22 : Twitter and the Micro-Messaging Revolution
The State of
It’s been around for just two and a half years, but micro-
messaging is growing quickly and changing fast. In this
section, we’ll look at its roots, signiﬁcant developments
and recent trends.
A Micro-History of the Medium
To understand the roots of micro-messaging, you need
to know that instant message systems like AOL Instant
Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger generally have a
customizable “away message.” The away message lets
users type in a short, public note that explains why
they’re unavailable for chatting. Early in this century, it
was common for people—students in particular—to use
that message space as its own means of communica-
tion, changing it constantly and keeping up with other
people’s changes, too.
In 2003, The New York Times wrote a feature story on
the trend, noting, “They post a little of everything: news,
quotes, schedules, song lyrics, birthday greetings, party
invitations, jokes, veiled insults, confessions, exclama-
tions, complaints. The messages may be meaningful to
everybody, somebody or nobody” (http://www.nytimes.
that sounds a lot like the way people use Twitter, it’s no
accident: Jack Dorsey, the Odeo engineer who created
was inspired in part by away messages.
Right around the time Twitter launched, Facebook
added Status Updates, “a lightweight way for people to
give little updates to their friends” (http://blog.facebook.
com/blog.php?post=2334332130). Unlike Twitter, which
asked “What are you doing?,” Facebook had the prompt
“[username] is” and a little window to type in your mes-
sage (i.e., “Sarah is eating ice cream for dinner.”).
Though Twitter and Facebook emerged around
the same time, Facebook has remained the province
of largely personal posts while Twitter has come to
encompass many kinds of messages.
“Twitter has sparked this whole movement of status
updates’ being actually useful,” Joi Ito says. Indeed, social
networks of all kinds—from LinkedIn to GoodReads—
have lately added status update features, making micro-
messaging more and more common.
At the outset, however, Twitter was diﬀerent from
the other sites in three key respects. First, it was much,
much simpler. Its only feature was the messaging.
Second, when Twitter launched publicly in August 2006,
it had an API (application programming interface)—
that is, a way for programmers to build their own
applications using or adding to the Twitter datastream
nearly in real time. Third, it made everyone’s messages
public by default, letting people follow and read each
other without giving mutual permission. The ﬁrst
distinction is fairly clear, but the second two bear
In September 2007, Biz Stone, one of the Twitter
founders, said, “The API has been arguably the most
important, or maybe even inarguably, the most impor-
tant thing we’ve done with Twitter” (http://readwritetalk.
com/2007/09/05/biz-stone-co-founder-twitter/). The API
was signiﬁcant because it allowed software developers
everywhere to build programs that made Twitter more
useful and accessible for many people, creating value
far beyond what the small Twitter team itself could
generate. Put another way, it made Twitter more of a
communications platform than a messaging service.
7. Twitter became a separate company in April 2007. 8. In fact, as Twitter has grown in popularity, Facebook has come to look more and more
like it. Last year, Facebook created a page that let you see all your friends’ updates on one
page, and they added a feature that let you send or receive updates by SMS. In addition,
Facebook banished the “[username] is” prompt, and today when you log into Facebook,
the ﬁrst thing you see is your own most recent Status Update and the Twitter-like
question, “What are you doing right now?”