Almost five years after its launch, Twitter is still misunderstood by a large portion of the population, even those who use the Internet on a daily basis. It wasn't long ago that a friend of mine joked that Twitter's primary function was to allow you to tell the Internet what you ate for lunch. And of course, people do use it as such. When people are given the opportunity to easily address millions, thousands, hundreds, or just dozens of people, they will do so, even if it means reporting the most mundane aspects of their lives.
That is Twitter at its arguable worst, but something unavoidable when dealing with such a service. When used with a purpose, it can be an extremely powerful tool. Any information or thought that you convey will appear to your followers instantly and through the proper use of "hashtags" and retweets, can spread across the entire service like wildfire. That's a service with 190 million users (as of July 2010 - most likely higher now), not to mention the fact that news services are constantly picking up on and reporting tweets in the mainstream media.
So what significant purposes has Twitter been used for?
For starters, the microblogging service helped get current United States President Barack Obama elected into office. His campaign expertly used Twitter, along with Facebook and YouTube, to win over the Internet crowd and solidify Obama as the presidential candidate of the web 2.0 generation. Of course, his Twitter presence lessened after he was elected, but that further proves that it suited his purpose.
Even for those with limited exposure to late night television, Conan O'Brien's abrupt departure from The Tonight Show is common knowledge due to the heavy publicity surrounding it. When all was said and done and Conan walked away from NBC, he was legally prohibited from appearing on television for seven months. Going from a nightly show to seven months out of the public eye can do a good deal of damage to any celebrity. So Conan didn't leave the public eye. He found several ways to maintain his popularity until the premiere of his new show on TBS, one of which was starting a Twitter account. He gained hundreds of thousands of followers with a single post and Team Coco stayed strong. Such is the power of the tweet.
And now there's Charlie Sheen. When Sheen isn't drinking tiger blood or "winning," he's tweeting to his more than 2.5 million followers that he's gained since joining the service on March 1st. I don't personally follow Sheen myself, but several of the folks I follow do, and I'm constantly seeing his nonsense retweeted in my feed. With so many followers, I'm sure I'm not the only in the situation. I'm being exposed to Sheen on a daily basis through no action on my part, which is great example of how far-reaching Twitter can be.
And those are just celebrities that have used Twitter for personal gain. To realize the full potential of the service, look at what just happened in Egypt. Less than two months ago, the people of Egypt launched a (mostly) peaceful revolution against President Hosni Mubarak. And it wasn't simply pressure from Egyptians that fueled the fire, but pressure from people the world over that wanted to see the revolution successful. And how did support spread so quickly? Social networking! Protesters would use Twitter - tweeting from Cairo's Tahrir Square itself - to keep the world updated on what was happening. They would also use the service to quickly coordinate protest efforts, which no doubt played a part in the revolution's success.
After Mubarak was ousted in Egypt and an uprising in Tunisia caused President Ben Ali to flee, Libyans gathered the courage to stand up to their leader, Muammar Gaddafi, in a struggle that's currently taking place. Again, Twitter is being used as a means of relaying information to and fro, but its impact in Libya is much greater than it was in Egypt. Over the past forty-odd years, Gaddafi has kept the reigns tight over the information flow in his country, both what goes in and what comes out. Libya does not allow the sale of foreign newspapers, nor are there privately owned television or radio stations. Now, with a small yet vocal chunk of the population using Twitter, information is slowly leaking out regarding the situation. Time will tell how vital Twitter proves in the uprising.
And now, as I type this, an earthquake measuring around 8.9 has hit Japan and tsunami watches are being issued all around, including the western coast of the U.S. Fortunately for me I'm a bit too far in to be affected, but it's important to know, and thanks to a barrage of tweets and retweets I'm able to stay on top of the information quicker than I could through traditional means. As horrible as this tragedy is, it illustrates just how important Twitter is becoming during important events.
It should go without saying, but here at MEGATechNews our hearts go out to all of those negatively affected by the earthquake.