Is Twitter Proving its Real-World Relevance?

March 15, 2009 08:15 AM
by Liz Colville
A man’s quest to use Twitter to raise money for charity is just one way Twitter users are demonstrating its everyday utility.

The Twitchhiker

Paul Smith, known on Twitter as the twitchhiker, set off on a trip from his home in Newcastle, England to New Zealand to help raise money for an organization called charity: water.

Armed with nothing but clothes and other essentials, Smith is relying on “the charity and goodwill of people who use Twitter” to pay for his food, transportation and lodging, and to help him raise money for the charity.

On Day 13 of his journey, he wrote an article in The Guardian’s Travel Blog describing his experience thus far. He has already made it to Wichita, Kans., traveling westward with the help of “tweeple”—Twitter users—who paid his way through several European countries and U.S. states.

His mission is to show “that the connections we nurture online are capable of being equally as strong, if not stronger than those we foster in the flesh.”

He is not the first to use Twitter—either consciously or unconsciously—as a Web-born application with offline impact.

During the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008, citizens became journalists, using Twitter on their cell phones to spread news of the attacks.

Twitter user 2drinksbehind, also known as Mike Wilson, was the first to inform the world of last year’s Dec. 20 plane crash in Denver, Colo., of which he was a survivor. Wilson described his ordeal via a series of posts on Twitter.

The safe plane landing on the Hudson River in New York City on Jan. 15 was also initially relayed through Twitter. Twitter user Janis Krums was on a rescue ferry that assisted stranded passengers. He used his iPhone to upload photos to TwitPic, a Twitter application.

During the election season, Twitter proved its effectiveness for “agents of social change,” according to Josh Catone of the blog SitePoint. Catone explained how volunteers were planning to use Twitter to report on signs of fraudulent activity at polling places during the presidential election.

Background: The technology of Twitter

Twitter’s slogan is “What are you doing?” Founded in 2006, Twitter is a micro-blogging service that allows people to post 140-character “tweets” to their “followers,” who may or may not be people they know. In reality, “What are you doing?” is only one of infinite queries, events or needs that prompt someone to post a tweet.

Twitter often exemplifies crowdsourcing, a term that was first coined by Jeff Howe, an editor for Wired, in a 2006 article.

Howe’s definition of crowdsourcing is “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”

On Twitter, crowdsourcing is used not only in a business context but also for social purposes, to answer questions, to get help or to simply be entertained.

During the 2009 Super Bowl, millions of people took to Twitter to comment on the game, ads and halftime show. The New York Times captured this with some interactive graphics.

Opinion & Analysis: Twitter for business, social change

Twitter cofounder Biz Stone has hinted at what many in the blogosphere agree: that Twitter’s search function will likely be its financial lightning rod. Twitter’s search function already appeals to many, as typing keywords into a search box is a more familiar way of getting a question answered online.

As Portfolio notes, corporate presence on Twitter is another way the site could monetize: Corporations could pay “to use the service to stay in frequent contact with their customers.” Many companies, like Starbucks, Zappos and Dell, are already on the site.

But as Bob Pearson, Dell vice president for communities and conversations, told Portfolio, “There are other ways that Twitter can monetize its site, through advertising or other means. They don't have to be charging business customers to be part of it.”

A recent Forbes article argues that more CEOs must embrace networks like Twitter. “Many corporations spend large sums trying to find out what people think of them. Plugging into the blogosphere or listening to feedback on Twitter offers a more effective and cost-efficient way of learning how to approach customer relations.”

Twitter may not have its business model completely figured out. But SitePoint, highlighting some successful election season campaigns on Twitter and other sites, writes that such sites “are definitely becoming invaluable pieces of technology for agents of social change.”

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