You might not consider Labour deputy leadership contender Alan Johnson the most likely person to embrace the latest social networking trend. But according to his campaign team, Johnson is not only the fi rst UK politician to be sending out Twitter updates, he was nearly the fi rst in the world.
"I had the idea for Alan to use Twitter back at the start of January, long before John Edwards started to use it for his [US] presidential bid," says Stuart Bruce, Johnson's head of PR. "Unfortunately, he started before we were ready."
So how does Johnson fi t in among the 8m "tweets" (short Twitter messages) sent worldwide so far? At the time of writing, twitter.com/johnson4deputy reports the last time he update he was " Heading off to Leeds after a really successful campaign launch. 65 PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] supporters already declared ..." You can almost hear the bandwagon rolling.
It is one of 50-odd updates, shared with a rapidly growing number of "friends" (personally invited to keep in touch) and "followers" (who have chosen to see his Twitter feed) since March 10. The number will be growing fast, with the deputy leadership race in full swing following John Prescott's resignation last week.
21st century PR
But as a 21st-century piece of PR, it certainly beats Hazel Blears's logoed baseball caps, beer mats and sweatshirts. According to Bruce, there are several reasons why Twitter works well for Johnson's campaign. "Only 60 % of UK households use the internet regularly. Mobile phone penetration is nearly 100 %," he says. "Twitter is a way of making the campaign much more accessible to most people. We've taken a decision that Alan is not going to start a blog just for the deputy leader contest."
But why? "Being secretary of state for education and employment is a critical job and there is no way Alan could do a blog properly. It's better to not blog than to do it badly. Most people don't have a clue what senior politicians do. Using Twitter gives a real insight and clearly shows that he's an ordinary guy."
But aren't the numbers of Johnson's followers and friends too miniscule for it to mean anything? "So far it hasn't really been promoted," says Bruce. "Now the deputy leadership campaign starts properly. Alan's campaign leaflet features Twitter prominently and supporters are encouraged to text in to subscribe. This is where we hope the biggest number of followers will come from."
He acknowledges that Twitter can become an irritation. "It has the potential to be the biggest waste of time in the world - by spending time Twittering your every action or reading about other people drinking their espresso."
That's why Twitter is attracting the same sort of criticism that blogging has. Twitterati.tv says: "Twitter divides opinion like blogging did through the perceived self-centredness of people twittering about what they did two minutes ago. There are a lot of people twittering about their cat or their sandwich. Yet there are also some great uses, including websites and blogs experimenting with a new distribution channel."
Twitter's growth is also now being compared to that of blogging - and reportedly is growing a lot faster, especially since SXSW, an interactive film and music festival held in Austin, Texas, two months ago, which is when Twitter is said to have taken off.
And now the discussion centres on how reliable the growth figures are - and whether it's a valid comparison to make. Jason Kottke concludes that the data available so far is useless because it hasn't been "strictly sequential".
However, Twitter's Biz Stone, who also worked as an adviser to Blogger. com, counters: "We've been doubling the number of active users about every three weeks for a sustained period of monthsnow. Comparing the growth of Twitter and Blogger is interesting but I think Kottke makes a fair point by acknowledging that when Blogger fi rst got started it was much more diffi cult to get started compared to today."
Counting the total number of users on its own is not "a healthy way" to measure the success of a service, Stone says, and points to the Twitter Fan Wiki twitter. pbwiki.com as one way that success can be measured. "When users form community around a product, discuss that product, and build compelling applications on top of a product, then that service is showing signs of success. Accommodating growth while providing a sophisticated, deviceagnostic message routing service for our users has helped Twitter grow. We expect to see more folks invite their friends to Twitter or discover our service through various integrations made possible by our API."
That API (applications programming interface) off ers a way for external programs to hook into Twitter feeds, so that they can be displayed on web pages or other devices, for example on mobile phones. Dredge says: "One of the most interesting things about Twitter is the openness of it, with people creating websites, applications and mobile apps using the Twitter API. I think this will fuel a lot of its growth going forward, as will integrating Twitter more with other websites, with embeddable feeds and so on."
Stone acknowledges "growing pains" - Twitter has struggled to keep up with the growth of its users and database - but adds: "These have not been signifi cant beyond an initial surprise interest in our service and subsequent eff orts to make sure that our hardware and engineering resources were appropriately allocated. We are building Twitter in a new web application framework called Ruby on Rails, which means we are solving new puzzles as we move forward which we share with the developer community."
So will we all be Twittering in fi ve years' time? Dredge thinks it's too early to say if Twitter is here to stay. "It has done a great job with word-of-mouth recommendations," he says. "But there are plenty of examples of web companies who've done this, only to fi nd someone else coming along, improving on their idea and leaving them for dust. Think of the social networking site Friendster creating an early buzz, only to be surpassed by MySpace.
"Twitter is sure to face stiff competition from other companies refi ning its microblogging concept - Jaiku is one example. Meanwhile, it could also face competition from micro blogging being incorporated into larger social networking sites. For example, Facebook's Status Update feature does a similar thing, but within a much richer social networking site.
"There were defi nitely some bandwidth problems, with the Twitter site slowing down to a crawl when it suddenly took off . It has been much better since. Like any web craze, it's bound to suff er from fall-off as people who were mad keen on Twittering fi nd other online toys to play with."
Whether those initial devotees losing their taste for Twitter will include Alan Johnson remains to be seen.