The Surprising Impact of Twitter

When Twitter was first introduced, it seemed to be nothing more than a novelty. It offered people a way to send “tweets” about their life, in succinct 140-character blurbs. Interesting? Perhaps. Useful? Perhaps not.

But since Twitter’s introduction, its popularity has spread like wildfire. Millions of users send tweets throughout the day, and although the content of many of those tweets is mundane trivia about what people are doing at the moment, other tweets cover more substantive, newsworthy topics. Some individuals now attract thousands of followers, with tweets being disseminated more broadly than ever before.

Twitter has taken on a life of its own. People are using it in ways that were never foreseen by the individual creators. Some of the new uses are slight modifications that have significant implications. For example, users have begun tagging tweets related to a specific event with the # sign, so that #inauguration allows people to follow messaging threads about inaugural events, and similar tags can be used to discuss conferences, national disasters, and more.

Other users began using the @ symbol to reply to other tweets, directing their response to a particular user. The convention was adopted rapidly, impressively changing Twitter’s isolated tweets into interactive conversations where users can speak directly to one another.

In addition, more than 11,000 applications have been created by developers, taking Twitter in new directions that the original creators never envisioned. Summize created a way to search live streams of Tweets, providing an easy way for anyone to find up-to-the-minute comments on breaking events. SickCity tracks references to illnesses in Twitter, potentially alerting medical professionals to epidemics. Activists in China and Moldova have used Twitter to organise public demonstrations. Each new application adds a new layer of depth and richness to the Twitter experience.

Some people lament the way that users spend hours glued to their cell phones and other mobile devices, tweeting their friends and colleagues. They argue that this type of instant communication deprives people of more meaningful, richer person-to-person interactions. However, the opposite argument can also be made. As people use Twitter to comment on world events, they are actually becoming part of a large audience enjoying a shared experience. A few decades ago, unfolding events were seen on television and discussed among family members. Nowadays, users can discuss those events in real time with a much wider, more diverse group of interested observers.

And, contrary to skeptics’ objections, in reality the conversation is not limited by the 140-character tweet size, because users often use Twitter as a pointing device to direct their followers to other online resources, such as news articles, blog posts, and videos, or even charitable causes. This type of redirection has become so popular that some websites are reporting that the amount of traffic they receive from Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking applications is now greater than what they used to receive from Google search engine results.

Perhaps Twitter’s greatest legacy will be that it allows people to keep up on each other’s lives in an increasingly disconnected world. A typical user is connected to relatives, friends, colleagues, and a few celebrities. Even if there is no actual interaction, people feel connected simply by knowing what is happen in the daily life of others. While some complain about the intrusion of technology in our personal lives, others embrace it as a way to improve communication and interpersonal relationships.

Sam PascuaThe Surprising Impact of Twitter