We'd heard that Tony Hsieh, the 34-year-old CEO of online footwear retailer Zappos.com, had become over-the-edge fanatical about Twitter, the free online service that works like a micro-sized blog. Hsieh wraps up conference presentations about his company (which may top $1 billion in sales this year) imploring audiences to sign up for Twitter (he has no business connection to Twitter other than as a user). There even was a rumor he was requiring his company's 1,600 employees to use it.

Twitter lets you post short text updates (140 characters maximum) from a computer or handheld device that repeatedly answer the question, "What are you doing?" Your updates are listed chronoligically on a personal page that can read like a Red Bull-fueled day-planner. Others can sign up to follow your "Tweets," as they're called, and you can follow theirs. You can set up a keyword, such as a company's name, and see how it is being used in the Twittersphere.

It's not just for kids, it's for companies, Hsieh believes -- especially for Zappos and its growing Las Vegas call-center workforce in an industry with chronic employee-churn problems. The company has an aggressively social culture (the latest corporate event was a "Bald & Blue" day in which employees shaved and painted one another's heads) aimed at maintaining engaged, devoted employees who will translate their joy into superlative customer service.

When we failed to reach Hsieh (pronounced Shay) with traditional phone calls and e-mails, we smacked our foreheads and contacted him through his Twitter page, where his latest update (his 7th Tweet of 18 he posted that day) said:

"Went 2 my room after my speech, came out 2 balcony. Balcony door somehow locked behind me so now I am trapped outside." A few days after the rescue, we talked.

Twitter seems like just another online distraction to some people, but it's almost become part of your company's information technology. Wait a minute -- Twittering didn't actually rescue you from the balcony, did it? You probably had a phone...?

Actually, I text-messaged my co-workers, who were still attending a conference session at the time, as well as Twittered my situation. The combination of the two was what rescued me. I didn't have the hotel phone number with me.

We'd heard a rumor that you were requiring employees to use Twitter. But the "Employees Who Twitter" page on your corporate Web site lists only 408 of them. And one of your Tweets says: "Problem is seems 2 freak people out & they think we are telling employees 2 do so but we're not." So maybe we heard wrong.

Well, our number one focus is our company culture, so we encourage people to sign up for it. But no one's required to. We also offer Twitter classes. It can be a little complicated for first-time users, so we kind of step them through the process. The classes are optional as well.

What's the upside? Are Zappos employees using Twitter to do their jobs better?

People do talk about stuff that's happening in the office, but it's not job-specific so much as, "I'm eating this in the cafeteria." We encourage our employees to hang out with each other outside the office. Then they can get to know each other on a more personal level than when you pass by someone in the hallway and say hi.

So it helps with retention in a business with chronic churn. Legend has it your call reps also are jazzed because they are empowered to go to extraordinary lengths to help customers [Zappos customers can order online, but they are encouraged to call in if they have questions]. They can recommend other stores that may have what a customer wants, they can download whatever software they need to help a shopper....

Well they can't just download anything onto their computers. That's more about security concerns. But they don't have scripts or talk-times like most call centers. We pretty much leave it up to them to use their best judgment.

And a recent Harvard Business Review blog post said you pay employees a bonus to quit?

We've been doing that for a few years [Zappos offers to pay new hires a bounty to leave after the initial training period, an offer designed to make sure that only committed workers stay on]. It was $1,000 at the time of that article, but I just heard we raised it to $1,500. Each training class has about 40 people. In some classes nobody takes it. In some a couple people might.

You have 5,681 "followers" signed up to read your Twitter updates -- that's not just employees. Who are they?

We have eight million customers. It's been great for getting feedback. For example, we have a new website that's still in beta. As we make improvements, I'll send out a Twitter message asking people what they think.

And you additionally can track anyone who mentions Zappos on Twitter. Here's an actual example: "Just bought boots on Zappos. Grt cust svc--sent an email last night asking about hiking boots for flat wide feet and had links this AM." Are Twits a good focus group?

It's been really useful, finding out what actual word-of-mouth conversations are out there.

Of course, all the Twitter updates from Zappos employees are public, too. Anyone can read about your employees finding good bars to meet at and drink at. You posted a message about your nipples being chafed from surfboard wax. Couldn't that kind of candor scare customers or business partners or investors?

There may be some times when an individual Twitter message out of context can give a bad impression. But generally people on Twitter aren't just looking at one single Tweet. They see what we do over time. For customers, I think it's a way to get an inside glimpse of what our people are like and what our culture is like. Our belief is that your culture and your brand are, ultimately, the same thing. Your brand might lag your culture, but eventually it's going to catch up. I think where companies are finding challenges now is they want to project this great brand, but if inside the company it's not a great culture, then they're going to be in trouble in the long term. For us, I just think it's important to be real and authentic.