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The Twitting Point

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Unless you are Osama bin Laden’s roommate, you’ll know that 2009 is the year Twitter took off. It has grown by over 1,000 percent and the phrase “tweet it” has become part of the popular lexicon. While many people still “don’t get it“, it has become incredibly powerful. How did this happen?

A bit of background

The development of modern civilisation is marked by big changes arising from new communication technologies. The creation of the mail system, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, television, the internet and mobile phones have all been incredibly powerful influencers. They have made the world a smaller place and every step has allowed information to be passed along at a progressively faster rate.

The impact of these technologies has been all about their rate of uptake and penetration into societies. The more people were using the technologies, the more people could be influenced. Once a critical mass is created you begin to get powerful ‘network’ effects and then ubiquity.

Today we couldn’t imagine life without a mobile phone. It has achieved ‘ubiquity’. Yet it is worth remembering that the first five years or so of mobile phone technology was met with a lot of resistance from the general public. The technology was confusing for many and the price to many was prohibitive. Less than 15 years ago, penetration rates among retail consumers was relatively low.

The rise and penetration of social media has been meteoric compared to the adoption of the ‘new’ communication technologies that preceded it. Assuming you have the hardware to connect, the cost is practically free and the collective minds of all the users work to create ever-easier ways to use it. Facebook’s massive population of nearly 250 million is a great example of how this can happen if all of the elements are right. Social media is seeing the development of “The New Socialism“, as Wired magazine put it.

Enter Twitter

Twitter was created by Jack Dorsey in 2006. It was designed as a micro-blogging service that could be updated by computer or mobile phone. As more and more people began using Twitter, new ways of using it were discovered, and the service started to take off.

Today it is estimated that there are about eight million Twitter users worldwide. High profile users like Oprah and Ashton Kutcher give its popularity added momentum. Many people now turn to Twitter’s real-time search engine first to find out what is happening in the world.

There are new applications changing almost every day that allow account holders to use Twitter in new ways. You can connect to Twitter via any technology that can access the internet, which means you can connect your network too. The momentum it is experiencing suggests that it has reached the ‘tipping point’.

Changing the world

It wasn’t until June this year that it became apparent how powerful Twitter had become. The owners of Twitter had scheduled a standard maintenance outage. It was set for the middle of the night in the USA, Twitter’s biggest market. Then Twitter was approached by the US State Department. The Iranian election and subsequent protests were getting a huge amount of international coverage. The State Department determined that Twitter was the most important communication tool for the protesters to communicate and organise. As a result, Twitter was persuaded to delay the outage to fit with Iranian usage. As events unfolded in Iran, Twitter was buzzing with protests, including an attempt to shut down the Iranian state websites.

Looking ahead

The future of specific platforms like Twitter is far from certain. What is a safe bet is that people will demand the real-time information flow these platforms enable. Social media will grow and spread until it reaches complete ubiquity and we will all wonder how we ever lived without it. It will affect how people from different cultures communicate, how governments are chosen and constrained, and how brands reach markets.

The sooner you and your company get on board, the better you will be placed to take advantage of the wealth of information being made available by this transformation.

Mark Cameron is the creative director and a partner at Working Three. He has been developing digital strategy for a range of clients for the last eight years. More articles from him are on the Working Three blog.

Photo: misterarasmus

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