It doesn't happen as often as it used to, but I still get the question: "Why should I use Twitter?"
My standard answer is that Twitter is simply the fastest way to access relevant information that exists in the world today. Instantaneous communication to and from as many sources as you wish. I've been using the service since 2007, and in that time it has gone from just another Internet fad to an indispensable part of my day.
Twitter's original directive was a simple "What are you doing?" which of course led people to tweet things like "eating a sandwich" or "out for a walk," thus making the service look silly (and a sure way to get you unfollowed). Many people used it to just keep up with their friends -- a 140-character version of Facebook.
Thankfully as the service expanded and became more popular people realized the question Twitter should be asking is "What has your attention right now?" When put that way, the service becomes far more valuable.
Yes, following your friends is fun and maybe they'll share some link to a funny cat video or two, but Twitter really becomes useful the moment you start following people who can give you information that you otherwise couldn't get.
Some examples: I follow Hargray so I can know about issues with my service or get updates on an outage.
I follow the Denver Post's Rockies beat writer to know how the star Triple-A pitcher is doing or keep up with the game when I can't watch it live.
I follow The Island Packet (@islandpacket) in case there is a huge traffic jam on U.S. 278 I need to avoid.
I also follow Weird Al Yankovic because ... well, because he's Weird Al, that's why. In this context, you can see how you essentially customize your news sources -- picking and choosing who and what you want to be updated on instead of simply digesting whatever an individual news source decides to share with you.
Another advantage to Twitter is the speed at which it operates. A perfect example would be that of Sohaib Athar, an IT professional in Pakistan who unknowingly live-tweeted the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Many hours before most everyone else in the world knew what had happened, he tweeted this: "@ReallyVirtual Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)." And then in a series of tweets he described what he was seeing to his followers.
Another example would be during the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona. Despite the fact that I follow several news organizations on Twitter, I first read there had been a shooting from a technology pundit that I follow. In fact, through that pundit and his followers, I knew the name of the alleged shooter a full hour before I saw it on CNN.
Finally, there is the crowd-sourcing aspect of Twitter: the ability to ask questions then share answers with thousands of people in an instant. An example from just this morning: A person I follow asked for recommendations for the best iPad car seat mount, something I've been wondering about myself. Within two minutes, he tweeted a link to a product that many of his followers had told him was the best mount on the market, one that I had never even heard of. Without doing anything, I was given pertinent information that makes my life easier -- that's pretty great.
If you're still on the fence about Twitter or tried it once and never went back, give it another shot. Gratuitous plug: You can start by following me -- @packetITguy -- where I tweet links to the top stories in the technology world.
If you're lucky, I may even send out a funny cat video.
Morgan Bonner is Pre-Press Manager and a systems administrator for the Packet and Gazette.