The Twitterverse

More than just cyberspace, the tweet life inspires people to make friends and adopt causes in person. It has a few problems, too.

In 2007, J.R. Cohen took over Coffee Groundz, the Midtown-area coffeehouse, and began tweeting. He personalized the Twitter account and used it to talk to his customers directly, to take orders during the morning rush and to promote the charity events he began hosting almost every week.

Within two years he turned Coffee Groundz(@coffeegroundz) into a community-driven hotspot where members of the Houston tech world would ­congregate.

Soon it also became the place to meet fellow Twitter users in real life, a sort of brick-and-mortar chatroom.

J.R. Cohen's BlackBerry is front stage, center, in keeping his Twitter Universe going as he juggles the demands of three separate accounts.
Chris Curry
J.R. Cohen's BlackBerry is front stage, center, in keeping his Twitter Universe going as he juggles the demands of three separate accounts.
Dallas-area couple Matt Smith and Traci Koller met through Twitter by chance last fall. Smith promises not to propose to Koller via the site if they decide to get hitched.
Mark Graham
Dallas-area couple Matt Smith and Traci Koller met through Twitter by chance last fall. Smith promises not to propose to Koller via the site if they decide to get hitched.

Cohen also spearheads Support Local Grow Together (@WeSLGT), the city's local grower/local-use effort, which encourages Houstonians to support local artists and businesses. The Smart Meals healthy fast-food venture he is embedded in now is steeped in the movement's values.

And on the side, he operates his own personal profile (@JRCohen), beginning each day before the rest of his family wakes up in the morning.

He runs this tweeting empire from his BlackBerry and several computers at his disposal. People now look to him as a standard bearer when it comes to doing Twitter correctly.

"I'm not a social media coach or a guru. I am who I am. I am just J.R. Cohen," he says. "But you may know me," he adds laughing.

Twitter began late in the evening on March 21, 2006, with the first tweet by the company's San Francisco-based founder, Jack Dorsey (@jack), which read "just setting up my twttr." The five-word missive would end up changing the way many people communicate and consume information.

Dorsey, a software programmer and former bike courier, had been looking for a way to help dispatch bike messengers in a way that all the concerned parties could see, with a sort of real-time message board service. He and other developers at Odeo.com had tinkered with the concept of an online messaging service that mimicked the one-on-one aspect of text messaging, which finally led to the initial Twitter prototype by mid-2006.

By the time the interactive portion of the annual South By Southwest conference began in Austin in March 2007, Twitter was already being hailed as the new frontier in online messaging and idea-sharing.

"I fully embraced Twitter," says Amy Franklin, the ­Dallas-area mother of three known to her nearly 1,000 followers as @mrsF5. Her caustic and loving tweets run nearly nonstop, as she waxes poetic about whiskey, Glee or some of the budding music journalist's favorite new bands.

"I'm usually tweeting all day and night. It's very rare that I'm not on after midnight," she says. It's been an outlet for the journalism major and ten-year veteran of marketing and public relations.

"When we moved to Dallas, I quit working and started having puppies. I just didn't have an outlet, so I started blogging. I wrote little essays about life with three kids, and then Twitter came along and I started funneling all my attention into that."

That all sounds impossibly wholesome, but Twitter is sometimes done "incorrectly." Lies get out in the quick rat-a-tat-tat of tweeting and once out in cyberspace, are almost impossible to remove.

In a recent for-instance, Michael Lohan claimed his Twitter account was hacked after it was updated with a laundry list of accusations directed toward his daughter, actress Lindsay Lohan.

The tweets claimed that she was HIV positive and that she had had an affair with studio head Tommy Mottola at the age of 17. The posts were quickly taken down and father Lohan vowed to find the hackers. But tracking down who started the posts is nearly impossible.

Closer to home, Houston tweeter Matt Bramanti ignited a firestorm on Twitter the last weekend in February when he made known his opinions about NASA funding and his displeasure with the space program. As luck would have it, his comments were seen live by a whole group of NASA staffers while at a corporate function at the Houston Zoo. That is what makes Twitter so interesting, says Houston blogger Jay Rascoe(@gunsandtacos).

"Bramanti became the devil's advocate of Houston Twitter that night by saying things most people wouldn't have."
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Setting up a Twitter profile is easy, but making it work is the hardest part. At the beginning, users hadn't quite grasped what Twitter could do or what to put out on it.

It would take another year for the service to become "self-aware" and take off and for the conversations to become more involved and lively. Even for a power user like Cohen, the early tumbleweed days were rough going.

"I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I was having fun talking to myself. Early on I may have had two followers. Now I have maybe 1,800 people following me. That's people from Houston, Mexico, Canada and Chile," Cohen says.

For Rascoe, Twitter didn't work till he set up his Guns & Tacos blog and built up a following there.

"Before my Web site, I was on Twitter and couldn't get any followers, so I looked around and saw that most of the people with a lot of followers had their own blogs, so I thought I would start one," Rascoe says.

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