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Tweet Me a River: Eight Years On, the Biggest Two Surprises about Twitter

March 21, 2014
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On the eighth birthday of Twitter, some surprises, and some unfulfilled potential

As the mainstream media note the eighth “birthday” of Twitter, the reality of what Twitter has become in society is interesting, because it has turned out to take rather a different trajectory from its social media alter ego, Facebook.

Indeed, when Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Biz Stone and Noah Glass launched Twitter eight years ago today, they could barely have imagined that the 140-character messaging service would revolutionize communications in the 21st century.

Even from the beginning, Biz Stone told attendees at the 2012 HIMSS Conference, there were naysayers. As I wrote two years ago, Stone told his HIMSS2012 audience that he and his colleagues were told that their new microblogging service wasn’t useful. Stone recalled that “I said to people, well, ice cream isn’t useful, either, but should we ban it??” So he and his colleagues persevered, and then, during the October 2007 South By Southwest music , film and arts festival held in Austin, Texas, Stone and his colleagues suddenly saw a tipping point occur, when SXSW attendees began to tweet (the Twitter founders had been promoting their new service at the festival) with great intensity, causing people to move from one venue (whether a lecture or a social gathering in a pub) to another seemingly like flocks of birds. Stone told the HIMSS audience he was astounded by the phenomenon, and the next day, he and Williams officially incorporated Twitter—and the rest, as they say, is history.

So what have been the surprises? Well, two, chiefly, and they are obverse faces of the same coin, actually.

First, in contrast to Facebook, Twitter actually began creating a buzz among consumers, but faded almost as quickly, as the number of people who consistently wanted to “tweet out” their daily lives stalled early on. There are individual people who use Twitter actively in their daily lives, but Facebook obviously has greater content bandwidth—there’s only so much one can brag about one’s grandchildren or tell stories about one’s cat, in 140 characters. And so the overall number of Twitter users in the general society remains small.

But the more interesting surprise, on the positive side of the ledger, has been the trajectory of Twitter as a business communications tool. Should that evolution have been surprising, really? After all, when combined with URL minimizing tools like Bitly and TinyURL, Twitter can be surprisingly powerful as a way for organizations to share articles, research, and other pieces of information, across quite broad networks of individuals and groups.

And that potential only continues to grow, as business and policy users of Twitter grow their networks of people and information. What’s more, there have even been a growing number of instances of clinically significant uses of Twitter in the patient care arena. For example, a UCLA-led study published earlier this month found that Twitter and other social media could be used to track HIV incidence and drug-related behaviors; and hospitals like Cincinnati Children's Hospital are live-tweeting surgical complications to family members of patients; while at Memorial Hermann in Texas, a neurosurgeon in 2012 live-tweeted a brain surgery he performed, for medical education purposes. Senior Editor Gabriel Perna blogged about another surgical live-tweet, this one at UCLA Medical Center, last year. And one certainly hopes that many more examples like all of these will emerge in the future.

So the next eight years will be fascinating to watch. Even as Twitter has surprised us in the past eight years, there are bound to be additional surprises down the road, including some directly related to care delivery reform and other changes in healthcare. Just as with numerous other types of services and technologies, the new world that Biz Stone and his colleagues at Twitter unleashed eight years ago is one filled with all sorts of as-yet-unfulfilled possibility.