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taviag: Am tweeting while at work. Which, coincidentally, is what I'm writing about: time waster or career builder? 11:57 AM from web.

nejsnave@taviag : i think the correct answer is 'both'. ;) about 24 hours ago from web

It used to be whistle while you work. Now, it's tweet.

That, for the uninitiated, is how you post on Twitter, the coolest kid on the social networking block.

Twitter is a microblogging tool that lets users send and read updates - or tweets - of up to 140 characters. People post random thoughts, a new Web link or business updates. In just a sentence or two.

In the past year, Twitter has caught on like wildfire. There are now about 4.5 million users over all, 70 per cent of whom joined in 2008, estimates market tracking firm HubSpot Inc. It calculates that 5,000 to 10,000 new accounts are being opened every day.

No wonder Twitter has become one of the fastest-growing social networking sites, according to Nielsen Online.

Canadians are in on the act: Toronto has become the world's sixth-most twittery city, HubSpot says.

And Twitter is infiltrating workplaces.

As growing numbers sit at their desk reading updates about a plane crash in Amsterdam, checking whether Barack Obama has posted his first tweet since becoming U.S. President - he has attracted more than 300,000 followers - or finding cool people to follow (hello, Stephen Colbert), it's a wonder any work gets done these days.

The debate over Twitter, as with all social networking sites, is whether it's a productivity enhancer or a workplace distraction.

Twitter 101 Here's how it works.

Sign in and fill out a profile. A box appears at the top of the page, asking "What are you doing?" Fill in the answer.

People who have signed up to track your postings ("followers") receive your updates; conversely, you can receive musings from people you have chosen to follow - ranging from your company chief executive officer (Sun Microsystems CEI Jonathan Schwartz tweets) to basketball great Shaquille O'Neal.

Companies are learning how to put Twitter to work. Employees at Sony BMG Music Canada Inc. have been posting concert and album release dates, and WestJet Airlines Ltd. employees have given updates on seat sales and flight delays.

The proponents

Jen Evans, president of Toronto-based Sequentia Communications, has 1,649 followers and tracks the musings of 1,283 others. She is a huge Twitter fan - for herself and her staff of 16.

Her business involves connecting businesses with clients, and she's found Twitter invaluable for recruiting, drumming up business and building her brand.

Having staff on Twitter can be a "visibility enhancer," she says.

Larger companies, too, are jumping on board.

Telus Corp. allows Twitter time at work. "You have to trust employees," says spokesman Shawn Hall, who personally uses it "all the time" to stay connected to journalists, public relations groups and the telecommunications community.

The opponents

Employers are still wrestling with policies on Facebook and other more established social networking sites, never mind Twitter. But some, including several government departments, such as those for the City of Toronto, ban personal use at work.

Murray Key, operations manager of a steel warehousing company in Edmonton, can't stand to see staff whittle away their work hours on any kind of social networking.

"There is a time and place to be a social butterfly, to play inane games and to waste personal time, but for the vast majority of us, that place is not at work," he says.

Experiment with it

Experts who have studied social media are landing on the side of permissiveness.

"The impression I have is that Canadian companies still don't get the value of these tools," says Don Tapscott, chairman of business strategy think tank nGenera Insight and author of Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing your World.

Twitter has emerged as a "powerful tool that can speed up the metabolism of an organization, keep everyone better informed and enable greater agility and responsiveness to changing conditions."

He encourages people to experiment with it. Managers should try it out - at least to understand how it works - and give employees a chance "to self-organize and collaborate using these tools," he says.

Twitter can be a key marketing and networking tool, says productivity expert Steve Prentice, president of consulting firm Bristall Morgan in Toronto. He suggests companies start trying it out on an internal basis - starting from the top, with CEOs, to boost communication with staff. And companies should have a policy in place so workers understand perimeters.

Given the growing desire to share information, in real time on the Web, employers take note: The tweeting will only get louder.

Have ideas on any innovative trends in the workplace? Send a tweet to @TaviaG.

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