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Twitter is a social networking and microblogging website where users can post small messages up to 140 characters long called tweets via the web, text, or mobile apps. People can subscribe to other users by following them individually or by following a Twitter list, which is composed of a group of authors. These messages can also be retweeted, which shares the tweet with another person’s followers, much like the Tumblr reblog function.
Twitter was founded by Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone. The website was first conceived by Jack Dorsey, who introduced a prototype of the site for Odeo employees. It was made available to the public on July 15, 2006. Though the site launched nine months prior, Twitter did not see major traffic until March 2007 at that year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive.
Evan Williams noted that many of their early adopters were headed to the conference, so they took advantage of this by creating a tweet visualizer. Working with the SXSW staff, they paid $11,000 dollars to have flat panel screens in the hallways of the main venue. Conference goers could then text tweets to 40404 and see their messages on the screens around the venue. Users could then subscribe to each other, with new tweets delivered by SMS.
At SXSW, Twitter won the 2007 Web Award, and thanked the crowd in less than 140 characters. That year, approximately 5000 tweets were sent per day. In 2008, the amount of daily tweets sent shot up to to 300,000. The next year, approximately 35 million tweets were sent per day and in 2010, it nearly doubled to 50 million. These numbers fluctuate depending on the day, but the largest amount of tweets occur when large events take place, including celebrity deaths, major sporting events, or when big news stories break.
Tweets can be made with up to 140 characters. In tweets, several abbreviations are often seen:
RT: ReTweet. Used when repeating the same tweet as someone else.
OH: OverHeard. Used when posting something you overheard.
HT: Heard Through. Similar to OH, but not as popular. It’s used the same way as OH, except you would be repeating something that wasn’t actually tweeted.
There are many Twitter-specific functions but here are some of the most popular ones:
@: If @ is posted with a user’s name in a tweet (ex: “@knowyourmeme”), the message will function as a reply to that user. The message can only be seen by people who follow both the person who tweets the @ and the person who receives the @.
#: If # is posted with a word/phrase (ex. “#hashtag”), the word becomes a hashtag. The tweet can then be found by other people who search for that word. It can be used by people who have similar interests or hobbies, but also for temporary phenomena, like in the case of #Дождь
D: If “D” is posted before a user’s name in the form (D+space+username+message), the message will act as a direct message to the other user.
On November 2nd, 2012, the New York Times reported that Twitter would be introducing photo filters to their official mobile applications, according to several unnamed employees. This would allow Twitter users to alter their photos in a similar way to Instagram, without having to direct users and their traffic to the Facebook-owned application. The employees also noted Twitter is exploring adding a video uploader to rival YouTube. The news was also reported by GigaOm, Mashable, the Verge, the Huffington Post and the NextWeb over the next several days. On November 5th, Instagram’s CEO Kevin Systrom stated that he has no problem with Twitter adding filters to their image hosting services, noting that “Instagram is a community and not a filter app.”
Usage in Military Conflicts
With the growing trend of subscription among governmental agencies, military branches and even paramilitary organizations, Twitter has proven to be a resourceful public channel for official state-level communications and wartime propaganda. Following the Israeli Defense Forces’ launch of Gaza Strip military operations in November 2012, usage of Twitter from both the IDF and Hamas’ military arm Al-Qassam Brigades was noted by several news publications, including CNN, The Telegraph and BBC.
Some of the early examples include:
- In September 2012, Al-Shabaab (@HSMPressOffice), a Somali militant Islamist group with ties to Al Qaeda, launched a propaganda campaign against its enemies via Twitter by portraying the Kenya Defence Forces’ intervention as invaders seeking to occupy the African nation. In addition, the group’s Twitter account occasionally provided live updates of casualties and outcomes of various assaults.
- In October 2012, Ansar al Sharia, a Libyan extremist group, reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack on the U.S. embassy compound in Benghazi, Libya via Twitter and called on its subscribers to carry out a similar assault on the American embassy in Tripoli. However, the report was later found to be erroneous.
- In November 2012, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) announced its launch of military operations against Hamas militants of Al-Qassam Brigades in the Gaza Strip, which was quickly followed by the latter’s condemnatory tweet of the IDF’s air strike which killed the group’s leader Ahmed Jaabari. Both camps have been live-updating their Twitter accounts with the latest developments in the region.
On January 24th, 2013, Twitter launched the Vine mobile service that allows users to share looping videos at a maximum of six seconds in length. The app was initially released for free on Apple’s iOS store, with plans to develop versions for other phone operating systems in the future. Several tech news sites likened the service to a video version of Facebook’s Instagram, giving the ability to follow other users and discover content from strangers.
Several Twitter users pointed out that adult-themed content had been uploaded to the service under the hashtags “#porn” and “#nsfwvine.” On January 27th, New York Times columnist Nick Bilton published a tweet about how Vine was being used to upload sexually explicit content.
Friend: “So are people using Vine for porn yet?”Me: “Nah, I don’t think so.”Friend: “Check the hashtag ”https://twitter.com/search/%23porn">#porn."Both: “Holy ****!”— Nick Bilton (@nickbilton) January 27, 2013
The same day, CNET published an article about the adult content on Vine, noting that it may violate Apple’s iOS store terms of service. On January 28th, the Christian Science Monitor reported that one sexually explicit Vine video had been featured on the app’s “Editor’s Pick” list (shown below), which Twitter claimed was the result of a “human error.”
On the following day, CNN published an article noting that searches for “porn,” “nude,” “sex” and “naked” were no longer delivering any results in the Vine app. The same day, CBC published an article reporting that Twitter had disabled the “#porn” hashtag from search and that a reporting system would place warnings in front of questionable content.
On the morning of April 12th, Twitter partially unveiled its standalone music service with a welcome page featuring the iconic bird logo, the hashtag #music and a sign-in button. Although some of the most important details about the service remained in the dark, several tech and social media news sites speculated that the mysterious launch event may have had something to do with Twitter’s acquisition of We Are Hunted, a music-oriented startup that tracks trends in music based on social media mentions, on the day before, as well as to coincide with the opening weekend of Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Later that same day, Twitter’s music page was updated with a description of a standalone mobile app that recommends artists and songs to users based on its analysis of personalized Twitter feeds, in addition to instant playback feature via third-party services like iTunes, SoundCloud and Vevo.
Since Twitter supports trending topics through hashtags, it is easy for an idea to spread quickly on the site. These include (but are not limited to) Pants Status, #дождь, Sometimes I Just Want To Copy Someone Else’s Status, and #AccordingToPalin.
Twitter has also played a huge role in many Anonymous operations, for example in #OccupyWallStreet and Operation Bart, where Twitter became one of the prime methods of assembly and information dissemination.
Finally, Twitter is the home of the Fail whale, which appears when Twitter is down or over capacity.
Twitter announced a simplified, streamlined version of the site on December 8th, 2011. The redesign is a complete overhaul of the site, offering a new homepage, with videos, photos, and conversations now embedded directly into a user’s personal tweet feed. User profiles are also restructured, with the Following and Followers tabs moved away from the tweet feed, which now features embedded videos and images, into a separate section.
Two new features were also introduced for a user’s homepage. The first, Connect, replaces both @ mentions and Activity tabs. The second, Discover, populates hashtag-centric news centered around the users you follow, location information, and global trending topics. Along with the redesign, Twitter announced brand pages, which allows companies to have larger banners as well as the ability to pin a Tweet to the top of their feed.
Twitter’s 2011 Review
On December 1st, 2011, Twitter began publishing a series of videos and infographics with the hashtag #YearInReview on their blog.
TPS (Tweets Per Second) Peaks
- December 31st, 2010: Japanese New Years Eve / 6,939 tweets per second
- February 6th, 2011: Super Bowl XLV / 4,064 tweets per second
- March 11th, 2011: Tōhoku Earthquake in Japan / 5,530 tweets per second
- May 2nd, 2011: Osama bin Laden’s Death 5,106 tweets per second
- July 17th, 2011: Women’s World Cup Final / 7,196 tweets per second
- August 24th, 2011: East Coast Earthquake / 5,500 tweets per second
- August 28th, 2011: Beyonce’s Pregnancy / 8,868 tweets per second
- December 9th, 2011: Screening of Japanese movie Castle in the Sky / 25,088 tweets per second.
- January 8th, 2011: Tim Tebow’s 80-yard overtime touchdown pass becomes the most tweeted sport event in America / 9,420 tweets per second.
Twitter has censored hashtags on a number of occasions after users complained that they found the them offensive, such as #Thatsafrican, #thingsdarkiessay and #ReasonstoBeatYourGirlfriend among others.
- In China, access to the microblogging service has been blocked intermittently. In the second half of 2009, access to Twitter and Facebook were blocked presumably due to concerns of social and political commentaries and protest organizations during the Ürümqi riots in July 2009. In 2010, Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo became a censored topic on Twitter after he won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
- In Egypt, Twitter was inaccessible in January 2011 during the Egyptian protests. Many news reporters on the site blamed the government for blocking access while Egypt’se mobile network provider Vodafone denied any involvement in the temporary block. In the United Kingdom, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown threatened to shut down the microblogging service in response to the riots in 2011, though it was never implemented.
- In South Korea, the government tried to block access to the Twitter account @uriminzok, which was launched by the North Korean government in August 2010. After acquiring over 9,000 followers in less than a week, the account was banned by South Korea’s state-run Communications Standards Commission for broadcasting “illegal information.”
On January 26th, 2012, Twitter announced in a blog post about a new policy that will allow censorship of its content in accordance with the domestic laws of the countries where it is in service.
The blog post also pointed out that it will take such actions “in response to […] a valid and applicable legal request.” Upon processing a complaint, Twitter would notify users in the affected region that they may not see certain content due to specific legal reasons and records of complaints will be publicly available through Chilling Effects’ Cease & Desist Database.
With the heightened tension surrounding the issue of online censorship (see: Stop Online Piracy Act and Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) The decision was met by negative responses on Twitter and elsewhere online, spurring angry #Outrage comments and talks about #TwitterBlackout, a day-long boycott of the service on January 28th.
The international free speech NGO Reporters Without Borders also expressed disappointment in a letter to the Jack Dorsey, emphasizing the important role of the service as an organizational tool in repressive countries.
“We urge you to reverse this decision, which restricts freedom of expression and runs counter to the movements opposed to censorship that have been linked to the Arab Spring, in which Twitter served as a sounding board.”
The news of Twitter’s policy change and the reaction were covered by major daily publications and news blogs across the world. The New York Times described the decision as a “coming-of-age” moment for the company that has quickly matured from a San Francisco start-up to a global communications service.
Several studies have been done breaking down what types of tweets are made and how what people are tweeting represents cycles of human emotion.
“Meformers” vs. “Informers”
Two Rutgers University professors, Mor Naaman and Jeffery Boase, divided Twitter users into two major categories in 2009: “Meformers” (users who tweet about their everyday lives and feelings) and “Informers” (users who use the site to share information and news). 80% of Twitter users fall into the Meformer category, with a median of 61 friends and 43 followers. The median Informer, however, was found to have 131 friends and 112 followers.
The study also broke down tweets into 9 different types:
The study used a sample of 3379 tweets, finding that that 22% of them were under the Information Sharing category and 41% were the Me Now category, bursts of thought about the users life with little to no context.
In August 2009, Pear Analytics published a similar report, dividing tweets into six categories:
Pear had a sample of 2000 tweets and found that the most popular category was “Pointless Babble,” with 41% of tweets from the sample. The next popular were conversational tweets, with 38% of the sample being in that category.
Happiness During the Day
Using a sample of over 500 million public tweets made between February 2008 and January 2010, Scott Golder and Michael Macy analyzed tweets by how positive and negative words were used, in addition to emoticons. The found that positive posts peaked daily in the morning and after dinner, with users’ overall moods being the lowest at the beginning of the workweek.
Happiness Between 2009 and 2011
In December 2011, researchers at the University of Vermont published a study in which they analyzed patterns of happiness, similar to the Cornell research published earlier that year. However, they looked more at the pattern of how positive words were used over the course of three years rather than just at a workweek. They found that the general happiness of Twitter users peaked in April 2009 and has fallen sharply in the past two years. The researchers found that some of the saddest moments in Twitter history have included news of the 2009 swine flu, Michael Jackson’s death, Patrick Swayze’s death, the ending of LOST and Germany beating England in the 2010 World Cup.
Average happiness on Twitter, charted by the day of the week.
Trending Prediction Algorithm
On October 31st, 2012, a press release from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that Associate Professor Devavrat Shah and student Stanislav Nikolov will be presenting an algorithm at the Interdisciplinary Workshop on Information and Decision in Social Networks on November 9th, 2012 that will be able to predict trending topics on Twitter approximately an hour and a half before they will trend. The algorithm was trained by combing through data for 200 topics that did not previously trend and 200 that did, attempting to find meaningful patterns. In action, the algorithm compares the changes of a topic over time with the information from the training sets. When the system was tested on live tweets, the algorithm was able to compare statistics to the patterns of previously trending topics, finding new trends with a 95% accuracy rate. The news was shared on Forbes, Mashable and WebProNews.
Search volume for Twitter started picking up in early 2009 and has been climbing since.
Stanford Info Lab – Is it Really About Me? Message Content in Social Awareness Streams
InformationWeek – Twitter’s Big Redesign Adds Photos, Videos, Brand Pages
TIME Techland – Science Proves Twitter Really Has Become More Sad Since 2009
Reporters without Borders – Lettes to Twitter Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey Urging Him Not to Cooperate with Censors
ChillingEffects – "":http://chillingeffects.org/twitter
New York Times – Twitter to Add Photo Filters to Compete With Instagram
Huffington Post – Twitter Reportedly Wants To Add Filters, Compete With Instagram