Teenagers adore it. Oprah Winfrey, too. Even U.S. President Barack Obama uses it.

In three years, Twitter has become a ubiquitous cyber-tool for both everyday communication and important news. Even Time magazine has named “The Twitter Guys” among the world’s 100 most influential people.

In March, Twitter had 19.1 million unique visitors worldwide, an almost fifteenfold increase from a year earlier, according to comScore.

“It’s an incredibly easy way to communicate with one’s friends, and people who are too busy to blog use it as a micro-blog,” says Colin Crawford, a senior fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. “Twitter’s growth is also driven by the fact that people increasingly communicate via their cellphones, not their computers.”

Twitter asks the question “What are you doing?” and lets users answer in 140 characters or less on their computers or cell phones. These updates — “tweets” — are not always inane.

Two years ago, California fire departments started using Twitter to send updates about wildfires. “What surprised me early on was how easy it felt to use Twitter after a natural disaster,” says Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. “We had built it as a social communications tool.”

Since then, Twitter has become a weighty news channel where politicians, companies, organizations and private individuals send often-vital updates around the clock.

“As a tool Twitter is very simple, so users tell us what they want from the system,” explains Stone. “It has highlighted the fact that people need information in real-time.”

The company still only employs some 30 people. They work in a San Francisco loft, where they park their bikes next to the kitchen. According to Stone, Twitter is no high-tech miracle.

“It’s like flying birds. They move together in a flock based on very rudimentary communication”, he says. “Twitter is a triumph of humanity, not technology.”

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• Want to learn how to use Twitter more effectively? Tim O’Reilly and Sarah Milstein have co-authored The Twitter Book: The Definitive Guide to the Planet’s Most Useful and Effective Communications Channel. The book includes examples from more than 60 top Twitterers, and ways to make your tweets stand out from the rest. The book is available from oreilly.com and retails for $24.99.

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