How did Twitter revolutionize online communications?

Twitter is sort of a cross between a blog and an old-fashioned, threaded message forum. The end result is a speedy, user-friendly messaging system.
Twitter is sort of a cross between a blog and an old-fashioned, threaded message forum. The end result is a speedy, user-friendly messaging system.
Courtesy Twitter

Twitter, for all of its triumphs and travails, has definitely cemented its place in this age of endless Internet connectivity and smartphones. Users compose more than 140 million Tweets per day, or more than 1 billion Tweets per week [source: Twitter]. That is some extreme Twitter use.

If you've somehow missed the blitz of Twitter-related media in the past few years, read our story on How Twitter Works. In short, Twitter is a simple communications service. You post a text message of up to 140 characters, or perhaps an image or link, if you choose. Anyone who subscribes to your Twitter feed will immediately see your update. That's it, really. Twitter just answers that most important of life's questions -- what are you doing?

Critics, both past and current, deride Twitter as digital glitter. They see it as yet another way for narcissists to post endlessly about the minutiae of their lives for everyone to see. Do millions of people really need updates on the iPhone case that Ashton Kutcher just purchased? And do you honestly care that your cousin ate liver for lunch?

Banality aside, others see Twitter as ridiculously redundant in an age of Facebook, e-mail and blogging. They point out that although users created nearly 600 million accounts, roughly half of them have never created a Tweet or are simply inactive [source: ZDnet]. Twitter representatives say there are around 140 million active users.

Yet somehow, in some quarters, Twitter has still managed not only to survive but also to thrive. In doing so, it's Tweeted its way to Internet fame and glory. Along the way, this stripped-down micro-blogging service overhauled the way a lot of people think about the Web. In a sense, Twitter has revolutionized online communications.

Keep reading to find out how -- turns out, all of those vacuous, 140-character-messages mean a lot more than you might think.

The World, Right Now

Ubiquity is part of Twitter’s appeal. You can post and read tweets from just about any Internet-connected device.
Ubiquity is part of Twitter’s appeal. You can post and read tweets from just about any Internet-connected device.
Courtesy Twitter

E-mail made old-fashioned snail mail seem extremely sluggish. Text messaging made e-mail feel long-winded. Twitter? It made Internet communication faster than ever before.

Sure, you can send a mass e-mail or a group text to your friends and family. But with Twitter, there's no awkward wrangling of names or addresses. Instead, everyone who subscribes to your account sees your update; if your profile is public, everyone in the world can see your Tweets. Just as with an e-mail, they can chime in with a response, which is also public.

The overall effect is similar to an old-school message forum, with threaded conversations that are easy to follow. Unlike those forums of yesteryear, these conversations take place in real time. More than that, the conciseness of Tweets makes them more conversational. You share your ideas with brief phrases instead of wordy replies.

Twitter is useful for more than organizing a roller-skating outing. Its speed and simplicity are well-suited for disseminating breaking news or sharing details on real-time events. Whether a tornado is bearing down on a small town or a high-speed police chase is happening in a major city, users often Tweet about it. The result is a nearly instantaneous hive mind of sorts, in which we don't have to wait for evening TV news to stay up-to-date on world events. Now they unfold in real time, on Twitter.

Twitter has also played at least some role in areas of political unrest. From Iran and Egypt to the United States, digitally savvy protesters deploy Twitter as a tool of high-speed communication, either to organize followers or to update them on critical events.

When U.S. military operatives killed Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011, Twitter exploded with the news prior to any sort of television announcement. The avalanche of Tweets began when Sohaib Athar, a computer programmer in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Tweeted about helicopters and chaos near bin Laden's compound, in essence providing a distant play-by-play of the raid. With that news, Twitter blasted up to more than 5,000 Tweets per second. That record withstood other major events like the Super Bowl and Britain's royal wedding.

Twitter is Just a Tool

The many thousands of third-party Twitter apps are proof of the devotion that many people have to this service.
The many thousands of third-party Twitter apps are proof of the devotion that many people have to this service.
screenshot by Nathan Chandler

In an age where social media Web sites overwhelm users with bells and whistles, Twitter's simplicity is alluring. It doesn't attempt to be all things social to all people. Instead, it's just a basic Internet tool that happens to work very well for its intended purposes. And it's how people have learned to leverage this malleable tool that makes it so fascinating.

One example is the overload of available third-party Twitter apps. There are thousands of apps, all created for the purpose of making Twitter more convenient and more powerful. TweetDeck compiles tweets on all of the topics you're following in an easy-to-read format. TweetCaster provides advanced search options, fun photo filters and blocking features that enhance your Twitter experience in many ways. And these are just for starters.

Aside from discrete apps, users have affected Twitter's basic functionality. It was users who conceived the idea of using the @ symbol when replying to specific people. For example, if Lady Gaga loves one comment by a fan, she can call out that person by posting a Tweet that includes the fan's user name, preceded by the @ symbol. In doing so, Twitter becomes less about broadcasting and more about conversation.

Hashtag sorting -- which wasn't originally intended by Twitter's developers -- is another user-driven innovation. When you post a Tweet, you can include a hashtag, followed by a label of sorts, which gives the Tweet context. For example, "The weather is perfect again today! #sunny #california".

Hashtags make Twitter more searchable. Whether of import or inane, you can easily find relevant Tweets by using hashtags. Want information on the Arab Spring? Just search for hashtags such as #egypt or #protest to sort Twitter's glut of information.

User interactivity really does shape Twitter. It's a living, breathing digital organism for messaging and searching. Keep reading to discover the other factors that make Twitter so relevant to today's Internet.

Speed Demon Tech

That little blue bird moves fast -- and its impact reaches far.
That little blue bird moves fast -- and its impact reaches far.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Speed is one of Twitter's defining traits. Unlike traditional search engines, which may take days or months to find and catalog new information, Twitter's search feature works in real time. When you hear about a story or a picture going viral on the Internet, Twitter is one of the primary engines of that proliferation.

Companies understand this. When someone praises (or trashes) its products or services on Twitter, that corporation instantly knows it. In the event of negative feedback, smart representatives quickly address the problem and make a positive impression in front of a very large audience.

Of course, the process works in reverse, too. If your company has angered a lot of people, just one raw, frustrated Tweet can snowball into a million more, as exasperated customers type their first-person accounts for all the world to see. Everyone can influence the conversation now, immediately and without censorship or moderation, for better or for worse.

It's not just companies that benefit or suffer at the little blue wings of Twitter. The same goes for politicians, celebrities, technology experts, fashion taste makers and just about anyone who wants to share ideas with the world. As their followers chime in with their own thoughts and feelings, Twitter threads become a ceaseless, searchable conversation on every imaginable topic.

Of course, the corny and the mundane will likely always make up the bulk of Tweets, but the same goes for most of human conversation. It's the conversations we share and get really excited (or sad) about that bubble to the surface of our collective consciousness -- and Twitter is there to document and spread all of it.

Whether Twitter continues to grow in popularity remains to be seen. But for now, no other communications service works the same kind of magic as Twitter. So Tweet away to your heart's content, because in a way, the whole world is listening.

Author's Note

I live in a family of Twitter converts. Yet even amidst this affinity for Tweeting, I'm still not completely sold on Twitter's relevance in my own life. That's right -- in spite (or perhaps because) of being doused every day in social media of every flavor, I'm one of the many Twitter doubters out there. That's primarily because I've already adopted texts, e-mails and Facebook as my primary forms of Internet communication. Still, I do use Twitter on a daily basis for business purposes, and slowly, but surely, it's worming itself into my workflow. Perhaps someday very soon I'll join the rest of my family as Twitter-adoring Tweeters.

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