Tweating Out

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Twitter, the microblogging and social media tool that's become increasingly popular among the technologically hip, both young and old, has literally thousands of applications.  How any one person (or company) uses Twitter is unique unto them.

While some people (also called Twitterers or Tweeple) use Twitter to keep in touch with friends or to share useful information, others use it as a business tool or marketing platform.  Still others use it primarily for networking.  Foodies, in particular, have flocked to Twitter in droves for this purpose.

From nationally-recognized newspapers and websites like @LATimesfood, @nytimesfood and @seriouseats, to more local presences like @TMFood (Texas Monthly's food section) and @alisoncook of the Houston Chronicle, and even area restaurants and businesses like @SaintArnold, @Saute and @coffeegroundz, a foodie on Twitter can find endless resources and information while keeping up with their favorite food writers and bloggers.

But what's a hungry foodie to do when they find themselves at a loss for a dinner or lunch companion?  That's where @TwEATup comes in.  The brainchild of local web entrepreneur and social networker Laban Johnson, TwEATup is a service that links Twitterers in the Houston area with others who want to grab a bite to eat.

This is how TwEATup works: as a Twitter user, you send an @ reply or a direct message (also called a DM) to @TwEATup asking -- as an example -- if anyone wants to have lunch in the Galleria area around 1:00.  TwEATup automatically sends that message to everyone who's following their account.  If all goes well, one of the other followers will respond to you (again, through an @ reply or a DM) that they'd like to meet you at Kenny & Ziggy's at 1:00 if you're interested.

It's important to note that TwEATup is not a dating service or anything along those lines.  In fact, most of the people who are on Twitter and who follow TwEATup know each other through at least a few degrees of separation, thanks to the increasingly small world offered by the likes of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.  More than likely, you'll end up eating with someone whom you've heard of through a friend, or who works in the same field, or who volunteers at the same non-profit, or who plays the same online MMORPG as you.  But even if you happen to meet a total stranger, chances are that you'll have something in common, even if it's just the love of a good meal.

I sat down with Laban to get more insight into why he believes TwEATup is a valuable service and how he feels about the foodie community coming together on Twitter:

What was the inspriation for TwEATup?

Lunch meetups using social media are a lot of fun.  They break the daily routine and monotony, if only just for an hour, they are a great chance to branch out socially, try new foods and restaurants, and of course they are invaluable free word-of-mouth publicity for local eateries.

Personally I have participated for a few months in a local Twitter lunch meetup called @MenWhoLunch, hosted by David Herrold, which gets anywhere from three to five or even fifteen guys together to eat at all kinds of places downtown. This was kind of the downtown guys' answer to Ladies Who Lunch (@L_W_L ) a very successful lunch meetup and social mixer for the ladies which was organized by Houston's very own social media maven, Erica O'Grady (@ericaogrady).

I saw the need for a more 'unisex' lunch for both men and women, and one that could happen more often, more openly, and even perhaps simultaneously with other TwEATups in different parts of town. I started mentioning the idea to others and got lots of positive feedback on the idea, so I felt it just had to be done.

Does this kind of service exist in any other cities that you're aware of?

Yes. After the name TwEATup was settled on I found it was already in use around the world. If you do a search on search.twitter.com for "tweatup," you'll find the term being used by Twitterers in many places including Southern California, Mumbai and Bangalore who just recently enjoyed their own Tweatups. Houston is lucky in that we were the first city to register the term as a username on Twitter on behalf of the local community.

Also, the concept of a lunch meetup is far from new, and similar ideas or services exist locally such as the Houston Chowhounds and Never Eat Alone, created by Joe Castanon on Keith Ferrazzi's GreenlightCommunity.com.

How successful would you say the service has been so far? More users than expected? Fewer?

Well, it's still very early. The @TwEATup account was created in mid December 2008 just before the holidays. It has already over 100 local followers, but I'd like to see that multipied by ten in order to ensure the likelihood of regular TwEATups.

TwEATup is a "community service" for anyone who wants to make use of it anywhere around town and depends entirely on community involvement by participation and word-of-mouth -- people telling people -- to encourage its success.

Any personal anecdotes you'd like to relate about TwEATup?

Some people dislike the name "Twitter," and thus they groan at anything with "twit" or "tweet" in the name, but that certainly hasn't stopped Twitter from growing and it won't stop Tweetups or TwEATups, either.

When organizing a lunch meeting some days just are better than others. The middle of the week is generally best, Wednesday and Thursday, except of course the day before a holiday when people have other preparations in mind.  Also, we don't all do lunch exactly at noon; some people like to sneak out a little earlier or later. Communicating with the individual participants beforehand will ensure the success of any event.

--- Katharine Shilcutt

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