Five years of microblogging evolution: Happy birthday Twitter

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Love it or hate it – Twitter is five today. The chatter is rising steadily, with 200 million users now sending out 140 million daily tweets. More will come as Twitter’s growth rate is soaring; 460,000 new accounts were set up every day in the past month. A lot has changed since founder Jack Dorsey (@jack) sent the first tweet on 21st March 2006: “just setting up my twttr”.

When you first heard of Twitter it didn’t sound all that great, did it. Though it’s probably safe to say the microblogging site has exceeded expectations of what it would come to mean to us. Granted, there is still a lot of discussion about dinner plans and transport delays going on, but in recent times the site has gone through a form of evolution: it increasingly breaks news, it takes the temperature on the ground, and it organises protest.

News from the ground about the Iranian election protests, the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in China and tweets phoned in during the Egypt internet blackout – it all took place on Twitter. Not to mention the time Stephen Fry (@stephenfry), who has probably done more to raise Twitter’s profile in the UK than anyone else, got stuck in the Centre Point lift and tweeted his experience.

On a more personal level the social network provides a river of information and input, from people who we most want to listen to. As Facebook becomes increasingly universal, we are more or less obliged to befriend our real life friends and family. But just because you went to school with someone when you were 15, it doesn’t mean you are interested in their daily ramblings, does it now. Twitter is free of such obligations: no need to follow people back unless you want to, and this means you can create a tailor-made network.

Not to mention the information available from your follower crowd. New in town? Ask the Twitter chatter river for restaurant recommendations. Want insight on a new gadget before buying? Tap into the debate using the Twitter hashtag system. Want to ask a celebrity a question? Go ahead – granted they may not answer but sometimes they do. The site also gives people in the spotlight the opportunity to put their side forward amidst any rumours floating around, not to mention how the slightly laid-back atmosphere on Twitter makes you feel like you can approach anyone. There’s little room for formalities in 140 characters, so few are expected.

The question now is what’s next for everyone’s favourite microblogging site? Rumours of a Google takeover have been circulating, and Twitter keeps experimenting with methods to make money. The company earned $45 million last year from promoted tweets and selling data to external sources, and the company is now considering going into data analytics to provide further cash. Assuming the sign-up rate keeps growing as rapidly as it has, it seems reasonable to assume the dollars will follow, even though it’s not yet clear exactly how.

Although not everyone thinks Twitter has a future. Speaking to BBC Radio 4 this morning, Aleks Krotoski, a social psychologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, argued that Twitter has yet to prove the test of time and could still go the way of the dodo. This is because it’s business model is still on shaky ground: “If it starts injecting advertising into its feeds, if it starts doing things the users aren’t happy with … the web is an organism that encourages social flocking, so people [could] move on to the next thing.”

But there comes a point where our investment is too big for us to want to leave – take Facebook for instance, which is becoming something akin to a new phonebook. Which metaphor will be the equivalent for Twitter remains to be seen, but there is definitely a sense of evolution about the site. Maybe its function will be about spreading news, maybe it will be about gauging opinion, perhaps it will be about finding “your” people who will help you navigate a increasingly vast internet information load. Either way we wish you a great birthday, Twitter, and many happy returns.

(Twitter stats from The Independent)

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