Why the Pope and Obama turn to Twitter

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by Nilay Patel
Special to CNN

(CNN) — As a tech reporter, it’s my job to catch trends as they’re developing — to be ahead of the curve. I like to think I do a pretty good job, but I will forever have one hilarious black mark on my resume.

Nilay-Patel
NILAY PATEL

My first tweet.

“I am already kind of over Twitter,” I wrote on April 5, 2007. Twitter was a new service back then, and I had signed up early enough to get a pretty cool username. Frankly, I didn’t think much of it since it seemed like a mild update to the IM status messages I’d already been using to communicate with my friends for years.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

Twitter has grown from being an insider back channel for tech nerds into being the insider back channel for the entire world.

It is everywhere at once and everything to everyone: a public broadcast platform, a private messaging service, a way to share photos, a late-night therapy session, a journalist’s best friend. We expect people to be their most honest on Twitter — and that honesty can spark firestorms of controversy.

Television executives say that Twitter has brought live TV back to life after years of wilting in the face of the DVR — we’re “social watching” now, which means we all want to tweet about shows as they’re happening. Celebrities use Twitter to talk to their fans without media and publicists in the way — and their platforms can be so valuable that they can earn thousands of dollars per tweet. Every journalist I know says Twitter has redefined the way news is gathered and shared — stories break on Twitter now, not on TV or in the newspaper.

I have a friend whose cell phone is set up to get a text whenever Britney Spears tweets. I worry about her, but not as much as she worries about Britney.

Since Twitter is where the people are, that’s where the politicians and world leaders have gone. The pope just signed up for a personal account, and his first tweet is coming on December 12. Senators and representatives of both parties have long made use of Twitter to talk to their constituents on an unfiltered platform — sometimes with disastrous results, as Anthony Weiner found out when he accidentally posted a private message publicly.

President Obama took to Twitter during the campaign season and again on Monday to rally support for his fiscal policies. Obama’s use of social media during the campaign highlighted his significant tech advantage over Mitt Romney. But the president seemed to mostly use Twitter to acknowledge that he knows Twitter exists; he said very little of substance in his eight tweets during Monday’s “town hall.” We’ll know Twitter has truly come of age as a political medium when our presidents use it to disseminate substance, not just show off that they’re in the know.

Interesting dramas regularly unfold on Twitter. Last year the terrorist group Al-Shabaab gained notoriety for setting up a Twitter account. More recently, the Twitter accounts of Israel Defense Forces and Hamas began a war of words as the two sides began fighting each other on the ground. Human tragedy turned into theater on the Internet.

The episode drew scrutiny from Congress, with seven Republican members of the House calling on the FBI to shut down Hamas’ Twitter account. “Allowing foreign terrorist organizations like Hamas to operate on Twitter is enabling the enemy,” said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas. He continued, “The FBI and Twitter must recognize sooner rather than later that social media is a tool for the terrorists.”

Actually, Congress can’t tell Twitter what to do under the First Amendment, but the company will face increasing scrutiny as its user base grows — and for the level of control it can exert over free speech in a private platform.

Twitter faces numerous other challenges as well in the years ahead. The company might be a central part of Internet conversation, but it still has to figure out how to make money. Those struggles have led Twitter to exercise more and more control over its service as it tries to slowly transition from being just a platform to being a media company — control that’s angered a developer and user community that literally made Twitter what it is today.

The @-reply, the hashtag, even the now-ubiquitous pull-to-refresh gesture: All these came from members of the Twitter community, and Twitter risks missing out on similar innovations as it imposes its own vision of the Twitter experience.

And make no mistake, the backlash against Twitter is real. Spurned developers and early Twitter adopters angry at Twitter’s new policies have turned to the alternative service App.net, which promises to hold true to Twitter’s own early ideals. The catch? In order to make money, App.net charges a subscription fee, a guarantee that it will never be as vibrant and free-wheeling as Twitter.

That sense of anarchy and openness and chaos is what makes Twitter important — what makes it the town square and a freshman dorm room and an international conference call all at once. The challenge for all of us is figuring out how to best turn such a tool into more than just noise — and the challenge for Twitter is figuring out how to make money without chilling the vibrant expression that makes it so vital.

(Editor’s note: Nilay Patel is the managing editor of The Verge, an online website that covers technology, science, art and culture. Follow him on Twitter: @reckless.)

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