It wasn't all that long ago that the word twitter was used primarily in the context of a rather peaceful activity: bird-watching. But for more than six million Internet users—a number that grows exponentially on a weekly basis—Twitter with a capital T is the trendiest social networking service on the Web, offering an addictive method of quickly sharing innermost thoughts, exchanging links, breaking relevant news, and, in the case of authors, forging connections with readers.
Twitter allows its users to send and read other users' updates, or "tweets"—text messages of up to 140 characters. Updates are displayed on the user's profile page and delivered to other users who have signed up to receive them on the Web site or via RSS feeds or mobile-phone applications.
As they have come to do with Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube, many in the publishing industry now consider Twitter an essential marketing and communication tool: Publishers such as Random House, Graywolf Press, and New Directions interact directly and instantaneously with reviewers, booksellers, and industry professionals about new and forthcoming titles. But for authors new to the service or mulling over whether to join, Twitter can be a challenge: How does one send and receive clear signals amid the high-clanging noise? Just as setting up a page on other major networking sites does not guarantee success, joining Twitter doesn't mean automatic recognition. It helps to have a game plan in advance: a specific reason to follow specific users' updates and an incentive for them to follow yours.
Some authors use Twitter as a way to provide readers with links to newly published work online, reading-tour schedules, and submission calls. But authors such as Amanda Eyre Ward or Jami Attenberg eschew direct self-promotion, choosing instead to reveal snippets of their day-to-day life. Novelist Tayari Jones originally signed up for Twitter "because everyone else was" but didn't commit to the service until last fall as a way of keeping people informed of the progress of her third novel and providing details of her recent trips. "Twitter, for me, is a place to chat, a way to connect with my readers. Because of Twitter, people come to my readings when they realize I am in their area. Sometimes it can be really spontaneous. I love it when that happens."
Novelist John Wray took a more innovative approach, deciding from the outset that he would use his Twitter account to publish a kind of micro-epistolary novel, one 140-character installment at a time. "Citizen," which Wray began writing on February 19, is told from the perspective of a character deleted from his most recent novel, Lowboy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). "I chose a character with fairly straightforward fears and desires, with the intention that each individual tweet might read as a complete micronarrative," he explained in an e-mail message. "That's a hell of a lot harder than I anticipated, of course, and a lot of good material has to be cut away. But it's probably a healthy exercise to be compelled to say things in as few words as possible."
As with any social network, it's easy to burn precious hours reading relatively useless information, and Twitter can prove distracting for writers struggling to finish their books. "Twitter is a crazy time-vampire," says Jones.
Wray also points out that making direct connections to readers on Twitter is still a difficult prospect. "From a writer's perspective, finding interesting stuff to read on Twitter is a bit like trying to find interesting doodles in a vast, noisy, badly lit study hall. You find things by accident, if at all, and you often feel as if you're intruding."
While there are rewards to be reaped from accidental discovery and perpetual conversation, the jury is still out on whether authors are taking full advantage of what Twitter has to offer—or if they even need to.
Sarah Weinman is a freelance writer in New York City and a frequent contributor to Poets & Writers Magazine. Her Web site is www.sarahweinman.com  and she is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/sarahw .