Twitter - the mouthy five-year-old changing the world

By Glenn Chapman

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. Photo / AFP
Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. Photo / AFP

SAN FRANCISCO - At five years old, Twitter is just starting to change the world.

Co-founder Jack Dorsey fired off the first tweet on March 21, 2006. It read "just setting up my twttr." It was Dorsey who proposed the idea for Twitter while working with Biz Stone and Evan Williams at podcasting company Odeo.

Since then, Twitter has been embraced as a forum for sharing anything from a favourite lunch spot to violations of civil rights and calls for revolution.

"As much fun as we were having, there was always, I think, in the back of our heads the idea of the potential of something important coming from it," Stone said of the startup's formative days.

"Even if we didn't say it out loud and talk about it," the co-founder said in an interview with AFP. "Because we were just getting started and we really had no place saying anything like that."

Williams, Dorsey, and Stone thought it would be fun to build a service that lets people use text messaging to share thoughts, insights and news with the masses.

San Francisco-based Twitter won the hearts of trendsetters after officially coming out at the South By South West technology festival in Texas in 2007.

"South By South West was the real eye-opener to the fact that we had, quite possibly, created a new way for people to communicate that was real time, sort of agnostic with regard to device and potentially transformative in the way people self-organise," Stone said.

"And everything that happened around the world that Twitter found its way into was really just yet another eye-opening display of the potential."

Initially scoffed at by some as a platform for telling the world what one had for breakfast, Twitter has become respected as a lifeline during disasters such as the earthquake in Japan and an organising tool for champions of democracy.

Stone believed it vital for Twitter to remain a politically neutral technology platform focused on fostering open communication.

He saw the use of Twitter by those out to overthrow oppressive regimes in the Middle East as proof that given the right tools, people will stand for good.

"One of the things I told our team early on was that if Twitter is to be a triumph, it is not necessarily to be a triumph of technology but a triumph of humanity," Stone said.

"If we are successful it is not going to be because of our algorithms and our machines, it is going to be what people end up doing with this tool that defines us and makes us a success or not."

More than 200 million people use Twitter, firing off more than 140 million text messages of 140 characters or less daily. The length limit was set to fit the maximum allowed in text messages sent using mobile phones.

Twitter 'brought our fans closer together

The San Francisco Giants baseball team, which won the national championship last year, has been using Twitter as the ball club's "voice," connecting directly with fans in real time.

"Twitter definitely brought our fans closer together," said Bryan Srabian, director of social media for the Giants. "It didn't help us win the World Series, but there is some destiny with us winning the year we embrace Twitter."

More important than speaking to fans, Twitter is a great way to listen.

"People are talking about you good, bad or indifferent," Srabian said. "We've gotten more out of listening, but finding your voice is really important."

Giants players are not allowed to tweet during games, a policy that is becoming more common in sports to stem controversy and keep players focused.

Twitter has become a core tool for Marcia Gagliardi, whose free weekly "e-column" TableHopper is devoted to the San Francisco area restaurant scene.

She was originally hesitant out of concern Twitter would only provide strangers another way to pitch stories or harangue her with criticism.

Then she noticed that Twitter was chock full of candid comments by chefs and other culinary insiders. She became a devotee two years ago.

"I can use Twitter to break big news and learn a lot of gossip," Gagliardi said.

"It's an amazing way to keep up on what restaurants are doing," she said. "I consider it the back room chatter for a lot of chefs... you can see which dishes they are loving, where they are taking their girlfriends for dinner."

And restaurants can take advantage of Twitter by firing out notices such as special dishes or when the pizzas are fresh out of the ovens.

A gourmet street food truck scene that has become the rage in San Francisco and other cities would not be possible without Twitter, according to Gagliardi.

Along with letting people quickly spread messages to any interested "followers," it provides access to those who might never return an email or respond to a telephone call, she said.

And that could be a part of Twitter's magic, according to Stone.

"It is not just about connecting to people you know, it is about connecting to people you wish you knew," he said.

"It's about following your interests, not just people but things that are intriguing to you. It's about getting news and information you otherwise wouldn't have gotten."

'All in the same boat'

If one were to get what Evan Williams calls "hallucinogenically optimistic," Twitter could bring out the best in humanity, Stone said hopefully.

"For me to be able to look at my phone while I'm in a grocery store to see mixed in with Evan's tweets and my Mom's tweets people from halfway around the world engaged in political dissent unlocks a kind of empathy in me that I wouldn't have watching TV," Stone said.

"I think that unlocks... a realisation that we are not just citizens of a particular state or country but citizens of the world," he continued.

"Think of things we could get accomplished if we starting thinking of ourselves as all in the same boat rather than broken up into islands."

At five years old, Twitter is still a child full of promise and dreams of changing the world for the better.

It isn't profitable, but is gingerly rolling out promoted tweets, trends and accounts and doing well with early partners in the program.

Twitter, which has rejected numerous takeover offers, has no plans to go public with an initial stock offering, opting instead to focus on improving its operations and services, according to Stone.

He said Twitter is, in essence, like a child getting ready to go to kindergarten for the first time.

"It is just the beginning of a life full of potential and adventure, and I really do think that is where we are right now," Stone said.

"We are just about to go to school and just getting started," he said. "The last five years has really just been us getting our footing."

Twitter facts

- Dorsey's first tweet, sent on March 21, 2006, read: "just setting up my twttr"

- Twitter has more than 200 million registered users sending more than 140 million tweets a day

- Last year, Twitter users sent 25 billion tweets and the company added more than 100 million new registered accounts

- Pop star Lady Gaga (@ladygaga) has the most Twitter followers with 8.78 million followed by Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) with 8.13 million, Britney Spears (@britneyspears) with 7.12 million, Barack Obama (@barackobama) with 6.97 million and Kim Kardashian (@kimkardashian) with 6.73 million

- Actor Charlie Sheen (@charliesheen) was the fastest to one million followers, picking them up in just 24 hours

- The hashtag (#) feature on Twitter which groups tweets by subject debuted in August 2007, proposed by a user

- In October 2009, Google and Microsoft began integrating tweets into their search products

- Twitter has "370-plus" employees and is adding workers almost weekly

- Twitter is based in San Francisco, with additional employees in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington

- Twitter was incorporated in April 2007; it was co-founded by Biz Stone, Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey - @biz, @ev and @jack

- The initial Twitter logo was created by Stone, a former graphic designer

- Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo is a former improvisational comedian

- AFP

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