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The Tweet Hereafter

Why are jocks so atwitter about the newest social media craze?

Stewart Cink is a nice golfer—ranked 25th in the world, a member of the 2008 Ryder Cup--winning U.S. team—and one of the most affable, accessible guys on the PGA Tour. But the 17th flagstick at Sawgrass has more star power than the laid-back Atlantan. So why does a digital version of Arnie's Army, 176,000 strong and surging, follow Cink's musings on Twitter? Perhaps they are riveted by the revelations that he recently forgot the departure time of a flight, got lost driving around Jacksonville Beach and—brace yourself—refilled his allergy medication. Even Cink is bemused. "I'm honored," he says of the size of his audience. "I respect and am grateful to everybody choosing to listen to the b.s. that I've put on Twitter."

Such b.s. is booming. From Serena Williams (recent tweet: "Don't forget I love The Little Mermaid") to Shawn Johnson ("Just finished up setting the record for the World's Largest Bed Jump hahaha"), Bruce Bowen ("Just met TD Jakes, I read many of his books") to Barry Zito ("I can't think of one good reason why the Denver airport's in friggin West Kansas"), jocks are atwitter about Twitter. Fans too.

Why? The microblogging tool—users update their audience with frequent messages of 140 characters or less—satisfies fans' thirst for a closer connection to big-time athletes, many of whom are overpackaged and overmanaged in their quest for marketing cash. There's also the way Twitter, which has become the fastest-growing major website in the U.S., peels back the curtain on an athlete's existence, showcasing personality layers never seen at press conferences. When athletes share details of their most mundane tasks, joys and frustrations, fans are fascinated. Hey, look, that guy on TV is just like me!

"I love getting my tweets from Dara Torres because they allow us to see that she's human, whether she's talking about the greasy onion rings she's eating or her butt-kicking workouts," says Jen King, a 45-year-old crisis-hotline worker from Pekin, Ill., who follows the ageless Olympic swimmer and tireless Twitterer. A sample tweet from Torres last weekend: "Guy just moved all my bags in overhead, just moved them back... WTF???"

There are good reasons for athletes to love the Twitter connection, not the least of which is the opportunity for no-contact contact. Why get mobbed at the mall when you can charm thousands with a quick tweet from the comfort of your eighth bedroom? And, thanks to the 140-character limit, posts take much less energy-consuming thought than blogs, where readers expect a modicum of literacy. Misspellings and mysterious grammar are accepted tenets of Twitterese.

Another attraction: Twitter lets athletes speak on their own terms. "In this world we live in now, everybody becomes media," says Shaquille O'Neal, who has an enormous Twitter following of 950,000. "If something is going to be said, hey, it's coming from me." Journalists may lament athletes passing over the middle men. But honestly, what's more interesting, a "we gave 110 percent" from the postgame podium, or a tweet like this from Shaq last week: "Dam manny ramirez, come on man Agggggggggh, agggggggh, agggggh."

Twitter is two-way talk, which has benefits. No, Serena probably won't read your stroke—or conditioning—tips. But when Cink mentioned that his iPod got soaked in a rainstorm, Twitter pals offered a remedy: Put the device in a bag of rice, which sucks the moisture out of the hard drive. iPod saved. Torres exchanges parenting ideas with other moms. Milwaukee Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva, who almost sparked Armageddon by tweeting from the locker room at halftime earlier this year, asked followers for restaurant recommendations in Indianapolis. Responses flooded his phone. After agonizing deliberations, Villanueva chose ... Hooters. "The food was great," he says. The waitresses? "They were hot."

To make the All-Twitter team, Shaq offers a simple tip: "Never be boring." Unfortunately, some people defy the Big Tweeter's wisdom. Take a Lance Armstrong tweet, from early May: "Just landed in Venice. Never been here. Can't wait to experience it." Inspiring, Lance.

Many athletes don't see Twitter's appeal. "I'd rather be playing with my kids," says Baltimore Orioles infielder-DH Ty Wigginton, who proudly points out that he's never thumbed LOL. And shouldn't stars be spending more time focused on their jobs and less opining on the Denver airport? (Though you're spot on, Zito.) "One guy has told me less twittering, more jump shots," says Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love.

But athletic Twitterers emphasize that posts take 30 seconds at most to write. "It's had no effect on golf at all," insists Cink, who, coming off a career year in '08, has struggled on the Tour while flourishing on Twitter. Last week he missed the 54-hole cut at the Players Championship. "I stink. Literally and figuratively," he tweeted on Saturday.

Even if he never gets his game back, Cink has left a mark. "It's like the only legacy I have," he says. "One day, on my gravestone it's going to say, STEWART CINK, TWITTER PIONEER OF PGA TOUR. AND ALSO, PLAYER." As epithets go, it could be worse. It's under 140 characters too.

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Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME.

The microblog satisfies fans' thirst for CLOSER CONNECTIONS to stars.