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March 26th, 2013

Twitter Turns Seven

Published March 25, 2013

Happy 7th birthday, Twitter! When Jack Dorsey and his team launched their social networking site in 2006, they decided to name it “Twitter” after the sound of birds chirping, and the definition of the word: “a short burst of inconsequential information.” While the website remains a forum for everyday comments and chatter, it has served as a catalyst for global events and revolutionized the way people around the world share news and information.

President Obama sits with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey during the White House Twitter Townhall in 2011, where he replied to policy questions via the social media site.

President Obama sits with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey during the White House Twitter Townhall in 2011, where he replied to policy questions via the social media site.

Using 140 characters (the limit of a text message plus space for a username), users can post statuses and links to photos, videos, and articles on Twitter. Though it started out as a way for users to send a text to a group of friends, the website took on a new role as the network grew in popularity. Celebrities, politicians, companies, news organizations, comedians, coworkers and social and political movements began interacting directly with their followers.

Twitter as a source for breaking news

The advent of “smartphones” allowed users around the world to share their local news with a global audience, and Twitter began breaking news on everything from pop culture moments to natural disasters, shootings and political uprisings.

Perhaps the most famous breaking news story to come out of Twitter happened when an IT consultant in Abbottabad, Pakistan, unknowingly tweeted the American raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in 2011. You can see the timeline of some of his tweets aggregated by the Washington Post:

osamatwitter

Sohaib Athar, a 33-year-old Pakistani IT consultant tweets the American raid on Abbottabad.

Twitter’s role in exporting American-style free speech to other countries has given enormous power to political movements. For example,  protesters in Iran used Twitter to organize and rally against what they saw as unfair elections in 2009. The movement was dubbed the “Twitter Revolution” for the website’s role in both fueling the protests and spreading the word beyond Iran.

Twitter also spurred the growth of protest movements across the Middle East during the Arab Spring in 2011. Protesters used the site to communicate their strength across different areas of their countries, and were able to unify and overthrow the ruling regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

Not everything on Twitter is positive

However, Twitter has also faced criticism for being a forum of false information, a stream of mindless babble and for supplanting real human interactions with digital ones. Inappropriate or offensive tweets have also helped to bring down the careers of athletes, comedians and politicians alike.

Schools and sports teams often monitor their kids’ Twitter feeds to watch out for potential conflict and wrong-doing. Twitter has also become a space for cyber-bullying, since damaging pictures and information can now be spread at rapid speed across the internet.

Twitter has become an important barometer for public opinion in politics and news, where individuals can act as journalists and share their stories with the global Twitter community.

Despite the criticism, Twitter keeps up with the pace of change and evolves to reflect the creative ways users engage with the world through the website. It may look very different in the future, or even disappear – but there is no denying that through its users, the website has had a hand in shaping major historical events.

–Compiled by Elise Garofalo for NewsHour Extra

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