent can message one another… They can’t focus on much else for very long nor can their short screeds ever serve the exercise of our highest faculty, the intellect. Social networking is replacing consumerism as the most insidious post-modern plague. Will they grow out of it? TBD

    I understand the concept of these sites but not sure how they serve humanity positively. This CNN story amounts to so much marketing. Viral marketing – there is a “web 2.0” concept.

    CB Radio… GREAT comparison ‘cept with far superior tech.

    Know that are many who read this blog who could contribute significantly to the discussion. Marcus?

  8. Mark M says:

    I too have a Twitter account. I used to “tweet” (post) on it, but fell out of the habit; I sometimes use it to keep up with Tech-savvy Catholic friends, and local chit-chat.

  9. Maureen says:

    I don’t have a cellphone yet, so I don’t need Twitter. WordPress does have audio post capabilities, I guess, but I’ve only used them once or twice.

  10. I am on Twitter. It is nice in the sense of how instant messaging is different from a phone conversation. You have your group of friends, some in different circles and you’re all “connected” yet it doesn’t require a dedicated line of communication. I think it’s great.

    I still use Twitter and have over 5500 tweets. Many Catholics are on it and even some Catholic “celebrities” like Greg ( http://twitter.com/GregWillits ) and Jennifer ( http://twitter.com/JenniferWillits ) Willits of the RosaryArmy.com site and podcasts, as well as Fr Roderick Vonhogen (http://twitter.com/fatherroderick/) of SQPN.com. There are other ones on there also that I found that are podcasters and those into “new media” for content delivery, even Catholic bloggers too, like http://twitter.com/nunblogger or http://twitter.com/franciscat.

    http://twitter.com/unixfudotnet is my twitter account. It’s a valuable resource. It is low effort social networking, yet highly flexible for adding content.

  11. James says:

    There is too much technology to keep up with today. Maybe it seems like a fun gadget, but the question is will it really help your particular mission? Father Z, I can barely keep up with your blog and all the other Catholic ones too, plus EWTN. I weaned myself from a cell phone addiction a few years ago; please don’t make me have to buy another cell phone so I can get your tweets! :-)

  12. I post bits of nonsense on my own blog using Twitter rather than one of the other phone-to-blog applications, but nobody I know actually uses the service him- or herself.

  13. Mac McLernon says:

    You can put a twitter gadget on your blog page – as Mark from Rise and Pray has done – and people can see it without a mobile phone…

  14. Mac: I could if I had a template that uses widgets. That is the next step.

  15. Mary Rose says:


    I’m not sure if this link will take you directly to the code, but I discovered a site, Widgipedia, that lists widgets for Blogger. Here is the link:


    Do a search (top left box) for “Twitter” and you’ll get the code. You can then copy and paste into Blogger under Page Elements, and add the “HTML/Java Script” element.

    Hope that works for you. Sounds like a nifty widget. :-)

  16. Mary: This present theme does NOT work with widgets.

  17. Mary Rose says:


    Do you use WordPress? My apologies, then. For some reason, I thought you used Blogger and I don’t know why because this blog doesn’t have the Blogger banner above the page. (I need more coffee!!)

    If you use WordPress, this may work (or not):

    WordPress Widgets


    Automattic WordPress Widgets

    The second link has some information on “Widgetizing Themes.”

    Now off to bake my homemade cinnamon rolls. Maybe someday I’ll send you some! :-D

  18. Jeff Miller says:

    I twitter with the username CurtJester and there are plenty of Catholics, including bloggers and podcasters on Twitter.

  19. Mary: I have tried to widgetize this theme before. I have had no success.

  20. Mark M says:

    Mac: I took down the Twitter thing yonks back, but you’re right – it’s simple JS code; doesn’t even require a “widget”…

  21. Mary Rose says:

    I just watched the video on Twitter’s site. Some guy is moving paper figure cut-outs around and talking about the people who care about us want to know “the little things that happen in life.”

    I’ve been reading this blog for less than a month. I’d say it most definitely isn’t about “the little things in life” but rather the big stuff. Sure, there’s humor and the occasional mention of food and wine. But I can’t see putting one of the Pope’s speeches on Twitter.

    You’re a meaty-type, Fr. Z. Twitter seems a bit like…well, Flutter to me. But then again, you may just want to use Twitter to say, “Someone just gave me a bottle of Ridge 2003 California Montebello as a gift! Molto grazie!

  22. Mary: But then again, you may just want to use Twitter to say, “Someone just gave me a bottle of Ridge 2003 California Montebello as a gift!

    Oh… yes! I will certainly let people know about that!

  23. Lisa, sfo says:

    >>>Christopher Humphries: It’s a valuable resource. It is low effort social networking, yet highly flexible for adding content.

    Yes, everything that Christopher said! At first, I was extremely skeptical of Twitter — looked like a lot of boring chatter. And who would possibly be interested in anything I had to “tweet” about, anyway?

    Then after a friend strong-armed me into giving it a try (I’m on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/franciscat ), I became hooked. I now use Twitter more than site feeds to see what’s new, and it’s given me the opportunity to meet and get to know bunches of wonderful folks I otherwise wouldn’t have. (Christopher being one of ’em! :::waves hello:::) And for folks I already knew, it enabled me to get to know them even better.

    For some really splendid explanations of just what in heck Twitter is all about and why it’s worth using, see the following:

    Common Craft: Twitter in Plain English
    Wired magazine: Clive Thompson on How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense

  24. Mike Kuypers says:

    Twitter is even usual for a housebound person such as myself. It keeps me in contact with my many online friends, it keeps me up on events (such as live uStream shows), and even allows me to request prayers anonymously (http://twitter.com/prayers). It has proved quite a blessing.

  25. I’ve been using Twitter for about a year now even though I resisted at first. First, to clear up one misconception: You don’t need a cell phone. While it works great with one, many people use one of the many Twitter computer programs.

    Second, Twitter is not like CB radio and you don’t have to put up with filthy language because you only read the tweets of people you specifically follow. If you don’t like what they’re saying, then unfollow.

    Third, you don’t need a widget to put your tweets on your blog. It’s a simple bit of javascript, not unlike the Amazon search box.

    Twitter is what you make of it. It doesn’t have to be just “I’m eating a cheese sandwich.” You can make it as substantive as 140 characters will allow (tweets can only be up to 140 characters.) It does encourage brevity, which we know is the soul of wit.

    You can use it as a headline service like CNN does. You can use it to post links to interesting stories you come across that don’t deserve a full blog post. You can post live comments from events as you experience them (like I do when I tweet among friends as we watch sporting events together, separated by many miles).

    You can even follow the Pope on his journey to the US, if someone decides to post headlines during the trip, a la “Pope Benedict XVI”.

  26. Lisa, sfo says:

    Oh! I forgot to mention another helpful article about Twitter:

    Scobleizer: The secret to Twitter
    “[T]he secret to Twitter isn’t how many followers you have, but how many people you are following.”

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