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Words fail us ... which is why we have Twitter

Words sometimes aren't as momentous as the breakthroughs they herald.

Alexander Graham Bell's "Mr. Watson, come here" famously announced the invention of the telephone. As J. Robert Oppenheimer watched the fireball of the Trinity nuclear test blossom in the New Mexico desert, he reportedly said simply, "It worked."

And then there was Jack Dorsey's "inviting coworkers."

Dorsey, who had begun writing code eight days earlier for a project that was to facilitate the exchange of status updates among those with whom he worked, tapped out that brief missive March 21, 2006. The project would become known as Twitter.

That note, five years ago this Monday, was the first tweet.

What began as a few drips of information flowing to a small group has become an increasingly powerful and pervasive global pool, 140 characters at a time. It took three years, two months and one day for Twitter to rack up its first billion tweets, according to its own blog; now, users produce a billion tweets roughly every week.

It is sometimes too easy to participate. Snap judgments and misguided attempts at humor are but a click away. You are your own editor, and a finger on the wrong button can result in more than a typo.

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried has been offending people for many years. His riffs on self-pleasure during the live 1991 prime-time Emmy Awards were deemed so inappropriate that Fox cut them from the tape-delayed West Coast airing and apologized. Yet it wasn't until Gottfried went on Twitter, attempting to make light of the tsunami disaster in Japan, that disability insurer Aflac moved to end its 11-year use of him as the voice of the duck in its commercials.

Nuance and tone aren't always easy to discern, either, whether it's your friends or people you know and people you don't, such as Martha Stewart, the writers from "Late Show With David Letterman," Bill Gates, Kanye West and Rahm Emanuel, both real and imagined.

ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel last week wrote, amid tsunami concerns, that a South Pacific island wasn't the best place for a restful, relaxing vacation. Some accused him of making a tasteless joke. It turned out he really was in French Polynesia, scared and about to be evacuated to higher ground.

It is telling that someone facing potential natural disaster, just like protesting Egyptian dissidents in revolt, would take the time to share the experience via Twitter. But for many of us, it is a constant companion.

Sometimes it's serious, pointing us to important articles or the latest sign of the apocalypse. But it can be light, making an awful Academy Awards telecast not only bearable, but a great communal experience. And, as with any conversation, there can be lulls and the occasional annoyance. (All you people at the South by Southwest confab in Texas can give it a rest. We know you're having fun. We don't care.)

I fully expect that, with NCAA men's basketball games starting this week spread across CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV, an occasional glance at my Twitter feed will alert me when I am missing something I shouldn't. I also expect to see a lot of carping about truTV, what is truTV and where is truTV.

Just a year ago, Twitter says, it averaged 50 million messages a day. That figure for the last month has been about 140 million messages daily. It has averaged 460,000 new accounts per day in that month, not all of them following Charlie Sheen, who surged past 1 million in record time — followers in Twitter-ese being eavesdroppers, not necessarily disciples.

But as Twitter grows, the stakes get higher. The Associated Press is faced with a lawsuit from NBA referee Bill Spooner, who feels he was defamed by sports writer Jon Krawcynski not in a wire service story, but rather a tweet.

Krawcynski has around 2,100 followers. After Minnesota Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis complained about one of Spooner's calls in a game against Houston, Krawcynski posted on Twitter: "Ref Bill Spooner told Rambis he'd 'get it back' after a bad call. Then he made an even worse call on Rockets. That's NBA officiating folks."

Spooner said he did no such thing. The AP stands by its tweet.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has said Twitter gives people, who previously could say something to only a few people, the ability to say nothing to everyone.

But those who focus on Twitter's most trivial aspects risk sounding a little like the muckety-mucks of the American division of Marconi Wireless, too focused on supplying warships to immediately grasp and pounce on the promise of David Sarnoff's famously prophetic 1916 memo proposing development of "radio music boxes" for home entertainment.

No one knows what Twitter will become. Yet, one must marvel at what it already is.