A look back at 2009: The year of Twitter

Twitter - Bird with Follow Me Sign

Back in mid-2008, Twitter was just another Web 2.0 application. Industry watchers were beginning to take notice of its million or so users and speculate if it might be the start of something bigger, but most people hadn’t heard of it or didn’t “get it”. Here at Bitcurrent we pondered the rise of microblogging and the scaling problems ahead, noting a few teething problems along the way.

Towards the end of 2008, people outside of tech circles began to take notice, especially when it became a key form of communication during the Mumbai terror attacks in November. In December it became clear that Twitter was not just another social site, but a protocol for a new form of communication. By the end of the year, people were exploring all sorts of new uses for Twitter, and the Twitter pantomime was born.

But 2009 was the year that Twitter really took the world by storm.

We didn’t imagine that we’d be writing so much about Twitter in 2009, but being focused as we are on technology and how it changes society, it turned out to be inevitable as Twitter became more and more a part of our online lives and went mainstream. Here’s a look back at 2009 through the eyes of Twitter, including all the Twitter stories we covered across the year:

January 2009

Twitter became part of another major news event in January as an airliner ditched into the Hudson River.

On Watching Websites, Sean Power wrote the Twitter New User Survival Guide.

February 2009

Twitter was now experiencing 1,382% growth and surpassed 7 million unique visitors.

March 2009

After Facebook’s failed attempt to buy Twitter we, like many others, pondered the apparent lack of business model for Twitter and Alistair Croll contemplated a pay-to-follow model for the growing class of celebrity Twitterers.

April 2009

Celebrity Twitter madness peaked as Ashton Kutcher challenged and beat CNN to 1 million followers. Twitter also made headlines at the G20 summit in London.

On Bitcurrent, Sean wrote about how Twitter search was next to useless and that Twitter needed a ranking algorithm.

May 2009

May saw astronaut Mike Massimino the first tweet from space and the US Center for Disease Control use Twitter to communicate with the public about swine flu.

June 2009

Twitter was one of several technologies that helped Iranian citizens challenge the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and keep open channels with the west despite the Iranian government’s attempts at censorship (which we learned more about at Bitnorth later in the year).

Michael Jackson’s death caused a doubling of traffic on Twitter as the world talked about it.

Twitter Growth in 2009In June, Twitter traffic passed 20 million unique visitors per month, then began to stabilize

July 2009

In Chicago, Horizon Realty Group sued a former tenant over her tweet about a mouldy apartment.

When the film Bruno opened on July 13th, its box-office takings tanked after the first night. The general reaction to the movie on Twitter was very negative and most people now believe that that the speed at which the bad reviews spread was directly responsible for the drop in takings. Twitter has changed the dynamics of opening weekends at the movies forever.

August 2009

Georgian blogger Cyxymu became the target of cyber attacks trying to silence his voice online, leading to the biggest recorded outage of Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. I wrote on Bitcurrent about the problems this highlighted in terms of entrusting our online identities and communications to single companies.

The US healthcare debate spread into a global debate thanks in large part to Twitter, as the American right described the UK’s National Health Service as “evil” and Brits from around the world (including the prime minister and his wife) leapt to its defence via the #welovetheNHS hashtag.

A study dismissed 40% of Twitter traffic as “pointless babble”, or, as the rest of the world like to call it, conversation.

September 2009

In September, Sean wrote on Watching Websites about how Twitter temporarily suspended a number of legitimate accounts including himself and Tim O’Reilly.

There was much discussion on Twitter about another new form of communication launched that month, Google Wave.

October 2009

The Internet won a small battle for free speech as discussion of UK Member of Parliament Paul Farrelly’s question about oil traders Trafigura, broke out on Twitter and in the blogosphere. The courts were forced to overturn the injunction that had prevented the press from naming the MP, prompting suggestions that in the age of Twitter, there are no secrets any more.

Alistair wrote about the social pressure created by reading tweets from others in his post on “Status Update Anxiety”. Alistair also wrote about how Twitter has hit the mainstream and become an integral part of our everyday lives.

November 2009

In November the biggest mainstream Twitter stories were about Tiger Woods, but the tech industry was entering a lively debate over Twitter’s new implementation of the Retweet feature, something invented by the users of the service. On Watching Websites, Alistair wrote about how a formalized retweet mechanism gives Twitter a “PageRank for humans”. Alistair and Sean presented a bootcamp at Web 2.0 Expo on the new science of Communilytics of which this is just one part – measuring the spread of your marketing messages through social networks like Twitter.

Meanwhile, I wrote on Bitcurrent about how Twitter had failed to consider how people were really using Retweets with their new design, which removes the ability to add a comment or tailor the message for your followers. I proposed a better retweet design, which meets both Twitter’s needs for tracking as well as maintaining user functionality.

December 2009

On Bitcurrent, I wrote about how the use of Twitter for backchannels at conferences is starting to go too far, and how Twitter should never take center stage.

Elsewhere, a Twitter campaign in the UK saw Rage Against The Machine beat Joe McElderry to the coveted Christmas number one spot, despite the backing of Simon Cowell and the X Factor “music machine”, another testament to the people power of Twitter.

Stephen Fry, one of the most popular celebrity twitterers, announced he is giving up Twitter for a while in order to focus on writing his next book, reminding many of how distracting a constant stream of public conversations can be.

2010 – Where next?

It seems the hype around Twitter and its rapid growth is starting to die down, but it is clear that it is here to stay.

I expect we will see Twitter used in more and more fields in 2010, and it will continue to enhance people’s ability to connect globally, share ideas and breaking news, and influence others.

The events of 2009 have also shown us that we should be wary of our over dependence on Twitter the company – or risk redesigns, outages and company actions impacting our ability to communicate effectively. We have also seen how Twitter can bring the conversation right into the current moment – but we should control this carefully or risk damaging the integrity of our news reports and public speaking events.

I hope that 2010 will bring a growing awareness of the need for electronic communications around open protocols like e-mail, XMPP and Google Wave, leaving control and choice with us, the people who use them instead of in the hands of companies like Twitter and Facebook. I also hope that the news industry will worry less about what people are saying on Twitter and get back to reporting the news.

For more on 2009’s Twitter news events you can read this BBC News article, which was a source for this post.

From all the Bitcurrent team, we wish you a happy and prosperous 2010!

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