What is this Twitter thing anyway?

I spent most of my winter break in India and for the most part had a really relazing vacation. More than once something popped up on the local news channels about how some politician had said something embarassing on Twitter. Now while I don’t really pay much attention to politics, what struck me as interesting was that the news channel kept referring to Twitter as a “social networking site” and everytime I heard them I thought to myself “hmm… that doesn’t sound quite right”.

Twitter is certainly a social network, but it’s much more than a “social networking site”. In fact, the “site” aspect is probably the least significant part of the whole matter. Even though the website seems to be the most popular client, it still accounts for less than 30% of Twitter usage. Not only are there dozens (maybe hundreds) of Twitter apps, but perhaps more importantly there are lots of other services that plug into Twitter. Most recently WordPress and Tumblr implemented the Twitter API meaning than you can use Twitter applications and other services that post to Twitter and have them redirect to WordPress or Tumblr.

Twitter may have started out as a website, but now it’s become much more than that. It’s a platform and a service and in many ways, it is becoming an integral part of the modern Web. It probably wouldn’t be too far from the truth to say that it’s even becoming something of a public utility. Almost everything is on Twitter nowadays, including government, emergency response and notification and even revolutions. What started out as a way for people to send out 140 character messages to others has quickly become a better way for people to share just about everything they care to share.

While Twitter the service might be dead simple (though it has added features recently) there has been an enormous amount that has been added on top of Twitter by users and other services. Hashtags and retweets are probably the most common example. There has also been a recent request for a programmable Twitter client – some kind of simple Twitter shell script so that users can use Twitter just the way that they want to, without depending on the company to provide for it.

So what exactly is Twitter? I would be surprised if anyone could some up with a definite answer that accounted for all use cases. I think one way to describe it is as a platform for short message dispersal. In thinking of Twitter as a platform, instead of a service in and of itself, programmers are thinking of Twitter as a set of “dump pipes”. It becomes merely the medium for transport, relatively unimportant in comparison to the actual content. In some ways, it’s similar to a phone company — a company provides the service and facilities to make a phone call, but what’s more important is the actual data being exchanged. Even if there was no phone service, people would find other ways to make the same communications (VoIP for examples). Similarly, if there was no Twitter, people would just be using other media like they did before. And if Twitter someday goes away (or changes beyond recognition), we’ll find other ways to get our message across.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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