Twitter turns 5

On March 21st 2006, Jack Dorsey (@jack) sent the very first message on a new micro-blogging service he had set up with co-founders Evan Williams (@ev) and Biz Stone (@biz), co-founder of Blogger. The service was initially SMS-based and restricted users to updates of a maximum of 140 characters. Doesn’t sound very promising, does it?

Five years and an estimated 200 million-plus users later, the social networking service known as Twitter is one of the hottest properties in the online world, and was valued in private trading earlier this month at $7.7 billion.

As Dorsey has explained, the name Twitter was derived from the dictionary definition of the word, which he said sums up the service perfectly:

A short inconsequential burst of information, chirps from birds.

Since its birth, Twitter has experienced exponential growth. Figures published on the Twitter blog last week showed that it took 38 months for the one billionth message – commonly known as a ‘tweet’ – to be published, but now that number is typically generated in a single week.

It also has a tendency to experience surges in usage during major global events. So, for instance, while an average day sees 140 million tweets sent, that number rose to 177 million on March 11th – the day of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The following day, March 12th, 572,000 new accounts were created.

So it is hardly surprising that Twitter has grown explosively as a company. As recently as January 2009, there were just 29 employees. There are now 400.

What’s the fuss about?

Just as SMS text messaging rode the crest of a wave as mobile phone usage exploded a decade ago, Twitter has similarly benefitted from the smartphone revolution. Apparently excessively constrained by its 140-character limit, it has become many people’s social networking home of choice via their mobile devices exactly because it is so simple.

It is how news and images of the Iranian election protests, the Egyptian revolution and the Hudson plane crash spread within minutes of these events happening, long before traditional media outlets were able to report on them, and with a chorus of voices providing a patchwork of information without the filter of an editor’s agenda. In that sense it is an extraordinarily democratic tool, turning any user into a potential citizen journalist.

With Twitter, it is easy to discover and connect with many communities of users who share common interests, whether they be friends, fans of the same sports team, business contacts or random people who just happen to share a specific interest with you. And it is a perfect tool for real-time search. If you want to search in depth on a topic, you use Google. If you want to see what people are saying about the episode of X Factor which is currently on, you hook into the Twitter stream.

Image courtesy of

Being internet-based, not everything about Twitter is positive, of course. There is a lot of boring drudge out there (although it is easily avoided). Celebrity death hoaxes have been commonplace, as has the wider tendency for gossip or wildly inaccurate ‘facts’ to circulate around the world as truth without even the most rudimentary fact-checking. And, as Paul Chambers discovered, sending a frustrated, jokey tweet threatening to blow up Doncaster’s Robin Hood airport backfired spectacularly. (Chris’s post here is an excellent analysis of the dangers of ‘churnalism’.)

Nonetheless, the positives outweigh the negatives for most users, not least because you are in control of what passes in front of your eyes. Bored with the updates of someone you’re following? Then simply unfollow them.

Twitter and me

I have been using Twitter for almost exactly half of its five-year life, and 10,000 tweets later it has become my first port of call for sending and receiving status updates, and links to relevant news stories and even photos and videos. When I want to browse the news in detail, I will log onto the BBC website. But for the rest of the day, regular browsing of my Twitter timeline is how I follow and consume news. It is how I first found out about the Japanese tsunami and the Christchurch earthquake. It is how I both send and receive updates on the latest sporting events. And it is how I keep in regular contact with the comings and goings of several of my friends, engaging in snippets of conversation about what’s on TV, the current Arsenal game or just the random stuff that happens in daily life. It’s fast and informal. No one expects a dissertation, and unlike emails or phone calls there is no onus to respond later if you’re not available.

And Twitter has helped me stay in touch with existing friends, while making lots of new ones and following other people vicariously. Through Twitter, I am regularly updated on the life of Stephen Fry (a notoriously prolific and popular twitterer) and other select celebrities. (It’s like stalking, but without the inconvenience or the restraining order.) I keep in touch with a few friends in different parts of the country (or indeed the world). And I have developed whole new networks of people who I would otherwise never have come into contact with: Arsenal supporters, cycling fans, fellow bloggers and other folk who are just interesting to have the occasional quick dialogue with.

It’s really quite liberating. If you haven’t tried Twitter, I would thoroughly recommend it. It’s like someone has sifted through everything that is going on in the world and filtered out just the good stuff. You can idly sit back and watch the stream flow by, dip your toe into the water every now and then, or throw yourself in completely and swim in it.

I love it. You can find me on Twitter here @timliew. Now if you’ll just excuse me, I’m going to have a quick read of my timeline. Something interesting is bound to be happening somewhere since I started writing this post.

Happy birthday, Twitter.