Twitter. It’s everywhere and journalists just won’t shut up about it. But if you’re not on it, you probably don’t really get what it is and what all the fuss is about. Let us try to explain.

So what is it?
In their own words: “Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

Christ, that sounds pretty boring. Fortunately, that’s really not what Twitter is these days.

In short, Twitter is a “micro-blog” — you can post (“tweet”) whatever you want, as long as it’s under 140 characters. You can simply write about what you’re doing, but people are more likely to write short anecdotes, opinions, questions, jokes, share links and pictures, and carry on conversations with other Twitter users (“tweeps” in the official parlance, but you don’t have to subscribe to such embarrassing terms).

You can read what everyone else is writing, and they can see what you’re writing. You may choose to only read what your friends, family, and co-workers are saying, but it’s really more interesting to follow the updates of strangers, people with interesting jobs and those with something worthwhile to say.

Done in a bad way, Twitter resembles something like their own description above. Done well, it resembles a mix between the Facebook status function, an instant messenger, a group blog, delicious, RSS feeds and a chat room. We would describe it as a sort of giant, on-going global conversation and community. For adults. You can choose to participate in as much or as little of it as you like.

What’s the point?
Possibly just another way to waste time, possibly more — it all depends on how well you utilise it. Many people use Twitter to hook up with other people from around the globe in their field of work or areas of interest. You can do the same thing on Facebook or other online groups and forums of course, but Twitter is in real time and anyone can join in.

For people who work in a field where trends and up-to-the-minute news are important, it’s a much quicker way to stay up-to-date than reading blogs and newspapers all day. This makes it madly popular with marketing people and journos.

During major events, Twitter has become one of the best ways to follow the news as is happens. Recently it served as one of the major sources of info coming out of Mumbai during the terrorist attacks there and broke the Hudson River plane crash story.

Why all the media hype lately?
The cynic in me says it’s an easy way for journos to fill some column inches (“Here’s what Twitter users had to say about blah”), but there’s a bit more to it than that — last year, Hitwise reported an increase in Australian web traffic to Twitter of over 500%. Clearly, Australians are signing up rapidly, so it is newsworthy.

As I mentioned, Twitter is incredibly popular with journalists and marketing types, so we may have a disproportionate view of its importance and thus it gets over-reported a bit (ok, a LOT), but right now, it’s simply the best way to instantly tap straight in to popular opinions and trends from around the world, and that’s an attractive proposition to most reporters.

What’s it actually good for?
It’s good for discovering people with a similar interest or job to you; for getting as-it-happens news; for seeing what people are saying about an event or topic in real time; for networking; for finding interesting and amusing links to articles, sites, videos, pictures and blogs; for the voyeuristic fun of peering into interesting people’s lives; for tech support; for chatting directly with celebrities, newsmakers, commentators and politicians; and for promoting your business or website. And it’s a good time waster.

So I should join then?
Possibly — you should at least check it out before making up your mind. But you’ll only get out of it what you put in. Not surprisingly, the most popular and prolific Twitter users are people who have jobs that enable them to burn hours of their work-day on what is, ultimately, a glorified chat-room. It helps if you have the time and means to update regularly, and especially to read and respond to other people’s Tweets regularly. That’s why it’s full of journos, IT geeks, PR types and weird old guys who call themselves “social media commentators”, but not so much orthodontists or butchers.

Despite all the hype, if you just sign up, add a couple of boring “I am washing the dishes”-style tweets a day and follow 10 or so of your mates who do the same, you might find the whole experience underwhelming.

Unless you work in the media, marketing or IT industries, you’re probably not missing out on much by not joining.

But while the next big thing in social media will come along eventually, leaving Twitter looking about as cutting edge as Livejournal, it is currently the best place for real-time networking, news, opinions and general online socialising, and will probably continue its rise throughout 2009. Twitter is making — and driving — the news every day.

I’ve signed up — now what?
Well, start by following @crikey_news. You can follow Malcolm Turnbull (a surprisingly savvy and regular user) and Kevin Rudd (not so much. His staff do most of his — fairly infrequent — updates).

You can see a list of Australian journalists on Twitter here, celebrity tweeters here, or view Twitter users by various areas of interest here.

You can follow Crikey editor Jonathan Green, Deputy Editor Sophie Black, Production Coordinator Leigh Josey, along with journalists Eleri Harris, Andrew Crook and Ruth Brown, plus many of our regular writers, including Stilgherrian, Margaret Simons and Possum Comitatus.

And whatever you do, don’t follow First Dog on the Moon — quite possibly Australia’s most boring Twitterer.