William Flew on Twitter

March 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Five years ago, three men in California started an online messaging service that they said was a forum for “short bursts of inconsequential information”. They called it Twitter, meaning “chirps from birds”.

Twitter is a silly name. Tweet, tweet, cheep, cheap, everybody listen to me. Yet the service’s fifth birthday is nothing to be clucked at. Silly name or not, Twitter is not merely for the birds.

For those unfamiliar, the appeal of Twitter can appear close to imponderable. Users write 140 characters on any subject they wish, can follow the similar musings of others, or can rebroadcast any that take their fancy. Talk of tweets, Twitspeak and the Twitterati sounds cutesy and cloying, and the vast majority of tweets published are banal, self-indulgent or just plain dull. Yet the same could be said for telephone calls. When the users actually have something to say, one can only marvel, suddenly, at the power of this new means of saying it.

Social media did not cause the Arab Spring, but have certainly facilitated it. Twitter, even more than Facebook, allows one voice — any voice — to be heard by thousands. In Tunisia, protesters used it to rally each other. In Egypt, even as the authorities attempted to impose an internet blackout, local activists tweeted reams of telephone numbers, so that journalists worldwide could contact Egyptians directly. Twitter continues to provide a window into Bahrain. For a tyrant, this is the stuff of nightmares. If the world was relatively slow to wake up to the plight of Libya, and remains unclear about the reality on the ground, this is surely in part because so few Libyans tweet.

The simplicity of Twitter is its strength. It can be accessed not only on a computer, but also by anybody with a mobile phone. In technological terms, it could perhaps have been with us a decade ago. Had it been, though, we would not have known what to do with it. Since then, humanity has caught the communications bug.

Twitter was not intended to be a tool of revolution. Jack Dorsey, a co-founder, has said that the name appealed because it denoted “a short burst of inconsequential information”. Yet the ease with which users can broadcast that which is petty (“Am walking the dog” etc) should not blind us to its power for broadcasting that which is not.

Or, indeed, for gathering information about that which is not. Biz Stone, another co-founder (see page 39), notes that “many find that using Twitter may be more about searching or reading than sharing”. Twitter is a news wire encompassing every newswire there is. Use it deftly, and you sit at the nexus of a world.

“We had no idea how extraordinary Twitter would be as a service,” says Mr Stone. Even now, it is impossible to generalise about its use. The same network that gives voice to Arab protest also allows gossip, the sharing of jokes, and, on occasion, a rather shrill sort of cyber-bullying. Through the use of hashtags (eg, #rednoseday), it allows a sort of national (sometimes global) conversation, in real time. Few politicians have yet grasped that the right sort of tweet has as much clout and reach as any sort of press conference .

Twitter may not be the future. The company has yet to elucidate a coherent strategy of making money, and the vast bulk of its users, strikingly, are over 26. Possibly a new generation will find new tools, as new generations are wont to. Still, as it celebrates its fifth birthday, despite the name, we should be well beyond dismissing it as trivial. Today, the masses can speak with voices to match the mighty. As prevalent as birdsong, perhaps, but so much harder to ignore.

 

JEFF CHIU / APBiz Stone, with co-founder Evan Williams, says Twitter is politically neutralToday, it has become a stream of the world’s consciousness, allowing hundreds of millions of people to do everything from share inane gossip to organise revolutions.

As Twitter prepares to celebrate its fifth birthday on Monday, one of the company’s co-founders defended Twitter’s role in shattering the barrier between our public and private lives. Biz Stone, who developed the system with Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey, said that the Silicon Valley company would focus on improving the service rather than profits.

Since Mr Dorsey posted the first message using the 140-character system on March 21, 2006, which read “just setting up my twttr”, an estimated 200 million users have signed up, with one billion tweets sent every week.

Some argue that Twitter’s growth, along with that of social networking rival Facebook, has damaged our private lives. Users have lost their jobs because of comments posted in haste, while children are being bullied by their peers through the medium. “Many have found that opening up can be very valuable,” said Mr Stone in response to the criticisms. “In fact, the percentage of people who choose to maintain private or ‘protected’ accounts on Twitter is very low compared to those who choose to be public.”

The ability for anyone to able to use Twitter, and see what others are writing on it, have made it the perfect platform for activists. In countries such as Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and Moldova, it has been used to voice dissent and organise protests at speed.

Mr Stone refused to take any credit for the recent revolutions in the Middle East, which Twitter appears to have helped ferment, and said that the company’s political position was only to stand for an “open exchange of information”.

“People are the real agents of change, Twitter is a neutral technology along for the ride,” he said.

The company has begun to take itself more seriously. Last month, Dick Costolo, its chief executive, said he wanted Twitter to become as prevalent as running water. Mr Stone said he wanted it to become a “relevant and daily part of the lives of people around the world”.

For that to happen, Twitter will need to turn a profit. It is thought the company made a loss in 2010, and that revenues — mainly from advertising — will reach about $100 million (£61 million) this year.

Reports that investors have valued the company at $10 billion have led to rumours that Twitter leaked this information to encourage more backers. Mr Stone said Twitter did not discuss its finances publicly.

“It is very important that we avoid getting caught up in all of this and maintain focus on serving our users,” he said. “Our philosophy is to create value before profit.”

 

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