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Senior Correspondent

Keep your eye on Twitter. It’s a fascinating demonstration of growth in the Internet economy, one with a serious upside packed with dangerous obstacles the company must surmount. When Twitter first appeared, I figured it was largely for kids who would use it to send 140-character messages about where to hang out or who saw whom at the concert. Then I discovered hashtags, and realized that if you stuck a hashtag in front of a word you could participate in a focused channel. The hashtag #syria, for example, will collect all tweets that contain the hashtag, and suddenly you’re getting the latest, often from the streets of Damascus itself.

When I mastered that aspect of Twitter, I began using it to listen in on conferences I couldn’t attend, because these days most gatherings have their own hashtag, and people at the conference keep up a rolling stream of chatter that sometimes tips me to new things to write about. Hashtags are so absurdly useful that you can see why Twitter execs have been frustrated by them — it’s taken awhile for people like me to figure them out, and the Twitter Web interface (www.twitter.com) has undergone extensive modification as the company tries to make itself more user friendly. This is a company that needs to unlock the sometimes hidden value inside.

That the process is beginning is beyond doubt. It was in June that Twitter said it would set up a special page for Nascar fans, where they could gather Twitter messages from drivers and teams at the Pocono 400 race. To get the word out, the company used TV ads, an interesting confluence of older and newer media. You could pull much of the same functionality out of Twitter if you took the time to figure out how to search and filter it, but Twitter’s top brass needed a bigger audience than computer geeks. Hence the TV ads and the prebuilt Nascar page.

It’s clear that Twitter is onto something here because as you follow news items on television, you’re seeing more and more mention of ‘tweets,’ as Twitter’s tiny comments are called, and a growing number of public personalities, from screen stars to athletes, are tweeting on their own. As the world learns of the public relations value of Twitter, the company has focused on getting celebrities to use its services, designating them as ‘Very Important Tweeters’ and making sure their Twitter IDs are well circulated. In late July, Twitter announced it would build a destination page for the Olympics in London, and we can expect more destination pages in coming months.

A destination page is a big deal because Twitter isn’t just helping users find content. It’s also hiring editors and producers to manage and produce content and, in the process, learning how to fold ads into the Twitter-stream. In the case of the Olympics, it’s working with NBC Universal and aiming to create a genuine news hub, which makes it into a burgeoning media company of its own. For its part, NBC will play up the Twitter connection with TV promotions during the Olympics and links to news and video clips Twitter has carried. Thus the progression of Twitter, from unmediated streaming of short user messages to curated, edited publishing of pages that cull tweets and new content and shape the whole into a new kind of news story.

The development of Twitter is quite a spectacle, but its key players need to be careful how they handle what could potentially become a major news franchise. A major problem area is how Twitter deals with third-party developers who have created tools to help users manage the Twitter datastream. There are many of them out there and they are useful precisely because they provide tools the Twitter site does not. Twitter saw the handwriting on the wall and acquired a third-party app called Tweetdeck last year because it wants more control over the user experience and doesn’t want it to become tangled up in competing apps.

The concern is understandable, but at the end of July the company warned third-party developers that it wanted to see a consistent Twitter experience, a goal that’s a long way off to judge from the proliferation of interfaces on various Twitter apps for smartphones and tablets. Twitter sets its own guidelines on how developers use its applications programming interface (API) and is warning it intends to more thoroughly enforce its guidelines on what is allowable.

The problem is that the harder Twitter makes life for third-party developers, who have produced in many cases a better way to use Twitter than the company itself has provided, the more it will stifle the very innovation that has transformed it from a toy for geeks into a rapidly growing ad-fueled media presence. As Twitter’s burgeoning growth continues, this is not the time to centralize the experience because everyone still wonders what the experience will become.

So good for Twitter for trying to up the ante on its products and audience, but expect major growing pains as a communications company learns how to play the power game of big media. And when you get a chance, learn how to use those Twitter hashtags!

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