by Steven Johnson for TIME
The one thing you can say for certain about Twitter is that it makes a terrible first impression.You hear about this new service that lets you send 140-character updates to your “followers,” and you think, Why does the world need this, exactly? It’s not as if we were all sitting around four years ago scratching our heads and saying, “If only there were a technology that would allow me to send a message to my 50 friends, alerting them in real time about my choice of breakfast cereal.”The basic mechanics of Twitter are remarkably simple. Users publish tweets—those 140-character messages—from a computer or mobile device. As a social network, Twitter revolves around the principle of followers.
When you choose to follow another Twitter user, that user’s tweets appear in reverse chronological order on your main Twitter page. If you follow 20
people, you’ll see a mix of tweets scrolling down the page: breakfast-cereal updates, interesting new links, music recommendations, even musings on the future of education. The mix creates a media experience quite unlike anything that has come before it,strangely intimate and at the same time celebrity-obsessed.
You glance at your Twitter feed over that first cup of coffee, and in a few seconds you find out that your nephew got into med school and Shaquille O’Neal just finished a cardio workout in Phoenix. But the key development with Twitter is how we’ve jury-rigged the system to do things that its creators never dreamed of. The most fascinating thing about Twitter is not what it’s doing to us. It’s what we’re doing to it. This is not just a matter of people finding a new use for a tool designed to do something else. In Twitter’s case,the users have been redesigning the tool itself. The convention of grouping a topic or event by the “hashtag”—#hackedu or #inauguration—was spontaneouslyinvented by the Twitter user base (as was the convention of replying to another user with the @ symbol). The ability to search a live stream of tweets was developed by another start-up altogether, Summize, which Twitter purchased last year. Thanks to these innovations, following a live feed of tweets about an event—a political debate or a Lost episode— has become a central part of the Twitter experience. But as recently as 2008, that mode of interaction would have been technically impossible using Twitter.
It’s like inventing a toaster oven and then looking around a year later and seeing that your customers have of their own accord turned it into a microwave.
One of the most telling facts about the Twitter platform is that the vast majority of its users interact with the service via software created by third parties. There are dozens of iPhone and BlackBerry applications— all created by enterprising amateur coders or
small start-ups—that let you manage Twitter feeds. There are services that help you upload photos and link to them from your tweets and programs that map
other Twitizens who are near you geographically. As the tools have multiplied, we’re discovering extraordinary new things to do with them. In June 2009, when Iranians rose up to protest a rigged election, supporters around the world followed the demonstrations
in real time on Twitter. Two months earlier, an anticommunist uprising in Moldova was organized via Twitter. Twitter has become so widely used among political
activists in China that the government blocked access to it for a period, in an attempt to censor discussion of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The rapid-fire innovation we’re seeing around Twitter is not new, of course. Facebook, whose audience is still several times as large as Twitter’s, went from being a way to scope out the most attractive college freshmen to the Social Operating System of the Internet, supporting a vast ecosystem of new applications created by major media companies, individual hackers, game creators, political groups, and charities. The
Apple iPhone’s long-term competitive advantage may well prove to be the more than 15,000 new applications that have been developed for the device, expanding
its functionality in countless ingenious ways. The history of the Web followed a similar pattern. A platform originally designed to help scholars share academic documents, it now lets you watch television shows, play poker with strangers around the world,
publish your own newspaper, rediscover your highschool girlfriend—and, yes, tell the world what you had for breakfast. The speed with which users have extended Twitter’s platform points to a larger truth about modern innovation.
When we talk about innovationand global competitiveness, we tend to fall back on the easy metric of patents and Ph.D.’s. It turns out the US share of both has been in steady decline since peaking in the early 1970s. Since the mid- 1980s, a long progression of doomsayers have warned that our declining market share in the patents-and-Ph.D.’s business augurs dark times for American innovation. But what actually happened to American innovation during that period?
We came up with America Online, Netscape, Amazon, Google, Blogger, Wikipedia, Craigslist, TiVo, Netflix, eBay, the iPod and iPhone, Xbox, Facebook, and Twitter itself. Sure, we didn’t build the Prius or the Wii, but if you measure global innovation in terms of actual lifestyle-changing hit products and not just grad students, the US has been lapping the field for the past 20 years. How could the forecasts have been so wrong? The answer is that we’ve been tracking only part of the innovation story, ignoring what Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Eric von Hippel calls “enduser innovation,” in which consumers actively modify a product to adapt it to their needs. In its short life, Twitter has been a hothouse of end-user innovation: the hashtag; searching; its 11,000 third-party applications; all those creative new uses of Twitter—some of them banal, some of them spam, and some of them sublime. This is what I ultimately find most inspiring about the Twitter phenomenon. We are living through the worst economic crisis in generations, with apocalyptic headlines threatening the end of capitalism as we know it, and yet in the middle of this chaos, the engineers at Twitter headquarters are scrambling to keep the servers up, application developers are releasing their latest builds, and ordinary users are figuring out all
the ingenious ways to put these tools to use.
There’s a kind of resilience here that is worth savoring. The weather reports keep announcing that the sky is falling, but here we are—millions of us—sitting around trying to invent new ways to talk to one another.
So happy tweeting….