Twitter proves its worth
It's long been derided as a vehicle for the vacuous, and a web fad which will fade away as soon as its backers realise it has no realistic business plan.
But over the weekend, Twitter proved its worth again - in two ways. First, as the place to be if you want to catch the latest news and the background to it. Second, in the eyes of web libertarians, as a doughty defender of its users' rights.
As the first reports emerged of the shootings in Tucson came in on Saturday, my Twitter stream began to fill up with the latest developments. As the minutes passed, the picture became more confused then clearer - at first it seemed Congresswoman Giffords had died, then it emerged that she was in surgery, and then details came through of the victims, and the man who had apparently fired the gun.
When I remarked - on Twitter - how useful a place it had been to watch the news, some immediately responded that it had been full of inaccuracies and that rolling TV news had been a better place to watch. True, you needed to have the television on as well, but it was just as guilty of running with lines that turned out later to be false. The faster the news cycle has become, on television and then online, the more we are likely to hear half-truths and untruths before the clear picture emerges - "never wrong for long", as some have put it.
The other criticism of Twitter, that in 140 characters you just cannot say anything important, really does not hold up. Because it's the links to other web addresses - shortened by services like bit.ly - which are the website's most powerful tool. Within minutes, you could see America debating the causes of the incident - the liberal left posting links to Sarah Palin's "crosshairs" message, showing Gabrielle Giffords being "targeted" during the mid-term elections, the right responding with links to similarly inflammatory messages from Democrats.
Tweeters were also rapidly providing information about the background of the alleged shooter, with links to his bizarre YouTube videos and even grabs of a MySpace page before that was taken down. You can still argue that the television is still the best place to watch live news unfold - but you needed Twitter to get background and the arguments.
The other big story of the weekend concerned Twitter itself as it emerged that the social network had been served with a court order from the US government demanding that it hand over all sorts of details about the accounts and online activities of people connected to Wikileaks. That sounded like a huge crisis for Twitter, in the unenviable position of having to choose between obeying the law and losing its reputation overseas as a forum for free expression in countries like Iran.
Twitter's response - its lawyers fought successfully to get the order unsealed so that its contents could be made public - has turned that crisis into an opportunity. Suddenly, web libertarians are rushing to Twitter's side, and applauding it as a defender of its users' rights. And they are asking what rival companies would have done in the same circumstances - indeed whether the likes of Facebook and Google are currently wrestling with a similar dilemma.
Twitter may still be forced to hand over that information to the US authorities, but it will emerge with its reputation enhanced. All it needs now is a convincing business plan.