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The Twitchhiker – The Power and Pain of Twitter

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David Silversmith
David Silversmith

For the last month the Twitchhiker has tweeted his way around the world and made it all the way from the United Kingdom to New Zealand. His travels have shown the amazing power of Twitter as a way for people to communicate - but with power comes a dark side too.

But before going to the dark side, let me catch everybody up. If you have never heard of Twitter than you need to know that "Twitter allows users to post 140-character messages either online or from their mobile phones and to monitor other users' updates as needed." To give you an idea of what 140 characters means - I just defined Twitter in 140 characters.

A few weeks back, Paul Smith came up with the idea of using the goodwill of Twitterers to travel as far as he could in 30 days. He came up with his own set of rules - he only communicates via Twitter; his travel plans cannot be determined more than three days in advance; he pays for food, drink and anything else that fits in his backpack, but otherwise, he relies on the charity of his fellow Twitterers; and his goal is to reach the spot on Earth that is farthest from his home city - New Zealand's sub-Antarctic Campbell Island. Highlighting the reach of Twitter, Smith is currently in New Zealand though it remains to be seen if he makes it to the remote Campbell Island.

This experiment with twichhiking focuses my attention on two issues with Twitter – reliability and privacy. Reliability is more of a technical issue and privacy is more of a social issue.

Reliability has been an Achilles heel for many Internet businesses and Twitter far more than many. The Twitter whale is a well known logo to any Twitterer. During Mr. Smith’s March trip Twitter has had several multi-hour outages. Twitter, along with MySpace and Facebook, highlights how so many people have become to depend on free services with questionable reliability. These outages slowed Smith down – but an extended outage could have grounded him.

While reliability is a risk, it’s privacy that really gets me worried. Now Smith is an adult, a freelance writer, who I am sure will soon be writing articles if not a book about his experience so I don’t worry about him. We’ve had too many instances of sexual predators trying to reach kids over the Internet in chat rooms. But Twitter takes it a step further as people, all too often teenagers, text where they are at, what they are wearing and where they are going next. What more can a criminal ask for! I’m quite surprised nobody has stolen all of Mr. Smiths’ belongings – after all, the entire whole world knows his name, his home town and that he is most certainly not at his flat this month.

“Mr. Smith goes to New Zealand” has been fun to watch – but I’m hoping not to see any sequels. Let’s figure out better uses for those 140 characters.

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