As an introduction to the world, “just setting up my twitter” is so banal it’s brilliant. If Jack Dorsey [@jack], co-founder of Twitter, could have his first tweet back again, maybe he’d do it differently – then again, maybe not. At the last count (July 2013) Twitter had over 200 million active users worldwide, generating over 400 million tweets a day, giving the company a market valuation in the region of $10.5bn.
If all great things come from simple ideas, Twitter’s was a stroke of genius. Twitter is simply a means of instantly communicating with others around the world, but with one caveat – whatever you want to say has to be done in 140 characters or less. The character limit was imposed because Twitter was initially set up to follow the SMS text protocol, a connection that’s long been defunct.
It’s now come to define the twitter generation. Since Dorsey’s first tweet on 21 March 2006, the social networking tool has been responsible for breaking news, aiding revolutions, saving lives and keeping big corporations in check. It’s amazing what you can do with a few simple lines of text.
At 3.25am on Monday 2 May 2011, news of Osama Bin Laden’s death was leaked on Twitter by Keith Urbahn [@keithurbahn], the former chief-of-staff for Donald Rumsfeld. “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.” As he tweeted this, Barack Obama was still drafting his speech and it would be a full hour before the formal announcement was made. Urbahn wasn’t the first to correctly speculate about what the Presidential address was going to be – about 38 minutes before Urbahn tweeted, rumours of the address had leaked onto Twitter – but it was his tweet that carried the authority for the news to spread. And spread it did. According to blogsite SocialFlow, “The rate at which Keith’s message spread was staggering. Within a minute, more than 80 people had already reposted the message, including the NY Times reporter Brian Stelter [@brianstelter]”. Once Stelter – who at the time had over 50,000 followers – retweeted the news, it spread like wildfire with over 14.8 million tweets recorded between the first rumours of the presidential address at 2.46am and the official announcement at 4.30am.
People who don’t use Twitter might still see it as a means of broadcasting the minutiae of modern life. For power users though, it’s a tool that creates a highly personalised feed of information that enables them to shape – and alter – how news is delivered. During the Arab Spring uprisings, Twitter was seen as critical in sharing information that might otherwise have been suppressed by the authorities.
While it might be hard to put forward a case that Twitter was a cause of the revolutions, nobody can deny its impact. A study conducted by the University of Washington entitled ‘Opening Closed Regimes’ showed how Twitter helped shape political debate in the Arab Spring and spread democratic ideas across international borders. It was also noted that “spikes in online revolutionary conversations often preceded major events on the ground”. In the week before Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in February 2011, tweets about political change in Egypt grew from 2,300 a day to over 230,000 a day.
In the US, Twitter also played its part during Hurricane Sandy, with over 20 million storm-related tweets, some from the official feed of the Fire Department of New York [@FDNY]. This was run by a single woman, Emily Rahimi, who sifted through a massive number of tweets to offer reassurance, divulge essential information, and dispatch emergency services to people who couldn’t get through to a swamped 911 service.
It’s little surprise that the most followed user in the world is Justin Bieber [@justinbieber] with over 44m followers, closely shadowed by Lady Gaga [@ladygaga] and Katy Perry [@katyperry] with 40m each. With these numbers you’re more likely to win the Lottery than chat directly to your favourite celeb but for many, the illusion is enough.
But as a window into celebrity life, it’s simply fascinating. Where else could you see a real-time image of what actor Simon Pegg [@simonpegg] has just eaten for breakfast (“Digest in peace. Steak and eggs…”), receive a put-down from one of the world’s greatest comedians (“Did you only join Twitter to promote your shows??” < “No, no, no. I joined so you & I could be friends” – Ricky Gervais [@rickygervais]) or have your grammar corrected by Piers Morgan [@piersmorgan] (“Your an opinionated dumbass”/”it’s ‘you’re'”)?
Even if you spend your whole time on Twitter without being acknowledged by the stars you adore, Twitter gives you a real (sometimes too real) glimpse at celeb personalities free from the usual ring-of-fire PR minders. What wasn’t there to like about Sir Alan Sugar’s [@Lord_Sugar] drawn-out spat with US Apprentice rival Donald Trump @realDonaldTrump]? Escalating from a seemingly random conversation about wind farms, the tweets turned ugly with Trump making veiled threats about owning the Apprentice (possibly delivering the ultimate ‘you’re fired!’ to Sugar himself ) while Sugar questioned Trump’s finances.
As the action turned more schoolyard – Sugar boasted about the number of followers he had (“you only have 1.9m followers… how comes I have 2.5m and you have six times more population?”) – it attracted a number of celebrity followers. “Lord Sugar vs Donald Trump on Twitter is like a 50ft high Mr Burns and a 50ft high Del Boy fighting in the middle of Tokyo #rivetted.” [Caitlin Moran – @caitlinmoran].
Watch what you tweet
If Twitter is helping to usher in a new unexpurgated form of communication, traditional laws are on hand to drag it back. Several high-profile cases have shown that you have to be careful what you tweet no matter how few followers you have.
In what’s become known as the Twitter Joke Trial, Paul Chambers [@pauljchambers] used Twitter to send a “public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. In January 2010, seeing that the airport he was flying from was struggling with bad weather, Chambers tweeted: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” A slightly inappropriate joke perhaps, but a joke nonetheless. Unfortunately for Chambers, it led to him being detained at his office by an anti-terror squad and he subsequently lost his job. A number of celebrities – including one of Twitter’s most prolific users Stephen Fry [@stephenfry] – backed his cause and his conviction was quashed at the third appeal.
Twitter played a key role in Obama’s election. His tweet, “Four more years”, became the most popular ever, re-tweeted by over 795,000 Twitter users.