By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In 2007, J.R. Cohen took over Coffee Groundz, the Houston Midtown-area coffeehouse, and began tweeting. He personalized the Twitter account and used it to talk to his customers directly, to take orders during the morning rush and to promote the charity events he began hosting almost every week.
Within two years, he turned Coffee Groundz (@coffeegroundz) into a community-driven hotspot where members of the Houston tech world would congregate.
Soon it also became the place to meet fellow Twitter users in real life, a sort of brick-and-mortar chat room.
Cohen also spearheads Support Local Grow Together (@WeSLGT), the city's local-grower/local-use effort, which encourages Houstonians to support local artists and businesses. The Smart Meals healthy fast-food venture he is embedded in now is steeped in the movement's values.
And on the side, he operates his own personal profile (@JRCohen), beginning each day before the rest of his family wakes up in the morning.
He runs this Tweeting empire from his BlackBerry and several computers at his disposal. People now look to him as a standard-bearer when it comes to doing Twitter correctly.
"I'm not a social media coach or a guru. I am who I am. I am just J.R. Cohen," he says. "But you may know me," he adds, laughing.
Twitter began late in the evening on March 21, 2006, with the first tweet by the company's San Francisco-based founder, Jack Dorsey (@jack), which read, "just setting up my twttr." The five-word missive would end up changing the way many people communicate and consume information.
Dorsey, a software programmer and former bike courier, had been looking for a method to help dispatch bike messengers in a way that all the concerned parties could see, with a sort of real-time message board service. He and other developers at Odeo.com had tinkered with the concept of an online messaging service that mimicked the one-on-one aspect of text messaging, which finally led to the initial Twitter prototype by mid-2006.
By the time the interactive portion of the annual South By Southwest conference began in Austin in March 2007, Twitter was already being hailed as the new frontier in online messaging and idea sharing.
"I fully embraced Twitter," says Amy Franklin, the Dallas-area mother of three known to her nearly 1,000 followers as @mrsF5. Her caustic and loving tweets run nearly nonstop, as she waxes poetic about whiskey, Glee or some of the budding music journalist's favorite new bands.
"I'm usually tweeting all day and night. It's very rare that I'm not on after midnight," she says. It's been an outlet for the journalism major and 10-year veteran of marketing and public relations.
"When we moved to Dallas, I quit working and started having puppies. I just didn't have an outlet, so I started blogging. I wrote little essays about life with three kids, and then Twitter came along and I started funneling all my attention into that."
That all sounds impossibly wholesome, but Twitter is sometimes done "incorrectly." Lies get out in the quick rat-a-tat-tat of tweeting and, once out in cyberspace, are almost impossible to remove.
In a recent for-instance, Michael Lohan claimed his Twitter account was hacked after it was updated with a laundry list of accusations directed toward his daughter, actress Lindsay Lohan. The tweets claimed that she was HIV positive and that she'd had an affair with studio head Tommy Mottola at the age of 17. The posts were quickly taken down and father Lohan vowed to find the hackers. But tracking down who started the posts is nearly impossible.
Closer to home, Houston tweeter Matt Bramanti ignited a firestorm on Twitter the last weekend in February when he made known his opinions about NASA funding and his displeasure with the space program. As luck would have it, his comments were seen live by a whole group of NASA staffers while at a corporate function at the Houston Zoo. That is what makes Twitter so interesting, says Houston blogger Jay Rascoe (@gunsandtacos).
"Bramanti became the devil's advocate of Houston Twitter that night by saying things most people wouldn't have.
"Setting up a Twitter profile is easy, but making it work is the hardest part. At the beginning, users hadn't quite grasped what Twitter could do or what to put out on it.
It would take another year for the service to become "self-aware" and take off and for the conversations to become more involved and lively. Even for a power user like Cohen, the early tumbleweed days were rough going.
"I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I was having fun talking to myself. Early on I may have had two followers. Now I have maybe 1,800 people following me. That's people from Houston, Mexico, Canada and Chile," Cohen says.
For Rascoe, Twitter didn't work till he set up a Guns & Tacos blog and built up a following there.
"Before my Web site, I was on Twitter and couldn't get any followers, so I looked around and saw that most of the people with a lot of followers had their own blogs, so I thought I would start one," Rascoe says.
Now he has nearly 2,200 people following his exploits visiting taco trucks in the Houston area and occasionally blasting a few rounds off at his favorite local gun ranges.
In a real sense, all Twitter users have become their own paparazzi, tweeting pics of their meals or giving a play-by-play on their nightlife exploits. Micro-celebrities abound.
With more users, people began to feel unencumbered and privacy barriers were thrown aside. People tweeted what they were eating, when they were sleeping, what media they were following and how they felt about each in sometimes snarky, sometimes loving detail.
Gus Tello (@gtello) is a Houston-based site engineer for the Gimmal Group, a Web consulting firm. Along with his wife Melanie (@mctello), they make up one of Houston's most influential Twitter teams. On Twitter since early 2008, Gus Tello's account lay dormant in a protected setting for months. He thought of it more as an "ego vehicle" for people who wanted somewhere to gloat endlessly about what they were doing, buying or eating.
Tello had his "aha" moment with the site during an online conversation about the ABC show Lost.
"Before, I wasn't so sure how to make a unique mark with it, but having this dialog showed me that it doesn't have to be a tedious exposition of where you are and what you are doing," Tello says. "I saw that it could help you join a dialog much bigger than your circle of friends.
"And it could be about anything, not just a TV show. It could be about news, Houston, art, breakfast cereal, anything."
Tello says that there are now people whose sole Twitter modus operandi is to be "news carriers," not engagers, constantly posting headlines and links of breaking events for whoever is following them. Before social networking came into being, first-person accounts of natural disasters and landmark events from the general population were relegated to harried reports on the local news and calls in to radio stations. Now anyone can report on the human condition at large through an endless manner of technological avenues.
This new frontier of journalism has now arguably spilled over into the "sixth estate" of media. The "fourth estate" encompassed the first wave of modern newspapers, terrestrial radio and television in the 20th century, and online media and blogs were the "fifth estate" by the late '90s.
In the sixth estate of Twitter and Facebook media, there is little or no control of the information being discussed and everyone is a reporter.
New applications such as Foursquare and Gowalla let users tweet their location, including their exact address. It's good for telling friends and tracking, say, a vacation, to keep people back home informed, but the minutiae can become overwhelming for others who don't always want to know that someone has just gotten home or that he is eating at a fancy restaurant.
A bigger complication includes the risk of people stalking one another. Men and women can be followed by angry exes or uninvited suitors, or someone's home can be burglarized. After all, the tweeter has just told everyone they are at Best Buy picking up a Blu-ray player, right?
And then there are the romantic implications of Twitter, where people can meet and hook up, with varying results. Some courtships end up being mere booty calls, while others blossom into full-on, sickeningly perfect matches that make most single people gag.
Frisco's Matt Smith (@FriscoStyleMatt) and Plano's Traci Koller (@heykolls) met last fall through the site. The twentysomething couple refers to themselves as "The Smolls," melding their last names for Twitter brevity. They met after Smith made a crack about the teen-horror movie Jennifer's Body that Koller saw on a friend's stream. Love bloomed that weekend when a curious Koller came to visit Smith at his job that Sunday night.
"It's funny, now that they've heard how we met, more and more of my friends are asking for help getting on Twitter," Koller says. "My best friends were amazed that there are actually real, live, normal people on there."
Koller has confidence in Smith that if their relationship moves to the next level, it will be handled in person, not by tweeting.
"As far as I know, there will be a traditional, live proposal," she says.
An accomplished tweeter can produce a message that goes out to hundreds or thousands in just seconds. This is, of course, both blessing and curse.
Former Major League pitcher Mike Bacsik (@MikeBacsik) found out last month that not everyone can sense sarcasm through a tweet. The radio personality for Dallas sports talk station KTCK 1310 AM made a particularly racially charged remark on his Twitter profile during a heated playoff game, factiously congratulating "all the dirty Mexicans in San Antonio" for the Spurs beating the Dallas Mavericks.
Judging from the posts he was updating with right before his outburst, Bacsik had been drinking while watching the game. Just a few moments before the tweet in question, he had threatened to quit the Ticket and blow up the NBA head offices, and then wondered aloud about the size of NBA Commissioner David Stern's "cornhole." The comment about Hispanics led the Ticket to fire Bacsik. Lately, the former journeyman hurler has been extremely penitent on Twitter.
With the size of a tweet, 140 characters, come two distinct problems. Attention spans get shorter, and thus longer, more protracted ideas can get lost in the sea of retweets and the original intent is lost. The idea becomes a sliver of what it was at inception.
In Southeast Houston, San Jacinto College student Ashley Marzullo (@missSMASHLEYY) made an offhand remark on Twitter about wanting someone to call in a bomb threat to the community college on a particularly pretty April day and was soon brought in for questioning by one of the school's deans.
At the time Marzullo had fewer than a dozen followers on Twitter, but someone reported her to the school and a school dean notified local police. Marzullo was reprimanded and kept out of school for a week (the college has said it was not a suspension). School officials denied tracking the social media moves of its students, but didn't explain how they found out about Marzullo's tweet.
Then there are the lonely people looking for support in the gigantic community on Twitter. Last year, a woman from Florida, Heather Newnam (rsangel04), used Twitter hours before her suicide to tweet what amounted to a final note to the world. She was despondent over a coming eviction from her home.
Recently the firestorm surrounding the state of Arizona's new immigration law made its way onto Twitter, igniting scathing diatribes from across the Internet pitting against each other people who may have never even met.
Rascoe maintains that no one really loses in a Twitter fight.
"Controversy is the best way to gain followers. If you start an argument with someone on Twitter, your followers are forced to follow that other person in order to see that other side of the back and forth. As far as the argument goes, everyone wins because you both gain followers."
But others disagree.
Aimee Woodall (@aimeewoodall), the head of Houston's BlackSheep public relations firm, has seen the damage that can be done with just a few careless words.
"With so many groups, there will be cliques. When people say things and don't think them through, act hastily, or don't know who is paying attention, it can get repeated and really damage a person's reputation. There is really no erasing it," she says.
"It can be instant gratification or instant destruction," Woodall says.
It can also be a safety net. In March, a woman sent a tweet to actress Demi Moore (@mrskutcher) saying she was going to kill herself, even describing the knife she was going to use. Moore's followers soon tracked down where the tweet was coming from and authorities were sent to the woman's California residence before she could harm herself.
In Houston, Tello says, the spirit of Twitter was harnessed by three groups: foodies, news journals and tech designers. They were the first to use it to their advantage, by networking or having a heated discourse on a new restaurant dish or iPhone app, he says.
In its own early days, the Internet was mainly an outlet for nerdy tech talk before branching out into the primary source of information, misinformation, pornography, shopping and hilarious YouTube videos it would become. Twitter is running that same track, albeit at a much more rapid pace.
Dallas online consultant Giovanni Gallucci (@giovanni) joined Twitter in the summer of 2006. He remembers its early days as almost nomadic and utilitarian.
"We hunted and pecked for others, finding people we knew from conferences from our existing networks. It felt natural from the beginning filtering new information to others. The fluff wasn't there yet, the daily minutiae. It was actually a lot of news and links," Gallucci says.
Dallas social media consultant and speaker Mike Merrill (@mikedmerrill) says that when he joined just two years ago, Twitter wasn't very active. "It was typically people very into the tech scene predominantly, or bloggers who had been blogging for a while. For bloggers, Twitter is a great media to share your content. The transaction cost is so much lower than an e-mail."
A prominent Bayou City early adopter was Dwight Silverman (@dsilverman), the longtime journalist and technology guru/columnist for the Houston Chronicle. He preached the gospel of the site and the seemingly vast opportunities it would afford—if users were left to their own devices and could usher along its evolution.
One person who took Silverman's lead was the longtime host and founder of KPFT's Technology Bytes radio show in Houston, Jay Lee (@baldheretic). He joined Twitter in March 2007, but not before voicing his own reservations.
"At first I was resistant and didn't want it. I thought it was just another fluffy social media thing. I gave Dwight a hard time about it, and when I got really active on Twitter and finally got it, he reminded me I was a naysayer. It was a matter of it reaching a certain density and saturation before it becomes usable," Lee says.
"You can pay as much or as little attention to Twitter as you care to. It's not something you have to be completely jacked into 24/7. You can completely dive in and completely walk away later," he adds.
"When you look at Twitter and what people are putting out at 140 characters, each tweet is like a guitar riff or a pulse from a user," Lee says.
Houston Web designer and entrepreneur Jason Armstrong (@elegantmachines) compares Twitter to a huge virtual cocktail party.
"You can 'overhear' what other people are talking about. Say if we both followed the same person, and you say something to another person we both follow that interests me, like about Apple products, then I can jump into the conversation too."
"Not only are we spending time online conversing, and possibly slacking in our jobs, but we're meeting regularly in real time in real space to share our lives. There are friendships being forged online between people who share similar interests, but those friendships are also being expanded to create entire communities of interest and communities of practice between Houstonians who are actively working to be part of a community, not just a circle of friends," Wettergreen says.
"We have one of the most cohesive Twitter communities in the nation, keeping in touch with each other on a regular basis online, but what really differentiates us is that we meet in real life often, much more than you would predict for online friendships," he adds.
It's a perspective that Lee echoes.
"The Houston Twitter community is a whole new generation of people who aren't just discovering technology, but they are using it as a tool to do real things. They are promoting good causes and events, raising awareness. This community knows more about what's going on socially, but they aren't just using it to party. J.R. Cohen used it to not just leverage a coffee shop, but to also promote the community and tap into people who have a like mind."
What Merrill says about Dallas' Twitterverse echoes Wettergreen's own thoughts as well, but with a slightly different bent.
"From a Dallas perspective, you see it used heavily on a social level. People figuring out where the crowds are and people are building social currency by sharing good ideas, good venues and good discounts. Overall, people are using it as a source of information. Where are the good restaurants, where should I shop? That's common amongst all social media."
"Early on, Twitter was just this barren landscape. You didn't know who to follow, no one did. Then a flood of graphic designers took over Twitter, these purists. They said that if you didn't have anything key, on-point, or profound to say, you should get off Twitter. Then the funny came, and that's why I stuck around."
Twitter helps funny people kick out their jams 24 hours a day and at 140 characters a clip. A funny aside gathered while waiting at the doctor's office or even having a hangover while serving as a groomsman at a wedding (a dubious feat this author is sadly guilty of) can become chuckle fodder for scores of followers.
Think of comedy on Twitter as an inside joke shared with the world, with no governor set on the degree of appropriateness, always aiming for that guttural chuckle. Nationally known accounts like Justin Halpern's @shitmydadsays, which chronicles his life as a twentysomething living at home, or @TheMime (sample tweet: "...") (yes, there's nothing there), popped up overnight and grew to have thousands of followers.
Mainstream comedians like The State's Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) and Late Night's Jimmy Fallon (@jimmyfallon) are some of the most popular, commanding nearly three million followers and growing. The fake Twitter accounts for beleaguered actors Nick Nolte (@Nick_Nolte) and Gary Busey (@GaryJBusey) are pure comedy gold, albeit extremely filthy gold.
And, of course, there's the king of Twitter, actor Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk), who is followed by nearly 5 million people and counting. His Twitter persona isn't that far off from his film or television ones, passing on hilarious vignettes about married life with wife Demi Moore and his adventures with fellow Hollywood folk. Get retweeted by Kutcher, and the rewards can be in the thousands.
Houston and Dallas are both wellsprings of funny people constantly updating their slanted takes on daily life, and the twentysomething photographer Cat Kane is one of them. Since last fall, the Northwest Houston native has been tweeting torrential downpours of scatological free associations as @la_merde, which yes, does translate to "the shit" in French. Great deals of Kane's tweets seem to come from another time zone or dimension (sample tweet: "I don't like clothes unless they are on my floor"). She's proud of the following she has amassed, but largely doesn't see what the big deal is when people find some of her more salty transmissions unsettling.
"I don't alter anything. I mean, I tweet about taking shits. I'm nice in real life, but I just have an open mouth," Kane says demurely.
In April, Kane took on celebrity Kirstie Alley, jokingly antagonizing the actress about her weight until Alley blocked Kane from her Twitter site. Recently Kane and Kid Rock associate Uncle Kracker got into a very bitter row that frazzled the country-rapper to such an extent that he blocked her and deleted his very profane responding tweets to her. Thankfully they still exist on Kane's Tumblr site for posterity.
Dallas freelance writer Beth Erickson shares her life as @txnewsprincess and can't take a break from Twitter for people getting worried about her well-being.
"If I don't tweet for a few days, people get really worried and think I'm dead. They must think, 'Well, we haven't heard her stream-of-consciousness babble in a few days; she must be dead,'" she says with a laugh. It's the level of openness that she finds liberating.
Amy Franklin takes a different tack with her Twitter persona. "The voice that I use tends to be a facet of myself that isn't mom-centered. I mean, everything about my life is mom-centered, but Twitter is an outlet for me to be profane or whatever. People who read me on Twitter probably don't think I am an attentive mom, but I keep my kids separate," Franklin says.
Others aren't just sectioning off parts of themselves; they're creating entirely new, often more exciting guises.
Armstrong and a friend have a name for them: "fauxcializers," people who are real-life wallflowers compared with their dynamic personalities online.
Twitter can be a goldmine for musicians, who can use it to connect with their fans, send out new tracks through posted links and remind followers of upcoming shows. In Houston and Dallas, however, it remains a largely untapped resource, embraced for the most part only by rappers.
"I love watching the rappers make fun of each other's weight, haircuts and jobs. It's fake beef, with lots of 'LMAO' [laughing my ass off] and 'SMH' [shaking my head], but it's amazing. I don't know how many around-the-clockers there are. There are day-timers, evening tweeters and late-night and even all-nighters," he says.
Soul singer and Dallas native Erykah Badu (@fatbabybella) tweeted nonstop, Freedman says, even while she came under fire for her infamous music video shot in Dealey Plaza. The clip for "Window Seat" featured Badu in slow-motion walking through the area where President Kennedy was shot in 1963, and at the end of the video she stripped nude in front of passersby and tourists on Elm Street and feigned being shot in the head.
As the controversy swelled around her, she used her Twitter account to field questions about the artistic intent of the video, and she even tweeted about her eventual citation for disorderly conduct at the Plaza by saying she was "taking one for the team."
Houston indie hip-hopper Fat Tony (@fattonyrap) has been using Twitter to disseminate his work and art since January 2009. With almost 1,200 followers on the site, his level of fan interaction is high, and he routinely talks back and forth with his followers at a fast clip. Most musicians, especially rock-and-roll guys, shun the transparency of Twitter in lieu of keeping that extra air of mystery between artist and consumer.
"I'd advise up-and-coming indie dudes to go against the grain and put their personality out there...For the average person, even me, if they get to peep your style and your thoughts and really relate to it, they'll be more receptive to your music. The beauty of underground music is separating the stardom, and it helps you relate more to an artist as a person.
"Plus indie dudes can still be cryptic and mysterious if they really want, since you only get 140 characters per tweet," he says, chuckling.
Jeremy Osborn (@waysidedrive) of Houston alt-rockers Wayside Drive was at first ambivalent about Twitter as a vehicle for promotion and interaction, but soon saw the value. He echoes Fat Tony's assumption about rock bands having a "Twitterphobia."
"Most rock and indie musicians are still stuck in the mindset of the music industry they grew up in where the bands they loved were always at arm's length. I came from this mentality. Bands usually hold their cards pretty close to the chest, and don't always want to have that type of relationship with their fans. They don't want people to know their little secrets, like how they did this or better ways of doing that. Also, I don't think they fully understand that Twitter is about interaction and not just blindly posting crap that they're promoting."
Osborn and Wayside Drive noticed that just by using Twitter to promote shows and talk directly to fans, they got what Osborn claims to be a "1,071 percent" rise in Web traffic. The increased visibility got the band more gigs in the process, getting their music out to more and more listeners, "saving the world two ears at a time," as the band's site proclaims.
"I think in this new market a very important thing is transparency, and the sharing of ideas and the creative process. We see it in software, we see it in business and we need to see it in music."
A band member can microblog a tour and not just throw out concert dates and Web addresses at random scheduled intervals.
"Bands and artists are their own business, and many of them can't afford huge marketing campaigns, so social media levels the playing field between them and major labels. Now, bands can build their own fanbase without having to be picked up by a record label," Rodriguez adds.
As with any online phenomenon, there is an all-too-indefinite sell-by date, which for some is further off than others. MySpace toppled Friendster and LiveJournal to reign supreme from 2003 until late 2008, when there was a mass exodus to the shiny, easier interface of Facebook. And even before that, AOL's Instant Messenger and chat room services were the standard when it came to interpersonal communications.
Recently, there has been a wave of dissenters among former Twitter power users who have grown cold to the site. Singer John Mayer (@johncmayer) came out firing at a recent industry function, decrying Twitter for what he considered to be its unhealthy opening of the floodgates of "other people's approval/disapproval," when up until just a few months ago he had boasted almost three and half million followers. He offered up the blogging service Tumblr as his personal replacement—there's more space to post larger amounts of text, audio clips and video files—and offered this quote: "That funny feeling you have when reading more than one paragraph is your brain growing again. It will pass, leaving you in a beautiful orange mist of thoughts and ideas."
According to Mike Merrill, most people who join Twitter don't "get it," and end up leaving after growing frustrated with not grasping the site's fast, expansive landscape.
"There's a ton of people on Twitter, but a lot of those people are not active. There's a statistic out there that says some 60 percent of people that join Twitter leave in 30 days because they just don't understand it."
There are other Web sites and online applications that have been hailed as possible Twitter killers, but none have had the same heft and ease of use as Twitter. Plurk is a Twitter clone that is popular in Asia, yet it hasn't caught on in the United States.
Gallucci thinks that Twitter must reorganize itself to remain competitive, listing what it has going against it.
"They have no revenue model, no cash, and the site constantly crashes. Facebook is about to roll out the same features as Twitter in a shinier package. It could become less relevant and die a slow, painful death if it doesn't evolve like Facebook, which itself is now Google's biggest competitor. More people traffic and trust Facebook than they do Google, and no one ever thought that would happen."
As Facebook expands, the site has grown increasingly connected to paying advertisers, who can now conduct direct market research through users' profiles depending on how much information is made public or kept private. This is a move away from Facebook's origins as a site where users could show off their new party pictures, keep up with friends from school and maybe post the occasional online article.
Twitter is still sans that degree of interference—there are no sponsors or advertisers paying for space on the site—thus no one is looking for buzzwords in users' updates to spread the gospel of Coca-Cola. Where Facebook has fallen into the same trap that befell MySpace and Friendster before it, Twitter seems nearly impenetrable for now.
Twitter is the current lode bearer for everyone's shared experiences and the holder of the zeitgeist for more than 75 million people across the planet, but Cohen can see Facebook completely enveloping what Twitter has accomplished these past four years.
"Facebook is the new Internet. It could one day do everything that Twitter, Amazon and Foursquare do now but in one site. Twitter only allows 140 characters, and Facebook offers so much more. But if people continue to use Twitter in the right way, I don't see it going away," Cohen says.
In the end, Twitter has helped people forge friendships and break down barriers. As much as technology has encroached on humanity in these modern times, it's also united and reinvigorated the human experience.
"The great thing about Twitter is that you are bringing people together with a common interest. Since I have been on Twitter and started the blog, I have made more friends since September than I have had in my whole life," Rascoe says. "It all started out with me talking about tacos."