Social networking software

Better living through Twitter

Less than a decade ago, I owed much of the goodness in my life to Craigslist. In the early 2000s, the online classified ads site helped me to find an apartment in Los Angeles, score three different jobs, buy a condo, book my wife an appearance on the short-lived reality series Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, and sell two cars. These days, though, my go-to service for cool life opportunities is Twitter.

The most recent of these tweet-based opportunities involved a quick trip I made Wednesday to our nation’s capitol to hobnob with President Barack Obama at the White House. I was one of the 50 lucky Twitter users invited by the administration to attend the president’s first ever Twitter Town Hall. How’d I score that sweet opportunity?

The key factors were a) having a job that keeps me at my computer all day, and b) the official Twitter app for the Mac. I happened to check Twitter at precisely the moment that the @whitehouse account tweeted about the #AskObama event. I clicked on the link, and ended up filling out a brief form to apply to attend the Town Hall in person. The form included a 140-character field to explain why you should get picked. I filled out the whole form in less than a minute, figuring it was a mostly useless shot in the dark.

A couple days later, I had an email in my inbox inviting me to the event, presuming I passed a security clearance. (I did.) So on Wednesday, I drove five hours to Washington DC, walked to the White House from the parking garage on I Street, and knew I’d found the correct entrance when I saw a bunch of well-dressed 20- and 30-somethings milling about with smartphones in their hands.

The White House event was awesome. Not only did I shake hands with the president, we Twitter guests had permission to take photographs inside the White House, which isn’t something every visitor gets to do. And, of course we were asked to live tweet during Obama’s session with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. I will admit that I felt some hesitation tapping away at my iPhone while sitting mere feet from the leader of the free world. The exceedingly lousy 3G reception in the East Room helped me feel less guilty about the fact that I spent more time enjoying the surreality of the moment than I did posting quips about the event on Twitter.

After the Town Hall’s conclusion, the Twitter 50 were granted an exclusive roundtable discussion at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, sitting with United States Chief Technical Officer Aneesh Chopra, White House Director of New Media Macon Phillips, and Dorsey. That discussion was lively and largely tech-focused, covering topics ranging from the Obama administration’s assorted tech initiatives (including HealthCare.gov, which Chopra billed as “Expedia for personal health insurance costs”) and the state of bandwidth ability in the U.S. (A National Wireless Initiative would allow the companies that currently own government-assigned rights to various parts of the wireless spectrum to trade those rights to other companies that might better exploit the spectrum. Proceeds of those trades would be used on deficit reduction and developing a 4G broadband network for public safety.)

The White House didn’t invent the Tweetup concept. In its blog post about the event the White House tipped its virtual hat to NASA, which has held several Twitter-focused events of its own, letting random NASA Twitter fans spend a few days taking tours, meet with astronauts and other officials, and observe spacecraft launches, to boot. In fact, both Macworld editorial director Jason Snell and senior editor Scholle Sawyer McFarland are currently attending NASA’s Tweetup for the last-ever scheduled space shuttle launch—assuming it eventually stops raining in Florida.

While my trip to the White House is perhaps my coolest life event powered by Twitter, it wasn’t the only memorable one. In the past, I’ve spoken on the phone with “Weird Al” Yankovic after he tweeted the phone number of a pay phone he was next to at an airport; I learned of (and then joined) an exclusive fan club for my favorite band; I learned of (and then bought tickets for) Conan O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour; and, let’s not forget, I got a job writing for Macworld

How many life passions can Twitter provide opportunities to indulge? And perhaps even more importantly, why is Twitter proving so adept at serving as the seeming impetus for such passion-indulging? Perhaps a part of it is Twitter’s general equality. You and I get just 140 characters per tweet, and Barack Obama, Tom Hanks, and Oprah are limited to that same number. When leaders of nations, movie stars, and billionaire moguls are on equal footing with peons like me, that helps us all feel more connected to one another. NASA interacted with its fervent fan base, and invited some folks to come geek out over space exploration. The White House brought a few politically-minded tweeters into the same room where President Obama once announced the death of Osama bin Laden. And I think we’ll know Twitter has made it when Oprah finally uses the service to give away cars.

[Lex Friedman is a staff writer for Macworld.]

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