The first tweet was a retweet.
“Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).”
The message came across a national news organization’s Twitter account. It was late so I was lying in bed when I saw it. The year was 2011. The original author was a man by the name of Sohaib Athar. His location was Abbottabad, Pakistan, and as Christina Warren depicts, he was unknowingly talking about Osama bin Laden’s impending death (2011).
Unbeknownst to Athar and the rest of the world, the Pakistan citizen was live-tweeting one of the biggest news stories in American history (Warren, 2011).
“Report from a taxi driver: The army has cordoned off the crash area and it conducting door-to-door search in the surrounding”
This episode put the power of Twitter on full display. Athar was no journalist. He was neither a correspondent nor photographer. He was a normal guy using the increasingly-preferred form of communication for a generation.
And it just so happened that he ended up reporting one of the 21 most memorable tweets of 2011, according to Brian Hernandez (2011), and perhaps beyond.
The history of Twitter
Since it’s release in 2006, Twitter has risen to be one of the most used social media applications available stated Paul Grabowicz of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism (2014). By February 2009, the website had accrued seven million visitors to its website, an increase of 1,382 percent from the previous year. One month later, the growth reached 2,565 percent (Grabowicz, 2014).
Pretty amazing increase for a software program that originally sprouted up from, as Nicholas Carlson described, a failed podcast platform (2011).
“Noah (Glass) had a product where you call a phone number and it would turn your message into an MP3 hosted on the Internet. That was the technology that Noah brought that turned into Odeo,” Odeo employee Ray McClure said (as cited in Carlson, 2011).
However, Carlson states that during Odeo’s development — which eventually faltered in 2005 — the concept of Twitter was formed by Jack Dorsey and then expanded by Dorsey, Glass, Evan Williams and Christopher Stone. A series of events led Williams to buying out all of Odeo’s stock holders in September of 2006. Months later, the new majority shareholder placed the company’s efforts towards its burgeoning social media application and never looked back (2011).
“Five years later, assets of the company the original Odeo investors sold for approximately $5 million are now worth at least 1,000 times more: $5 billion,” Carlson stated (2011).
In 2014, Smith exclaims that the total number of registered users for the platform nears a billion, and its estimated value — $10 billion (2014b).
Twitter as a social-sharing platform
While Twitter currently finds its highest percentage of American users in the 18 to 29-year-old age bracket, checking in at 30 percent writes Jeff Bullas, it didn’t start out like that (2012).
Actually, Grabowicz lists “somewhat older professionals in metropolitan areas” as the outlet’s first true loyalists. Yet that began to change as the application matured. By February 2009, a Nielsen online study stated that the biggest age group on Twitter was 35 to 49-year-olds. Then in 2012, 18 to 24-year-olds overtook the lead and since have become “the fasted growing group of Twitter users” (2014).
During the increase, Twitter’s activity level has entered a social media atmosphere that only Facebook had previously enjoyed, thanks to its total amount of monthly active users — 241 million (Smith, 2014b). On an average day, Smith cites that 500 million tweets are sent out, coming from 100 million daily active users.
“The rise of smartphones might account for some of the uptick in usage because smartphone users are particularly likely to use Twitter,” Bullas stated (2012). “This is partly because Twitter is embedded in the Apple iOS5 mobile operating system. iPhone owners can use it as easily as they send text messages.”
Supporting that argument, Bullas points out that one in every five smartphone owners operates a Twitter account, 13 percent of which use the application daily. On the flip side, at just nine percent, Internet users that utilize basic cellphones are half as likely to participate in the application, with only three percent of basic phone owners jumping on the platform during any given day (2012).
“This correlation between Twitter adoption and smartphone ownership may help explain the recent growth in Twitter use among young adults,” Bullas stated (2012). “Those aged 18-24 are not just the fastest-growing group to adopt Twitter during the last year, but they experienced the largest increase in smartphone ownership of any demographic over the same time period.”
Reporting through Twitter
With the trend of cellphone usage soaring upwards, and Twitter’s popularity among younger generations following, it becomes easier to see why professional and aspiring journalists have flocked to the platform. According to Stadd, in 2013 59 percent of reporters worldwide employed the outlet, an increase of 12 percent from 2012 (2013).
“And Twitter, while far smaller at 59 million active U.S. users, has consolidated its reputation as the place readers and journalists alike go for the latest updates on breaking news,” Sasseen, Olmstead and Mitchell stated (2013).
For a profession that is becoming increasingly more digital — Stadd writes that 39 percent of reporters surveyed worldwide agree their title is now digital-first (2013) — Twitter is transforming into the preferred communication vehicle for modern day correspondents.
“The fact that so many journalists are on Twitter has made Twitter incredibly professionally valuable to journalists,” Ezra Klein of the Washington Post stated (2013). “Tweeting your articles ensures they’re seen — and discussed, and retweeted — within a community that includes not just your friends and peers, but the people who might hire you someday.”
Therefore, for high school journalism teachers, the real question becomes: how can student reporters efficiently and effectively be taught how to utilize Twitter?