Twitter: A Global Force At Age Five

President Barack Obama sits with Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey during a "Twitter Town Hall" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 6, 2011. i i

hide captionPresident Barack Obama sits with Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey during a "Twitter Town Hall" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 6, 2011.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama sits with Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey during a "Twitter Town Hall" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 6, 2011.

President Barack Obama sits with Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey during a "Twitter Town Hall" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 6, 2011.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Twitter has become a top communications tool for everyone from entertainers to presidents. It is credited with speeding revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and blamed for helping ruin some political careers. Host Michel Martin discusses Twitter's impact with NPR Social Media Specialist Andy Carvin; Racialicious.com Editor Latoya Peterson; and "The Stream" co-host Ahmed Shihab-Eldin.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

All this week we are speaking with extraordinary astronauts in our series Flying High: The First in Their Class. Of course we're commemorating the last U.S. space shuttle mission. Next, we will speak with Anousheh Ansari. She was the first woman tourist to outer space. That's coming up later.

But, first, we want to talk about another launch. Five years ago this week the popular social media site Twitter opened to the public, inviting users to share their deepest thoughts in 140 characters or less. Since then it has emerged as a top communications tool for everybody from rappers to reporters to pop stars to presidents. Now an estimated 300 million people are using Twitter. It's credited with speeding the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia by giving large groups of people a convenient way to communicate in almost real time.

It's also blamed for helping ruin the careers of careless tweeters like former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner. So what about Twitter? Force for good? Not so much? Waste of time? And where does it go from here.

Joining us to talk about it are NPR social media specialist Andy Carvin. He's been instrumental in integrating Twitter into our network's news gathering. Also with us, Latoya Peterson. She's the editor of Racialicious.com. And Ahmed Shihab Eldin. He's the co-host of the Al Jazeera English program The Stream. They're all here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio in real life, not in 140 characters. Thank you all so much for joining us.

LATOYA PETERSON: Thanks for having us.

ANDY CARVIN: Thanks for having us.

AHMED SHIHAB ELDIN: Hey.

MARTIN: Andy, I just want to start with you. How has Twitter evolved over the past five years and our use of it? I actually remember the first seminar you gave us on Twitter. And I was, like, eh, that thing will never take off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARVIN: Right. I remember that. Well, it's like a lot of other social networks. Twitter started out as a very much an early adopter community. Lots of techies. Over time, regular people started joining it. You started seeing small businesses getting on there, politicians, folks who just wanted to talk to their friends. And it took a couple of years to really hit that point. But then, suddenly, celebrities starting signing up for Twitter, which really got the ball rolling and got people interested in it. And so now we have a fairly large community that's worldwide.

MARTIN: Latoya, what about you? Talk about the impact on the culture. Do you think it's changed the way people connect with each other? I'm always sort of wondering why that the celebrity adoption really changes the thing entirely, or are we just still on the outside of the velvet rope kind of looking at them or are we really connected to them?

PETERSON: I think it's real interesting 'cause Twitter is used depending on how the user wants to make it. So some celebrities use it as kind of like a broadcast medium. Here's what I'm doing. Here's where I am. And others really use it to get a deeper connection with fans. I was watching Missy Elliot's "Behind the Music" on VH1 and I just happened to tweet, oh my god. This is so inspiring. Like, she's really great. And she re-tweeted it and she was talking to her fans while the show was airing. So that's a pretty cool way of being connected with people.

But I think Twitter is just, you know

MARTIN: Why wasn't she just doing her show?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PETERSON: It was interesting. Cleary it was prerecorded.

MARTIN: Oh, OK.

CARVIN: Good question.

PETERSON: It was a really fascinating thing. And you can see that it's changing in the way in which we feel like we can interact with people, particularly people who are very - have very large platforms. And so it's personal in the way that it's not too intimate or a little too creepy.

MARTIN: Well, we're going to get to intimate and creepy in a minute, I'm sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Anthony Weiner being an example of that.

PETERSON: That's too creepy.

MARTIN: The New York congressman whose tweets of his underdressed self led to his undoing. Ahmed, though, on a more serious note, the whole role of Twitter in the ongoing political developments in the Middle East and North Africa has been so much discussed. And you were a part of that, Al Jazeera obviously a very big part of that.

ELDIN: Right.

MARTIN: What's your take on that, what role Twitter actually played?

ELDIN: You know, I always say that we all talk about any potential democratization of the actual Arab world as a result of these uprisings is directly related to the democratization of media. And when I first got to D.C. to, you know, launch The Stream, a big part of what we were doing is actually looking across Twitter and Facebook, but mostly Twitter, to find stories that are underreported.

And it was early in January and end of December, just a week after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and ignited this entire uprising and revolution, that I noticed these tweets coming in about schools being shut down and protests and even pictures. And within a matter of, you know, a week, there were solidarity protests in Egypt, in Algeria, you know, even across in Europe.

And it's funny that the mainstream media, really, for two weeks, missed the story until I think it was January 12th that Time picked it up. So Twitter really functions like a live wire. Of course verifying it is trickier, but...

MARTIN: We're going to talk about that in a minute. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

This week marks the 5th anniversary of public access to Twitter. We're talking about what its impact has been globally, politically, culturally with Ahmed Shihab Eldin. He's with Al Jazeera English; Latoya Peterson, the editor of Racialicious.com; and NPR social media specialist Andy Carvin.

Would you pick up on that point, Andy? 'Cause one of the questions I had was Twitter also used for disinformation as well. And you have always sort of talked about how you verify what's being said. Can you just talk about your observations? I don't know that we can come to a conclusion, but I'd like to hear what your observations have been.

CARVIN: In the case of the Arab Spring, there wasn't a large amount of disinformation out there simply because the regimes weren't organized enough to use social media effectively. And so when it comes to Tunisia, when it comes to Egypt, to a lesser extent, Libya, it was very one-sided as far as who was using social media.

But then you've got some other examples, such as in Syria, where they started essentially trying to spam Twitter. Whenever they'd see Syria mentioned, they would send out tweets related to it to just try to water down the stream of information.

MARTIN: Ahmed, what did you, what have you observed as well? You were nodding when Andy was talking.

ELDIN: Yeah. About the spam bots in Syria, you know, they were tweeting about falafel and weather and clouds trying to inundate the actual hash tag that was used to follow the story by journalists, who were trying to follow the story. Because as we know, one big advantage of this tool and the way Twitter is used is actually to connect governments with journalists and journalists across the world and citizens with people on the ground.

And just one anecdote is, you know, six of our journalists from Al Jazeera English were actually detained. And the story about the arrest is really interesting because, you know, within a matter of 30 minutes after our journalists were arrested, P.J. Crowley tweeted something along the lines of Al Jazeera English journalists should be free and should not be detained and we urge the, you know, Mubarak government to release them. Now, you can't draw causality directly, but within a matter of 30 minutes, they were released.

MARTIN: So really rapid response. Latoya, on that point, though, we've talked about how Twitter has become a tool of American politics and some very mixed results. I mean, as we've seen, you know, a career undone. Newt Gingrich, though, Newt Gingrich always had a - Republican presidential candidate - always had a reputation for being kind of flamboyant in his remarks. For example, tweeting that Sonia Sotomayor is a racist. And then he had to - well, he didn't have to - he chose to walk it back.

I just wanted to ask, what do you think the impact of Twitter has been on politics? Some people think it kind of trivializes, you know, complicated issues 'cause how do you really condense a conversation about the debt in 140 characters? But what's your take on this?

PETERSON: I don't think that Twitter trivializes things. It might not be the best format for having longer conversations or in-depth conversations. But at the same time invite so many more people into the conversation that I always appreciated.

And with politicians acting out, like, that's kind of on them. At this point we've had the Internet for, you know, 20 years. If you haven't figured out that the things that you put online are public and that they are representative of your thoughts, then I don't think anybody can help you at this point.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Finally, before we let each of you go, and obviously we're in the middle of the stream, as it were, where do you think this goes from here? Any thoughts about how Twitter is evolving and how it will continue to be used? Are there any new frontiers? I'll just brag. We thought this was big.

We did our, for April poetry month, we did tweet poems everyday. And one of the things I was proud of is that we brought people to the table who had not previously been. There were people who said they only signed up on Twitter in order to write poems, which I thought was kind of - Andy's, like, neh, neh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARVIN: I was nodding my head and smiling.

MARTIN: OK. I thought you were kind of unimpressed.

CARVIN: Oh, no, no, no, no. I enjoyed it.

MARTIN: Latoya, do you want to start?

PETERSON: I don't know. I always feel weird about trying to predict the future of platforms, 'cause ultimately that's what Twitter is. It's a platform. It's a way for people to communicate. And so as we find better ways to communicate with each other and other ways that we can express ourselves, Twitter may go out, Twitter may modify, Twitter may be the next huge thing and every single person has a Twitter account.

The perception of Twitter is still a little bit lopsided with how people actually use it. So there are tons and tons of people on Twitter but they said it was, like, nine percent of the U.S. population is still using it currently.

CARVIN: Right.

PETERSON: Even though, like, 90 percent are aware of it.

CARVIN: I think 70 percent of users on Twitter are actually outside the U.S., if you can imagine.

PETERSON: Right.

ELDIN: It gets very international.

MARTIN: All right. So, Ahmed, you go next.

ELDIN: Yeah. I just wanted to say, you know, the way that Twitter is used and these tools like Twitter in the U.S. is very different than other countries. Because in the Arab world in the context of these uprisings, you know, these are countries where civic engagement is certainly not encouraged and often suppressed or oppressed.

So what you see is, you know, on Twitter, even if it's 140 characters, people can really voice their opinions and feel more secure. And that played, you know, into the idea of, you know, the fear factor finally being broken. And that's what mobilized people to actually take to the streets. Now you're starting to see civic engagement being tolerated in countries where for decades, you know, it hasn't been.

And just, you know, giving a shorter anecdote is that my aunt, who's actually, you know, lived in Egypt and grew up in Egypt, she wrote me an email right after, you know, Mubarak fell and she said, so, what is this Twitter thing all about? Like, should I sign on? 'Cause she was in such disbelief. And obviously, you know, Twitter didn't cause these revolutions, but it certainly accelerated and amplified the message and I think it's been quite effective. It's only going to grow, I think.

MARTIN: Andy, final thought?

CARVIN: I think Twitter, like other social networks are essentially a microcosm of culture. And so Ahmed's absolutely right. When you compare to the U.S. where people are talking on Twitter about entertainment, politics, whatever comes to mind, it was used in a much more deliberate and serious way because the networks of people that were organizing in the Arab world saw this as a tool to help them achieve their goals and their ends. And so it's hard to really categorize what Twitter's going to be like in the future because it all depends on the human networks that are using it.

MARTIN: Andy Carvin is NPR's social media specialist. Ahmed Shihab Eldin is co-host of the Al Jazeera English program, "The Stream." Latoya Peterson is editor of Racialicious.com. They were all kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. And I hope they'll tweet about this. Thank you all so much for joining us.

ELDIN: Thank you.

PETERSON: Thank you.

CARVIN: Thanks.

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