21 Mar 2013

What Twitter did for us

It’s Twitter’s seventh birthday – so we’ve had a look at whether Twitter has changed the world. Plus we’ve had a look at our first tweet and heard your 140-character tributes.

Twitter is seven years old today (Twitter)

Just four years ago, David Cameron was dismissive enough of Twitter to say in a radio interview: “The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it – too many twits might make a t***.”

What a difference a few years makes. Now 200 million people are on Twitter and 400 million tweets are sent every day. The prime minister himself has sent 122 tweets and has 263,853 followers, and on budget day yesterday, Chancellor George Osborne also joined the social networking site.

He might have regretted it later when Ed Miliband (for probably the first time ever) referred to a hashtag in the House of Commons: #downgradedchancellor. Tweets like the one below from our Economics Editor Faisal Islam to the Treasury team, referring to Mr Osborne’s failure to come on Channel 4 News for an interview, are unlikely to have enamoured him further.

But many others love Twitter.

Professor Tom Watson, a media expert at Bournemouth University, said the sheer fun of instant communication was one of the key reasons why.

“I think Twitter has become part of our communication lives,” he told Channel 4 News.

“There are still some people for whom it will never be appropriate but I find it incredibly useful and fun, and it’s taken over from Facebook in that type of quirky commentary that people have. But it’s not taken over the world – I don’t think the world is a changed place because of it but it has brought a whit of humour, from the profound to the whimsy, in a way other things can’t do.”

The serious side of Twitter

Twitter has also had serious applications across the globe. In natural disasters, tweets became cries for help and calls to action. After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011, aid agencies used Twitter to post information on how to obtain help, and even the US State Department used Twitter to publish emergency numbers.

Thousands also posted photographs and videos of the devastation, linking via Twitter.

But it was perhaps the disputed June 2009 elections in Iran and the Arab Spring revolutions where Twitter and other social networking sites really came of age, giving those who had lived under repression a voice, a place to tell stories, and a platform to rally and organise mass support.

As the Arab Spring protests unfolded, Channel 4 News mapped the role of social media across the region. Internet activist Ala’a Jarban, 21, said: “The events in Tunisia and Egypt inspired the whole region, they made us realise that we don’t have to live with all the problems we’re having, and change is indeed possible.

“Facebook and social media are playing a major role in all changes and revolutions happening in the Arab region.”


Made me more polite, it would seem, writes Channel 4 News Head of Online Anna Doble.

Trawling through my archive (you can download yours via "settings") in honour of Twitter's seventh birthday it is interesting to see how differently I used the social network at the start. My posts were largely personal, contained few links, none came with images. All were sent from desktop, a little later via text message. My first tweet? Cameron-esque with a clear note of scepticism: "I am joining the Twitter revolution and wondering if the past tense of tweet is t***."

Most revealing is my tone of voice - and my tendency to swear. I never swear on Twitter now. Why? Because I am being watched. Back then, I clearly felt I was talking to me, myself and a handful of friends; like the first series of Big Brother and the contestants' quaint unawareness of the noses pressed at the window. The vast potential of Twitter had not dawned. The idea of the chancellor of the exchequer tweeting would have been plain odd.

And then came the Arab Spring, several big elections, the phone-hacking scandal, the Olympics and Paralympics. It's hard to imagine a newsroom, or indeed politics, without Twitter now. And it's hard to imagine myself casually swearing or revealing how I voted in an election (yes, I did that) on the site. So thankyou Twitter for giving us a different view of the world and of ourselves. And for washing my mouth out with hashtags. #happybirthdayTwitter.

Closer to home, after the London riots #riotcleanup brought thousands together to clean up their communities in the wake of the violence. It has also played a massive role in our No Go Britain campaign, where disabled transport users drew our attention to the struggles they face every day.

Twitter also lets people hit back instantly at figures of authority – prompting red faces and apologies from corporations across the globe. Great for democracy and open society – the companies are probably a bit less keen on it though, particularly those who encounter PR disasters on Twitter like HMV or Qantas.

Its new popularity has attracted the attention of hackers, who on Thursday apparently gained control of the BBC Weather twitter account, posting some distinctly untypical weather updates.

It also revolutionised news – giving viewers a chance to interact with newspapers, broadcasters and websites, and also becoming a place where many go to get most of their headlines and breaking news rather than in the traditional media.

Twitter fears

However, it’s not all good. There are some legitimate fears about Twitter. For example, where does this information go that we are just freely putting out there? To paraphrase George Orwell: Are you letting Big Brother watch you?

And if not Big Brother, certainly the US government: the Library of Congress has archived 170 billion tweets.

For many others, learning that Twitter is a public forum has been a rocky road. Just last year, thousands faced libel action from Lord McAlpine when he was wrongly linked to a child sex abuse scandal on Twitter.

As Channel 4 News Presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy wrote at the time: “That’s the thing about Twitter. People use it to spout any old nonsense that comes into their head. And they have, to a horrendous degree…So it is good that Twitter has been sent a shocking bolt of electricity by Lord McAlpine’s lawyers…Twitter is dead. Long live Twitter.”

Whatever the future holds for Twitter, it has certainly come a long way from the first tweet ever – March 21, 2006, when co-founder Jack Dorsey posted the first ever tweet: “Just setting up my twttr.”

We’ve come a long way too – the first ever Channel 4 News tweet read: “So here’s the plan: we’ll take you inside the Channel 4 Newsroom and share what we can, when we can. Always inside. Occasionally insightful.”

We’ll let you be the judge of that.

You can download your Twitter archive and find out your first ever tweet by going to “settings” and hitting “request archive”. Let us know what you said – @channel4news.