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Twitter, the world’s mightiest five year old

Twitter, the world’s mightiest five year old

From its modest origins, Twitter is now a titan among the social networks. A few weeks before its fifth birthday, we take an appreciative look at Twitter’s global impact and how it has changed things in South Africa. BY SIPHO HLONGWANE.

On 9 August 2009 an earthquake hit Japan in the early morning. Measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale, it shook buildings in Tokyo, and 43 people were injured by the debris raining down. Minutes later, the entire world knew about it. British TV adventurer Charley Boorman was in a Tokyo hotel when the earthquake struck, and tweeted moments later: “Woke up to a big earthquake in Tokyo. The hole [sic] building was shaking. My kids came running in.”

By the time of the Tokyo earthquake, Twitterrati had broken the news about the airplane landing in the Hudson River and kept the world informed about the fraudulent Iranian presidential election in June 2009. It was obvious the game had changed.

The world itself had changed, becoming even faster than before. Twitter, this new social networking platform that was the object of much ridicule, suddenly delivered to every account holder the power to be an instant provider of breaking news. It would take another 18 months before that power was fully harnessed in the Maghreb revolutions.

Twitter’s origins were humble enough, and unlike Facebook’s origins, free of any sort of daredevil romance. It all started on 21 March 2006 when Odeo (a podcast company) employee Jack Dorsey sent the first tweet, which merely said “just setting up my twttr”. The “twttr” (or tweet, as it would later be known) was the end product of a simple idea: an online SMS-based service. Called Twitter, the service formally went live on 15 July 2006 and was used as an internal communication system by Odeo employees. It was initially developed as part of Odeo, and in October 2006 Dorsey, Biz Stone and Evan Williams acquired Odeo and all its assets (including Twitter) from its investors and shareholders, and formed Obvious Corporation, with Twitter as one of its services.

At the 2007 South by South West conference, a giant screen was set up which displayed tweets that were sent in via SMS. At SXSW, the number of daily tweets jumped from 20,000 a day to 60,000. And Twitter’s never looked back. Today the site boasts more than 190 million accounts which send out 65 million 140-character messages a day.

The social network’s explosion of support initially hinged on the celebrities who took to it. People like Stephen Fry, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres started using it. Fry is often credited with being the first celebrity to bring Twitter to the popular consciousness.

Photo: Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey attends a photocall in the Westbury Hotel to mark the opening of Founders in Dublin October 28, 2010. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton.

Celebrities and plebs alike took to it in a big way because it is so simple to use – not just in the interface, but in how it allows a user to interact with the rest of the world. Billed as a microblogging site, Twitter truly allows users to make of it what they will. Some use it as an instant messaging platform (to the great annoyance of almost everyone else), others as a private newspaper and a laissez-faire megaphone into the interwebs. Speaking to The Guardian, media theorist Doug Rushkoff described Twitter as the first people’s broadcast medium. “You can do it now, it can go everywhere and you don’t have to sit with it,” he said. “The best thing about Twitter is that it is not sticky the way things like Facebook are. I can throw out tweets without having to field a zillion emails or nurse some profile or deal with anything else. I can fling and not receive.”

Twitter’s greatest tool, much under-appreciated, is that it does not go against the grain of the internet. It does not have the closed ecosystem that is Facebook’s great failing. Twitter falls intrinsically within the spirit of freedom and openness with which the world wide web was constructed and continues to champion. The default setting for accounts is “public” – anyone can see what you tweet. It puts every account on exactly the same level. On Twitter, the masses are truly equal. The masses are also often speaking with one voice. By introducing trending topics, Twitter made it possible for everybody in the world to join the same conversation.

Twitter users have generated a culture of their own. Retweets, which is quoting someone else’s tweets and prefixing the quote with “RT”, were not originally designed by Twitter. The people came up with that one, and it was eventually incorporated into the service. Twitter users are also extremely allergic to being “sold stuff”, which makes it very difficult for corporations to know how to tap into this vast network or for Twitter itself to make money. Facebook has already been valued at $50 billion, and is looking at an initial public offering in the near future. As the world roused itself into a near-frenzy on hearing about the Facebook valuation, Twitter merely twiddled its thumbs. That is not to say the service is not making any money. In 2009 a hacker broke into Twitter’s internal system and shared the social network’s financials with TechCrunch. According to Twitter’s own projections, they expected to make more than $150 million in 2010.

Twitter’s apparent reluctance to start extracting money from users is not stopping the vultures from circling. According to reports, Google and Facebook have already held low-level talks about possibly acquiring Twitter. Nothing came of the talks, but the two online giants valued Twitter at $10 billion. The valuation is obviously backed by Twitter’s incredible ability to channel the zeitgeist.

That ability was first tested in the 2009 Iran presidential election, when dissidents and protesters took to the social network to protest against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The thousands of tweets that emerged from Iran belied the official word from Tehran, which said everybody approved of the ruling party.

At the beginning of 2011, the social network played an important role in mobilising Tunisian protesters against President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who eventually fled the country. Twitter played the same role in Egypt, where it was used by dissidents and journalists both to mobilise and witness the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. In five short years, Twitter has gone from being a San Francisco tech plaything to being heralded as a revolution fire-starter

Twitter is not without its faults. Thanks to its ability to quickly spread news around the world (journalists love the enormous power Twitter gives them as purveyors of this news), news cycles on Twitter are mere minutes short, and not hours as on television. As a result, false news can spread around the globe in a matter of minutes, before anyone can debunk it, as was demonstrated by the Balloon Boy hoax of 2010. A couple in Colorado released a helium balloon into the atmosphere on October 15. They claimed that their six-year-old son was trapped inside the balloon, leading to a massive chase by rescue teams and journalists. The chase attracted a huge following and outpouring of sympathy on Twitter. Hours later, when the balloon finally settled down on the ground and the boy was found to have been hiding in his parents’ house all along, the truth came out. It was all a publicity stunt. The story gained worldwide traction thanks to Twitter and vicious panning of the social network’s rumour-mongering followed.

Photo: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger participates in a moderated question and answer session with Twitter co-founders Biz Stone (C) and Evan Williams in San Francisco, California August 26, 2009. They discussed the social networking site as a public service engine that allows people to reach one another. REUTERS/Justin Shor.

Smart users know to distrust anything they read on Twitter until it has been verified by a reputable source. Once seen as a threat to traditional journalism, Twitter has in fact elevated members of the media. However, it also puts every journalist and editor in the position of a community newspaper. People who read the stories can meet journalists at the Twitter “grocery store” and challenge them on their writing. In a similar way, celebrities are now a mere click away from their vast hordes of fans, whether it is to receive roses or egg in the face.

In South Africa, the media, rather than the celebrity-stalking so prevalent in the US, is arguably the biggest “sponsor” of Twitter. Journalists are Twitter-obsessed to the point of ascribing what gets said in Twitter timelines to the national zeitgeist. But this fascination will not last, journalist Gus Silber said. “Twitter tends to hog the limelight because the mainstream media, at large, are very curious about Twitter as a social force,” he said. “They are very quick and eager to use the network as a source and a touchstone for what’s happening, and what people are saying about what’s happening.

“But Twitter is really just another media channel, and eventually this obsessive interest by the media will wear off. So the distortion is more a case of distortion by the media itself. The conversation on Twitter is both internal and external, because it is still seen as a sexy medium by the mainstream print and electronic media, who are now increasingly becoming part of the conversation as well,” Silber said.

With 4,216 followers (and counting), Silber is perhaps the best example of just how much can be communicated in only 140 characters. “I think the reason South Africans have taken to Twitter with such a passion is that we are still toyi-toying with the notion that we can shout, yell, rant, rave, argue and hug each other across social and political boundaries, without any longer running the risk of being charged under an act of parliament,” he said.

For Silber, South Africa’s enormous outspokenness relative to its size on Twitter can be ascribed to the sudden freedom of speech the country experienced in the early 1990s. “For the generation of South Africans who grew up under apartheid, the novelty of 1990 has not worn off,” he said. “We’re still infatuated with the fact that we can exercise our right to speak and be spoken to, and we’re pretty good at exercising that right as loudly and as proudly as we can.”

South Africa’s loudness came to the fore during the World Cup, but it has also done so in less happy instances. In November 2009, America (which wrongly believes it ought to control everything that gets said on Twitter) woke to find that the hashtagged topic #ThingsDarkiesSay was the number one trend on Twitter. The trending topic had originated in South Africa, where “darkie” is considered an appropriate word. In the US, it is in no way okay to call someone a “darkie”. The topic was quickly killed by Twitter, resulting in much outrage in South Africa, and affronted bafflement in the US.

“For me, Twitter is to South Africans in the early part of the 21st century, what talk radio was to them in the latter part of the 20th century. In 1990 there was a huge explosion of interest and participation in talk radio by South Africans, as previously ‘verboten’ people and topics suddenly got on the airwaves. It was a shock, at first, to hear communists spouting their views on 702 back then, just as it may be a shock, nowadays, for many of us to read what Steve Hofmeyr has to say on Twitter,” Silber said.

“I love the fact that we now have a real-time platform that can accommodate such a wide diversity of viewpoints, and I relish the way that a short, sharp comment on Twitter can spark a ping-pong debate that can go on for days, or fade into the ether in minutes. I just wish we had even more diversity on Twitter, starting, perhaps, with a verified Julius Malema account. The more crazy, opinionated and outspoken people we have on Twitter, the better. And the more sane people too,” Silber added.

The habit of taking whatever the zeitgeist is on Twitter and treating it as if it speaks for the entire country arises out of the middle-class’s powerful collective voice, according to prolific tweeter and award-winning ad man Khaya Dlanga. “I think the middle-class has always had a larger voice,” he said. “So we deal with our middle-class concerns there. We have a loud minority that is being heard. Their perceived influence is outsized. Things that matter on Twitter sometimes don’t really matter to the outside world, to the common man on the street.”

Dlanga, who won Africa’s top Digital Citizen Journalist award in 2008 at the Highway Africa conference, believes there is an informal articulation competition on Twitter, fuelled by the prospect of media attention. “One of the reasons you have these people hogging the limelight is because you have a community of great communicators on Twitter. If you are a great communicator and are able to articulate your views, you make the media’s job easier,” he said.

For a phenomenon that generates enormous amounts of media coverage, there is a surprising meagreness in the availability of Twitter figures for South Africa. Estimates for current local Twitter users range from 800,000 to 1.2 million. There are no formally accepted statistics on Twitter locally, according to Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a technology research and strategy organisation.

Despite its explosive growth in just five years, can Twitter last in South Africa? Past trends are not in Twitter’s favour. “In ten years, it will be surprising if Twitter is still the force it is today,” Goldstuck said. “Few online-only services outside of the commercial leaders like Amazon and Google have a pedigree of dominance that long. There is always a next big thing, a next big fad, and a next big flop. Sometimes it’s obvious what’s about to happen, like when Facebook killed off MySpace. At other times, it sneaks up on the leaders, when they are too complacent, like Google’s utter destruction of AltaVista and its crippling of Yahoo. That said, if Twitter survives and thrives for 10 years, it will become the front end for news services, call centres and marketers.”

For his business, Goldstuck said Twitter was the best tool for announcing research results and also discussing and disseminating the results with a variety of people with different perspectives. “It’s been a great feedback mechanism, which then makes it a great learning mechanism,” he said. “And, like anyone who uses Twitter, I rely on the people I follow to highlight important news stories, so I don’t have to monitor the news sites myself. That also tells me something about the future of Twitter.”

Twitter’s ability to be whatever the users want it to be may guarantee its longevity. The same service that serves as an outlet for Kanye West’s absurdisms is used in South Africa to discuss the finance minister’s Budget speech and in Libya to report on atrocities committed by Muammar Gaddafi’s thugs in an effort to quell the revolts inspired by Tunisia and Egypt.

Twitter may not help “start” revolutions in the sense that Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide by setting himself alight did in Tunisia, but it certainly makes it far easier to foment and record those revolutions. It is a lot easier to tweet than it is to lug around a television camera. Twitter may be scoffed at by those who don’t know any better, and it may continue to struggle with a viable financial model, but what is certain is that future revolutions will most certainly be tweeted. As South Africa continues to demonstrate, what started off five years ago as a doodle in a notebook one afternoon in San Francisco is today a powerful if slightly flawed voice of the people. DM

Read more:

  • How Twitter has become the people’s voice on the eve of its fifth birthday in The Guardian;
  • Facebook, Google sized up a takeover of Twitter on MSNBC;
  • Twitter’s five year evolution from ridicule to dissidents’ tool in The Guardian.

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