Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging service that allows its users to send and read other users’ updates (otherwise known as tweets), which are text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length.
The limit of 140 characters allows tweets to be sent and received via mobile phone SMS (text) messages as well as via the web site. According to Twitter:
Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?
When Twitter launched in 2006 the apparent simplicity and low character limit caused it to be dismissed as a serious communications medium. As it turns out the message brevity and very simple user interface encourage frequent Twitter use. To each tweet is added the Twitter user name, the image chosen by that user (usually a photo), a timestamp and the Twitter software client used to create the tweet (see above image). Even 140 characters can convey potentially valuable content such as URLs, email addresses, tags and other contact and identification details.
Micro-blogging borrows features from existing communication services in its own unique mix. Each Twitter user creates a list of friends (followers) to form their own social network and receive copies of their friends’ tweets. The stream of tweets from an individual looks like a blog. Reading Twitter continually allows it to simulate instant messages (chat) or the reception of a text (SMS).
Some simple syntax is imposed on the contents of tweets to add more social networking features. Twitter account names are prefixed with the ‘@’ sign so @fredsmith becomes a link the Fred Smith’s Twitter page at twitter.com/fredsmith.
If the tweet begins with @fredsmith it is treated as a reply to Fred Smith and is delivered to his list of tweets. If other Twitter names appear in the tweet then their tweet lists also receive the tweet. However each user can select to restrict replies or to switch them off altogether.
When a tweet begins with ‘d fredsmith’ this is treated as a direct message to Fred Smith only and does not appear on the public tweet list. This mechanism provides a private communication from one user to another.
By default every tweet created by a user appears in the public list of tweets. This list of tweets by everyone can be viewed but quickly leads to information overload with millions of users. Nonetheless this list becomes a hugely valuable collection of content when filtered to tease out information valuable in many different contexts and to different groups of users.
Twitter becomes an invaluable social networking tool because each user is able to create a group of friends by ‘following’ selected Twitter users. The Twitter home page for a user will only show the tweets from Twitter friends. A friends list thus becomes a dynamic, personal social network which can be changed continually by following or ceasing to follow chosen Twitter users.
Each user has a Twitter badge consisting of a display name, location, a web address (usually their blog) and a short bio. Filling out these details is important as they inform the choice of whether a user follows (befriends) another user or not. Twitter then keeps track of those being followed (friends), the users doing the following, and the number of tweets (updates) of each user. The number of followers has become a status symbol with celebrities having ten of thousands of followers up over 1 million for Barack Obama, for example.
It is possible to make tweets private. In this case a user must give permission to allow another user to receive a copy of private tweets. Otherwise any user may follow any other.
The release of an open API allowed other software developers to create a growing array of other desktop and web-based applications that build on the basic Twitter features. Twitter clients on many computing and mobile devices that make sending and receiving tweets more convenient are amongst the most popular. Many Twitter applications search, filter and analyse the public Twitter stream in many different ways extracting useful information in a variety of forms.
Twitter created micro-blogging and its success has marked out a new social medium of benefit to both individuals and organisations of all types.