Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read other users’ updates known as tweets. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length which are displayed on the user’s profile page and delivered to other users who have subscribed to them (known as followers). Senders can restrict delivery to those in their circle of friends or, by default, allow anybody to access them. Users can send and receive tweets via the Twitter website, Short Message Service (SMS) or external applications. The service is free to use over the Internet, but using SMS may incur phone service provider fees.
Since its creation in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Twitter has gained extensive notability and popularity worldwide. It is often described as the “SMS of Internet,” in that the site provides the functionality (via its application programming interfaces) for other desktop and web-based applications to send and receive short text messages, often obscuring the Twitter service itself.
Four gateway numbers are currently available for SMS — short codes for the United States, Canada, India, and an Isle of Man-based number for international use. There is also a short code for Vodafone users from the United Kingdom. Several third parties offer posting and receiving updates via e-mail.
Estimates of the number of daily users vary as the company does not release the number of active accounts. In November 2008, Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester Research estimated that Twitter had 4-5 million users. A February 2009 Compete.com blog entry ranks Twitter as the third most used social network (Facebook being the largest, followed by MySpace), which puts the number of unique monthly visitors at roughly 6 million and the number of monthly visits at 55 million, however only 40% of users are retained. In March 2009, a Nielsen.com blog ranked Twitter as the fastest growing site in the Member Communities category for February 2009. Twitter had a growth of 1382%, Zimbio had a growth of 240%, followed by Facebook with a growth of 228%.
About US$57 million of Twitter is owned by venture capitalists. CEO Evan Williams raised about $22 million in venture capital. Twitter is backed by Union Square Ventures, Digital Garage, Spark Capital, and Bezos Expeditions (led by Jeff Bezos of Amazon). Institutional Venture Partners and Benchmark Capital backed Twitter in 2009, investing an additional $35 million.The Industry Standard has pointed to its lack of revenue as limiting its long-term viability. On February 13, 2009, Twitter announced on its official blog that it had closed a third round of funding in which it secured more than $35 million When asked about how he was going to use the additional investment funds in an interview, Williams said:
We don’t know all the ways we’re going to use that money, hopefully we’ll keep a lot of it in the bank. If we never need a lot of it, that’s great, but in the climate we’re in we don’t want to assume too much, and we don’t want any short term concerns to distort the potential of our long term vision, and our investors and the boards and everybody is very on board for building a very long term viable company. We need to do that step by step, and we need to invest a lot to get there.
Twitter has been described as akin to a web-based IRC client. The Twitter web interface uses the Ruby on Rails framework. From the spring of 2007 until sometime in 2008 the actual messages were handled by a pure-Ruby persistent queue server called Starling. Starling was replaced in 2008 with Scarling, a persistent queue server written in the Scala programming language, which has since been renamed Kestrel. The Twitter API itself allows the integration of Twitter with other web services and applications. In late April 2008, TechCrunch reported that, due to downtime related to scaling problems, Twitter would abandon Ruby on Rails as their web framework and create a new system with PHP or Java. Evan Williams, however, soon debunked this report in a Tweet he sent on May 1, 2008.
Twitter messages may be tagged using hashtags, a word or phrase prefixed with a #, such as #beer. This enables tweets on a specific subject to be found by simply searching for their common hashtag, provided that the user has tagged his or her tweet. Meanwhile, the @ sign before a username, such as @example, is used to distinguish a reply directed at that user. A message preceded by the @username prefix can still be read by anyone, but is treated as directed firstly to the user in question. This capability was initially called @reply, but was later renamed more descriptively as a “mention.”
Privacy and security
Twitter collects personally identifiable information about its users and shares it with third parties. Twitter considers that information an asset, and reserves the right to sell it if the company changes hands.
A security vulnerability was reported on April 7, 2007, by Nitesh Dhanjani and Rujith. The problem was due to Twitter’s using the SMS message originator as the authentication of the user’s account. Nitesh used FakeMyText to spoof a text message, whereupon Twitter posted the message on the victim’s page. This vulnerability can only be used if the target’s phone number is known. Within a few weeks of this discovery Twitter introduced an optional PIN that its users can specify to authenticate SMS-originating messages.
On January 5, 2009, 33 high-profile Twitter accounts were compromised, and falsified messages — including sexually explicit and drug-related messages — were sent. The accounts were compromised after a Twitter administrator’s password was guessed via a dictionary attack.
Twitter began experiencing problems related to its growing number of users in 2007. The service has experienced outages resulting from traffic overloads due to its increased popularity. The Wall Street Journal wrote, “These social-networking services elicit mixed feelings in the technology-savvy people who have been their early adopters. Fans say Twitter is a good way to keep in touch with busy friends. But, some users are starting to feel too connected, as they grapple with check-in messages at odd hours, higher cellphone bills, and the need to tell acquaintances to stop announcing what they’re having for dinner.” Satirical references have also been made, such as speculations as to what Shakespeare and Freud might have tweeted, if they had used Twitter. Steve Dotto opines that part of Twitter’s appeal is the challenge of trying to publish such messages in tight constraints.
According to Nielsen Online, its 40% retention rate of users, who tend to drop the service after a month, means the site potentially can reach only about 10% of Internet users.
Twitter experienced approximately 98% uptime in 2007, or about seven full days of downtime. Twitter’s downtime was particularly noticeable during events popular with the technology industry, such as the 2008 Macworld Conference & Expo keynote address. When Twitter experiences an outage, users see the “fail whale” error message created by Sydney artist and designer Yiying Lu, a whimsical illustration of red birds using nets to hoist a whale from the ocean. The message reads: “Too many tweets! Please wait a moment and try again.” The fail whale has been featured on NPR. During May 2008 Twitter’s new engineering team implemented necessary architectural changes to deal with the scale of growth. Stability issues resulted in down time or temporary feature removal.
As of August 2008, Twitter withdrew free SMS services to users in most of the world. For approximately five months, instant messaging support via a Jabber bot was listed as being “temporarily unavailable”. On October 10, 2008, Twitter’s status blog announced that IM service was no longer a temporary outage and needed to be revamped. IM status is said to return at some point, but requires major work to be completed.
In the media
In March 2009 Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury strip began to satirize Twitter, with the strip characters ironically highlighting the triviality of “tweets” and Roland defending the need to keep up with the constant-update trend or else lose relevance. SuperNews!, similarly, satirized Twitter as an addiction to “constant self-affirmation”.
During a 2 March 2009 episode of the The Daily Show, the host Jon Stewart negatively portrayed members of Congress who chose to “twitter” during President Obama’s address to Congress (on 24 February 2009) rather than pay attention to the content of the speech. The show’s Samantha Bee satirized media coverage of the service saying “there’s no surprise young people love it – according to reports of young people by middle aged people”.
Another episode of the Daily Show on February 26, 2009, during which host of NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams (a guest on the Daily Show and a journalist) derided “tweets” as only having subject matter which refers to the condition of the author in any given instant. Williams implied that he would never use Twitter because nothing he did at any given moment was interesting enough to publish in Twitter format.
During a February 2009 discussion on NPR‘s Weekend Edition Daniel Schorr noted that Twitter accounts of events lacked rigorous fact-checking and other editorial improvements. In response, Andy Carvin gave Schorr two recent examples of breaking news stories that played out on Twitter and said users wanted first-hand accounts and sometimes debunked stories.
In April 2009 a large number of mainstream media outlets claimed that an fMRI study by Antonio Damasio and colleagues had shown that rapid-fire news updates and instant social interaction are too fast for the ‘moral compass’ of the brain to process. The original study, however, had not addressed Twitter or other social networking tools at all, and media reports had exaggerated the study’s implications for both Twitter and the ‘moral compass’.
British comedian Stephen Fry is one of the most followed celebrities on Twitter.
The Los Angeles Fire Department put the technology to use during the October 2007 California wildfires. Some NASA projects such as Space Shuttle missions and the International Space Station provide updates via Twitter. Several 2008 U.S. presidential campaigns used Twitter as a publicity mechanism, including that of Democratic Party nominee and President Barack Obama. The Nader–Gonzalez campaign updated its ballot access teams in real-time with Twitter and Google Maps. Twitter use increased 43% on election day. David Saranga of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that on December 30, 2008, Israel would be the first government to hold a worldwide press conference via Twitter to take questions from the public about the war against Hamas in Gaza. The use of Twitter by victims, bystanders, and the public to gather news and coordinate responses to the November 2008 Mumbai siege led CNN to call it “the day that social media appeared to come of age.”
British comedian Stephen Fry is also well known for having a large number of followers and was reported in The Times as being the celebrity with the most followers on Twitter in April 2009. However, the most followed celebrity today is Ashton Kutcher who is the first Twitter user to reach the one million follower mark, with the CNN “Breaking News'” account, and singer Britney Spears in second and third place respectively. The Faculty of Psychology of the University of Vienna has been using Twitter for formative course evaluation.
On February 12, 2009, there was a global meet-up called Twestival where Twitter users came together in over 170 cities around the world to take the online community surrounding Twitter offline as well as to raise money and awareness for Charity: water.
On April 10, 2008, James Buck, a graduate journalism student at University of California, Berkeley, and his translator, Mohammed Maree, were arrested in Egypt for photographing an anti-government protest. On his way to the police station Buck used his mobile phone to send the message “Arrested” to his 48 “followers” on Twitter. Those followers contacted U.C. Berkeley, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and a number of press organizations on his behalf. Buck was able to send updates about his condition to his “followers” while being detained. He was released the next day from the Mahalla jail after the college hired a lawyer for him.
Research reported in New Scientist in May 2008 found that blogs, maps, photo sites and instant messaging systems like Twitter did a better job of getting information out during emergencies, such as the shootings at Virginia Tech, than either the traditional news media or government emergency services. The study, performed by researchers at the University of Colorado, also found that those using Twitter during the fires in California in October 2007 kept their followers (who were often friends and neighbors) informed of their whereabouts and of the location of various fires minute by minute. Additionally, organizations that support relief efforts are also using Twitter. The American Red Cross uses Twitter to exchange minute-to-minute information about local disasters, including statistics and directions.
Media outlets are also starting to use Twitter as a source of public sentiment on issues. The first trades union Twitter service was launched by the news and campaigning website LabourStart in June 2008 During the CBC News television coverage of the Canadian federal election on October 14, 2008, the CBC cited a graph, produced by the Infoscape Research Lab, of items mentioned on Twitter, along with Tweets regarding Elizabeth May and Stéphane Dion, with the majority of the Dion Tweets calling for him to step down in response to the election results.
During the 2008 Mumbai attacks, eyewitnesses sent an estimated 80 tweets every five seconds as the tragedy unfolded. Twitter users on the ground helped in compiling a list of the dead and injured. In addition, users sent out vital information such as emergency phone numbers and the location of hospitals that needed blood donations. In January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 experienced multiple bird strikes and had to be ditched in the Hudson River after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York City. Janis Krums, a passenger on one of the ferries that rushed to help, took a picture of the downed plane as passengers were still evacuating and tweeted it via TwitPic before traditional media arrived at the scene. In February 2009, the Australian Country Fire Authority used Twitter to send out regular alerts and updates regarding the 2009 Victorian bushfires. During this time, the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, also used his Twitter account to send out information on the fires, how to donate money and blood, and where to seek emergency help.
In October 2008 a draft US Army intelligence report identified the popular micro-blogging service as a potential terrorist tool. The report said, “Twitter is already used by some members to post and/or support extremist ideologies and perspectives.”
The first criminal prosecution arising from Twitter posts began in April 2009 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Daniel Knight Hayden, a supporter of the Tea Party protests against the policies of President Barack Obama. Hayden was allegedly sending tweets threatening violence in connection with his plan to attend the Tea Party protest in Oklahoma City.
Related services and applications
There are many services and applications that work with or enhance Twitter. Many are designed to allow easy access to Twitter from specific devices, such as the iPhone or BlackBerry whilst others are designed to make it easier for users to access and update their Twitter account.
A number of Twitter-like services exist, including sending text messages to multiple people at once. Some services use a similar concept but add country-specific services or combine the micro-blogging facilities with other services, such as file sharing. Other services provide Twitter-like functionality, but within closed networks for corporations, nonprofits, universities, and other organizations. In May 2007, one source counted as many as 111 such “Twitter look-alikes” internationally where, despite Twitter efforts to localize, Chinese-language clones have far outdone the original’s own progress in China.