In 6 years, Twitter becomes major social, political player

No longer just a place to tweet about your favorite gym, Twitter becomes social force

A lot can change in six years. Just ask the folks at Twitter.

The microblogging site celebrates its sixth birthday, if you will, this week. The first tweet was sent March 21, 2006. A lot has changed since then.

Twitter now has more than 140 million active users and they're posting more than 340 million tweets a day, according to the microblogging site. That's more than 1 billion tweets sent every three days.

"Six years may not be very long in human terms, but it's been quite an enormous span for the thing we know and love as Twitter," a blog post on the site said Wednesday. "When @jack [Jack Dorsey, executive director of Twitter] first sketched out his notion in March 2006, no one could have predicted the trajectory of this new communication tool."

Brad Shimmin, an analyst with Current Analysis, said Twitter has had a profound effect, breaking down barriers and enabling users to communicate more freely.

"Like Facebook, Twitter has thoroughly penetrated popular culture, influencing all other mediums of communication," Shimmin said. "For me, its biggest impact has been removing the barriers that traditionally kept people and, more importantly, classes of people, apart. With Twitter, for example, everyday people can feel a sense of direct connection with their favorite celebrities, even enjoying direct communication in some cases."

Twitter has been on quite the journey since its inception. For some time, the microblogging site was mocked as a social network where people tweeted about what they were wearing, their favorite sandwich and the fabulous new toaster they just bought.

While there's still some of the banter, Twitter took on a whole new life and a greater importance, as its use expanded beyond social networking into politics, natural disaster response and protests.

Earlier this month, Twitter was one of the social networking sites used to amass social pressure against conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh for his controversial comments about a Georgetown University law student and her support of birth control.

Twitter also was a key player this month in driving awareness of a 30-minute video about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his army. With celebrities like media mogul Oprah Winfrey and Microsoft co-founder and global philanthropist Bill Gates tweeting about the video, it amassed nearly 57 million viewings on YouTube in four days.

The change lies in how Twitter has evolved over the past few years. Twitter increasingly has been used by politicians running for office ever since the 2008 presidential campaign when then-candidate Barack Obama schooled other candidates on the benefits of social media.

Twitter also was one of the social sites that became a lifeline after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year. It was also a resource for those trying to find out about loved ones during massive earthquakes in Chile and Haiti in 2010. It was a key communication tool during the 2009 government crackdown in Iran, the "Arab Spring" uprising in Egypt in 2011 and the emergency landing that a U.S. Airways jet made in New York's Hudson River in 2009.

Twitter's misuse also led to the downfall of a congressman. Anthony Weiner resigned his seat as a Democrat congressman from New York, after he sent sexually suggestive tweets and photos to several women who were following him on Twitter.

"Twitter has broadened from primarily personal and casual conversations to those that include very serious discussions on politics, inclement weather and regime change," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "The tool's speed and simplicity have driven this, and it's also pulled in influential people like politicians, pop icons and the media itself."

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, said Twitter's success largely falls on its reach. "Twitter allows us to see a wider variety of views more quickly on breaking events," he explained. "Twitter is about reach, not much depth, but you can reach tens of thousands of people with a short opinion quickly."

Enderle said Twitter may need to become part of a bigger company or network to survive in the long run, but Moorhead said Twitter is on a good roll on its own.

"Consumers are very fickle and do move from platform to platform, but Twitter has staying power," added Moorhead. "First, they have international growth opportunities and ... Twitter is still highly differentiated in its speed and simplicity, which is hard to match."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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