by Matthew L. Schafer
Just four years ago Twitter went online asking people a simple question: What are you doing? Since its original inception, Twitter has evolved, grown its user base, and changed history by providing a platform for users to report on important events as they unfold.
Today, Twitter isn’t asking, “What are you doing?” Instead, with its new facelift, Twitter changed its tune, saying simply that Twitter is “The best way to discover what’s new in your world.” The Library of Congress has even joined Twitter, and has now archived every single tweet ever tweeted since the website’s launch in March of 2006.
Twitter has not only changed how millions of people communicate–that is, by short 140 character tweets–, but also how social movements have unfolded. In 2010, Time Magazine called Twitter the “Medium of the Movement,” citing Twitter’s ability to relay information about the Iranian elections even after other communication mediums had been shut down.
“[The Iranian election] is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media,” NYU Professor Clay Shirky said at the time. “[The people are] engaging with individual participants, they’re passing on their messages to their friends, and they’re even providing detailed instructions to enable web proxies allowing Internet access that the authorities can’t immediately censor. That kind of participation is really extraordinary.”
Social movements aside, Twitter has also become home to tech enthusiasts, journalists, politicians, and media critics. Indeed, its simple structure, recent incorporation of embedded media, and hashtags (#ThisIsAHashtag), which allow instantaneous sorting and organizing of the same topic, have created an information environment that spreads information as if it was flowing down the banks of a river. Moreover, third-party applications, like TweetDeck and Seesmic Desktop, allow users to manage multiple Twitter accounts at once, or follow a variety of different topical “streams.” (The third-party applications may also account for the recent decline in Twitter traffic.)
Despite the recent decline in traffic, Twitter’s user base is said to be in the 190 million user range. Twitter also suggests that, in early 2010, over 50 million tweets flood the web each day. In addition to the Library of Congress’ archival efforts, in October of last year, Google announced that it would begin to embed tweets in search returns, calling Twitter “an interesting source of data about what is happening right now.”
While Twitters user growth (and its multiplying partnerships, including YouTube, Flickr, USTREAM, Vimeo, and yfrog) is a testament to the usefulness of the service, a new Pew Internet report shows that just 8% of Americans online are currently using Twitter. More women online (10%) use Twitter than men (7%). Minorities online account for a greater percentage of users (Hispanic, 18%; Black, 13%) than White, non-Hispanic who are online do (5%). Compare those usages with the 81% of people online who check the weather, the 75% that get the news, or the 72% shopping.
While making predictions about young technologies is always dangerous, it appears to be a safe bet that Twitter will capture a larger and larger user base, as it continues to make waves, and attracts audiences of all types to its information stream. The San Jose Mercury News recently called it a “digital melting pot.” Moreover, Twitter has again played host to developing news; this time the Wikileaks diplomatic cables saga. This time, users are accusing Twitter of preventing Wikileaks and other related topics from trending.
“This week, people are wondering about WikiLeaks, with some asking if Twitter has blocked #wikileaks, #cablegate or other related topics from appearing in the list of top Trends,” Twitter said. “The answer: Absolutely not.”
In spite of the current accusations, one thing is clear: Twitter is here to stay. Looking forward to 2011, one can only imagine the role that it will play in future current events’ sagas. One thing is for sure though, if you don’t have a Twitter account yet, you should get one now. Who knows what you’re missing out on.