Object of the Year 2010
Twitter is a social networking site that simply asks: ‘What are you doing?’ Once registered, users can respond to this question via computer or text message, and their answers (‘tweets’) are immediately visible either to a selected group or to the universe online. The only restriction (profanity is permitted) is that tweets can be no longer than 140 characters. Users can ‘follow’ the tweets of others and gain followers for their own tweets.
Launched in 2006, Twitter now boasts c.35m users but, because the service is free, the company admits ‘we spend more money than we make’.
The tweeting of tweets was an inescapable part of 2009. In January, Twitter users posted the first images of the Hudson River plane crash. In February, Lance Armstrong tweeted for help to recover a stolen bicycle, and Stephen Fry tweeted that he was stuck in a lift (‘arse, poo and widdle’). In March, Google’s CEO called Twitter ‘a poor man’s email system’, but in April rumours flew that Google was looking to buy it.
In May, a US astronaut sent the first ever tweets from space, and China blocked Twitter, and other sites, in the days before the anniversary of Tiananmen Square. In June, eyewitness tweets describing post-election protests and violence in Iran circumvented censorship and galvanised local and world opinion.
In July, Buckingham Palace said that news of the Royal family would henceforth be tweeted, and David Cameron apologised for saying on live radio, ‘the trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it, too many twits might make a twat’. In August, Sara Williams, the wife of Twitter’s CEO, tweeted throughout giving birth; and Gordon Brown joined millions in tweeting his support for the NHS. In September, it was reported that Twitter was ‘worth’ $1bn.
Twitter’s appeal lies in its limitation. Restricting posts to 140 characters can test a writer’s pith and poise; more significantly, it guarantees the reader a bitesize read. As the flood of data becomes unnavigable, Twitter’s assurance of brevity is more than just charming, it can come as a relief. (The founders of the Webby Awards came to the same conclusion when they limited winners’ speeches to five words.)
Yet, the overwhelming morass of tweets are quotidian and banal (40% are ‘gibberish’, according to an August survey). And Twitter’s much-vaunted role in ‘citizen journalism’ is as prone to error and abuse as any other unverified reporting (as evinced by the contradictory tweets during the 2008 Mumbai attack). In their breathless reporting of tweets, the media seem to forget that the bad guys can Twitter too.
Recent research found that 10% of Twitter users accounted for 90% of all tweets, and that the average user tweets just once. Clearly, many join Twitter only to follow stars such as Ashton Kutcher (>3·1m followers) and Britney Spears (>2·7m), and it may be that Twitter’s fate is to become another vehicle for marketing celebrity.
Twitter has many of the features of a fad: it exploded out of nowhere, was embraced by the fashionable, and serves, for most people, no useful function. At its best, Twitter is a novel mode of communication, spun to recognise that some people love the sound of their own voice, others like to eavesdrop on the famous, and everyone’s attention span is rapidly contracting.