A few weeks ago, on 21 March, Twitter celebrated its 7th birthday, marking seven successful years since its inception. Its meteoric rise to prominence has been impressive and exciting. It is now the Social Media Platform of choice for celebrities and has, as Rupert Murdoch put it: ‘helped change the news biz and the world.’ In this post I’m going to look back at its creation and development before moving on to explore some of the reasons why it has become so phenomenally successful as well as the impact it has had upon the wider world.
In The Beginning
Jack Dorsey, the man behind Twitter, first touched upon the idea while attending the University of Science and Technology in Missouri, the state where he grew up. He had for years been deeply interested in the coordination of city taxis and emergency services (in St. Louis) and how they so neatly synchronized and traversed the ornate city grid. He dabbled in the industry during adolescence and some of the open-source software he created is still used by some US taxi firms. He claims that it was the succinct communication system of city transport that inspired the concept of Twitter. In 2006, Jack found himself working at Odeo, a company specializing in podcasting and audio files. He has recently said of this period: ‘I was not that interested in podcasting, but I was very interested in the team… very interested in working with Biz Stone, Noah Glass and lots of the engineers.‘ A couple of months after he began there, Apple completed and launched the component of Itunes dealing in podcasts and audio files. Their complete domination of the trade forced Odeo to begin backing out of what was sure to become a dead-end industry. If the company was to survive, it needed a new direction. Around this time, SMS, the instant messaging service, was highly popular. The short style of messaging made Jack think back to his dealings with city transportation services and he approached the board members of Odeo with an idea. In its simplest form, this was to enable a two-sentence message to be sent from a cell phone’s keypad or computer to anyone who wanted to receive it. The idea was to link the residents of a city similarly to the way the transport services in Missouri had been linked. Unusually, the idea was immediately applauded and embraced by co-founder Evan Williams and so Jack was provided with the resources he needed to create a basic prototype. In March 2006, the Twitter platform was completed and Dorsey published the first tweet ever: After its release to the public on July 15, response and participation were initially slow. In an interview with Business Insider, Dorsey described the average man’s thought about Twitter in the early years to be ‘Why do I want to know if my brother’s eating oatmeal?’ Five or perhaps six years ago, I can remember this phase of indifference. I certainly wasn’t a fan of Twitter. The general sentiment of my friends and me was: ‘why would you join Twitter when you can do the same and more on Facebook?’ To us, a tweet was simply a limited Facebook status; however, as it turned out, it was this restriction that would become Twitter’s strength and propel the tweeting community into the hundreds of millions.
Twitter’s Success and Impact
The Spread of Information Dorsey attributes the beginning of Twitter’s ascent to its use by businesses. He has mentioned specifically a network of internet-savvy doctors in San Francisco who would use it to spread news about meetings, conferences and even social events. It was usage like this (by professionals and communities) that really kick-started the platform’s rise to prominence. As well as being highly useful for organisation and logistics, its utility as a medium to spread breaking news and gossip also became quickly apparent. In the past few years, murmurs of Twitter (as well as other Social Networking sites) forcing traditional media into obsolescence have increased in volume, and have been corroborated by many real-life instances. The death of Whitney Houston, detailed on Twitter 42 minutes before an official news outlet, or the clueless IT consultant who tweeted unknowingly about the Osama Ben Laden raid are just two of the many examples of huge and wide-reaching news stories that were broken on the social network first. It has even, for a while now, been considered normal for more localized announcements, such as road accidents, house fires or bomb scares, to be announced on Twitter first. People started getting used to this idea back in 2008. The news coverage of an emergency plane landing in New York early the following year demonstrated this with the headline, ‘New York plane crash: Twitter breaks news, again.’ A Tool of Logistics Its unmatched capacity to spread information instantaneously far and wide can be seen in its usage in the 2011 Egyptian Protests and its resultant forced shutdown by the nation’s government. Twitter was also a major tool of logistics and organisation during the 2010-2011 Tunisian Protests and the Iranian Election Protests a year earlier, among many others. The tool has also, however, often been taken up by governments and other official bodies for more ‘constructive’ purposes. For many, Twitter replaced all other information outlets during Hurricane Sandy in the US last year. Useful and important information could be relayed instantly to the people, informing them about things like rising water levels, damaged buildings, problems with infrastructure and power. Never before was such a huge amount of specific, localised and important information so easy for so many to access. Who knows how many further casualties Twitter prevented in this instance? Twitter’s Political Role The social network has also taken an increasingly prominent role in the political world in recent years too. The culmination of this trend was probably reached during the 2012 American presidential election, proving the prediction of Dick Costolo, the current CEO, to be bang on the money! According to Twitter Inc. the presidential debate on October 4 2012 generated more than 10-million tweets, more than any other event in US political history. This systematic mass of opinions and comments gave journalists, strategists, political junkies and commentators more insight into the event than had ever been possible before. It helped a lot of voters to put the issues under discussion into context and better understand the process as a whole. Undecided voters could often be swayed by the tweets and online voice of political candidates and their supporters. Obama used this to his advantage like no one before. He has been more digitally active than any other political figure and his presence on Twitter has been one of the most compelling and important pillars of his political career. His followers have had unprecedented access to his private life and the steady stream of charming photos, make him perhaps the most relatable and of-the-people president yet. Being ‘one of the lads!’ Loved by the People! And, my personal favourite: How good is this man’s PR team? The photo posted after his victory, showing him in an embrace with his wife Michelle, quickly became the most retweeted message ever – trouncing the second (Justin Bieber) by a staggering amount. Always Positive? Although Obama has mostly attracted appreciative and positive messages from the online community, this is not always the case. Setting aside the dark world of anonymous trolling, many public figures have been humiliated and abused after joining the platform. George Osborne, for example, received a torrent of abuse after signing up and the Pope was also not safe from a mass of sarcastic quipping and criticism. Before Twitter, neither of these written onslaughts would have been possible, so can we call it unequivocally ‘good’? Twitter is a tool that allows people to be heard. Being able to voice concerns and legitimate opinions to community leaders and figureheads is always beneficial to the community as a whole and Twitter allows any subscriber to be heard by almost every ear in existence. It gives individuals a voice like never before and although this can be abused in various ways (as can most forms of technology), it is, unquestionably, a good thing.
Along with its value in the areas of politics, news, organisation and its obvious benefits in marketing (an area too large for me to cover here), it is still used mostly as a tool of entertainment and gossip, perhaps the things Dorsey had most in mind when he pitched the idea back in 2006. It is nearly always at large entertainment events that the barrage of tweets reaches fever pitch. One of the earlier climaxes was at the World Cup in 2010, which saw a record of 2,940 tweets per second being set after Japan scored against Cameroon on June 14, 2010. Beyoncé revealing her baby bump at MTV’s 2011 Music Video Award Show saw a flood of tweets culminating at 8,868 per second. This record was trounced, however, in Japan during a television screening of Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky,’ a highly popular anime film which, unbelievably, reached a new high point of 25,088. This remains the record for tweets per second, but Obama’s re-election saw the highest number of tweets per minute, a newer unit of measurement – a whopping 327,000! With the notable exceptions of Barack Obama, who appears at number 5 with 28,966,634 followers and the CNN account at 32 with just over 10 million, over 90% of the 100 most-followed Twitter users are pop artists, sportsmen, actors and celebrities. They are overwhelmingly players in entertainment rather than education or information. This gives us a further indication of why Twitter has become so immensely popular. Along with its undeniable value as a news source, a marketing tool, a political device and an educational aid (much research has been done into its educational value, particularly by Dr. Reynol Junco , an American psychologist and social media researcher – and this has been almost wholly positive), it has allowed people to connect to their role-models and childhood heroes in a way impossible up until seven years ago. It’s a way of finding out what your favourite actor did today or the opinions of the front-man of your favorite band, from him, not his PR manager. It is this connectivity and communicative ease that makes it so valuable. Perhaps it is the ultimate democratizer! It allows its users to really feel part of a community, a network of companions with similar tastes and interests. Jack has achieved his vision: he has connected the people of the world like the city taxis of Missouri. Congratulations to Jack and the team at Twitter inc. for seven successful years in the business. Here’s to many more…