Upon joining Twitter, social-networking fiend Kevin Nguyen asks the obvious question: is it useful?

For reasons no one can explain, Twitter is the most important thing to happen to the internet, ever.

The previous statement may be a bit hyperbolic, but a discussion of Twitter requires embellishment. The debate between the site’s critics and advocates has kept Twitter in the spotlight since its inception. Even its frequent downtime is the web’s latest inside joke.

For the folks who’ve been living under a proverbial rock in regards to Web 2.0 trends, Twitter is a free micro-social-networking site. Its functionality is cleverly limited to 140-character updates–or tweets–which alerts your other Twitter buddies. Think of it as an alternative to sending mass text messages.

All in all, it’s a well-designed site, and while the relevance of Twitter is still in question, there’s no denying that it’s good at what it does. The layout is simple, and its concept is charming, encouraging short comments and quips. (I’m not going to present a full-on review of the site because there are plenty of those, with varying opinions, already.)

Given my inquisitive nature, I signed up for Twitter over a year ago. The problem is that unless other people you know are on it, Twitter is, more or less, useless. It’s also difficult trying to convince friends why they should sign up when the explanation of the site’s functionality makes it sound nearly identical to Facebook’s status feature (which it is). And the people who claim Twitter is better (which it might be) are bloggers who deem themselves too Web 2.0-savvy (which they are not) to be on Facebook. Part of this allegiance might have to do with its founders, Biz Stone and Evan Williams. Ev is also one of the minds behind Blogger, which is pretty cool and succesful considering that he makes people call him “Ev.” (Stone and Williams also created Odeo, a podcast-sharing site that really flopped.)

If Twitter is only good with a network of friends, but none of your friends are compelled to join, what’s the point? Confronted with this paradox, I stopped using it.

A week ago, fellow Bureau writer Caitlin Boersma signed up. She plugged in her Gmail address book, which instantly found my account and “followed” it. Unlike Facebook, you don’t have to confirm your friends, which means that anyone interested in your updates can stay current with your status. Strangers (twitterphiles?) can follow you, but you do have the option to block them or to make your account private.

The only thing that showed up in my profile was three tweets reflecting embarrassing opinions I had last year. (“I’m really enjoying the new Bright Eyes CD, Casadaga.”) This encouraged me to log back in to remove my old updates. Then I thought if Caitlin was on Twitter, it might be worth revisiting.

For the past few days, we’ve convinced a few other friends to join–including other Bureau mates Nick and Jordan–and have been twittering back and forth. The experience has been kind of fun, especially as a distraction at work (twitterference?).

Businesses are also using Twitter in an attempt to stay hip with the kids. Unfortunately, the majority of corporations I’ve seen using it miss the point of Twitter. Here is a venue that allows you to interact with customers–or better yet, people–in an honest, colloquial manner. Instead, they use Twitter to spout out the same obviously PR-spun bullshit you can find on their website. 

This isn’t a new trend. Plenty of businesses have made the same mistake with blogs. Their boardroom meetings must go something like this:

EXEC 1: How can we give our company a more personal, human image?
EXEC 2: I hear blogs are all the rage.
EXEC 1: What is a blog?
EXEC 2: I don’t know, but my twelve-year-old son has one. He is a blogger, and is frequently blogging on his blog, located in the blogosphere.
EXEC 1: Bloggity-bloggity-blog. That is fun to say. We need one.
EXEC 2: Why?
EXEC 1: We neeeeeeeeeed one. Kthxbai!

Some have cited Southwest Airlines as a good example of a corporate Twitter account. The majority of their tweets act as public customer service, which is kind of useful in that anyone can air their grievances and get a response. This, of course, doesn’t make for compelling reading; I really couldn’t care less that Southwest Airlines has great cruise deals. (To their credit, whoever is writing the tweets has a friendly, laid back tone that serves well for the venue, especially when compared to similarly formatted accounts like Comcast.) Even if corporate Twitter use was helpful as a bridge between the company and concerned customers, that’s not really compelling enough for regular users to maintain an account.

Newspapers are another example, with all the majors signing on–The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal (The Washington Post has yet to join). The papers use Twitter for headline news. The New York Times even has separate accounts for individual sections. Still, these tweets just mirror updates from the paper’s RSS feed. Why not just subscribe to the feed instead? Those who enjoy Twitter for its mobile features would surely prefer an online RSS reader over receiving text messages every time the Associated Press publishes a news story. Newspapers are still searching for ways to become profitable on the internet and are jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon any way they can. Perhaps their presence on Twitter is not for functionality, but just a way to reach out to users.

And maybe that’s the key.

Is Twitter useful? The answer, somewhat ironically, lies within its paradox. If people are on it, yes; otherwise, no. Luckily, Twitter is gaining momentum. The site has yet to introduce a revenue-driven business model (twitternomics?), but as we’ve learned from Google, you have to get people using your service before you can start making money off them. Personally, I hope that Twitter becomes more than a cult following, but only time will tell if Twitter develops a raison d’etre.

Tweet, tweet.

• I’m twittering here.
• Caitlin is here.
• Nick is here.
• Jordan’s account is set to private.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.