Yes we can twitter

Some people are addicted and others loathe it, and most of the messages are as frivolous as the name. That, though, is part of its charm and one of the main reasons why Twitter has taken the online world by storm. E&T gets set to tweet.

Twitter seems like a cute way of sending SMS-like messages to every one of your contacts via the Internet. However, the 'microblogging' service - so called because each 'tweet' has a limit of 140 characters - has been credited with being the first to break the news about the airliner that crash-landed in the Hudson River in New York State. A passenger on a nearby ferry tweeted about it together with a picture taken on his iPhone.

Indeed, so-called citizen journalists have repeatedly beaten professional news agencies such as Reuters to the punch using Twitter, simply by being witnesses to the scene.

Twitter was founded by Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams. It began in March 2006 as a research and development project inside San Francisco podcasting company Odeo which was co-founded by Glass and Williams.

The service rapidly gained popularity. In March 2007, it won the 2007 South by Southwest Web Award in the blog category. Dorsey, the man behind the concept of Twitter, said in his acceptance speech, "We'd like to thank you in 140 characters or less. And we just did!"

Product development to create revenue

Now a separate company, Twitter finds itself obliged to negotiate the tricky hurdle of creating products that will bring it more revenue, having raised $35m in funding from US venture capital firms Benchmark and Institutional Venture Partners.

The site says that it had not actively sought the funds, but that investors were attracted to the firm because of its strong growth, with its user base having apparently increased by 900 per cent in the past year. Twitter claims the new funding will allow the company to "start building revenue-generating products", although it does not disclose what these might be.

Although Twitter is currently in a period of extraordinary growth, the site has had trouble converting the web traffic into cash, and there has been plenty of debate surrounding about how it will make money.

"Our relatively small team of 29 employees has accomplished quite a bit lately, but it's obvious that we have the world ahead of us," says Biz Stone.

Speaking to the Marketing magazine website on 10 February 2009, Stone is quoted as saying: "We are noticing more companies using Twitter and individuals following them. We can identify ways to make this experience even more valuable and charge for commercial accounts."

These comments provoked a flurry of reports that Twitter was about to start charging firms already using the service to continue with their accounts.The company, however, was swift to dampen down these rumours. In a post titled 'Nothing to report just yet', Stone noted that Twitter had been "thinking out loud" for over a year about the use of the service by commercial organisations, and how the offering could be improved.

"We hope to begin iterating on revenue products this year. However, it's important to note that, whatever we come up with, Twitter will remain free to use by everyone - individuals, companies, celebrities, etc. What we're thinking about is adding value in places where we are already seeing traction, not imposing fees on existing services," says Stone.

High-profile individuals joining Twitter, such as US president Barack Obama have helped the site gain traffic. Recently, Twitter hosted a festival in 175 cities around the world to bring together its communities and to raise awareness for the Water charity.

Security concerns

However, inevitably, there have been the usual security concerns. For example, Twitter users have been warned of an evolving attack that tries to fool them into giving away personal information and opens them up to online fraud.

Security company Sophos says it had received reports that people are getting direct messages that purport to be from friends, with links saying they can view pictures or blogs about themselves and even win an iPod.

But the messages are spoofed and the links go to a website that allows criminals to steal the trusting user's Twitter log-in details. These are then used to continue the scam and pass on the messages to more users.

"It would be bad enough to hand your Twitter username and password over to a criminal, as they could pose as you online and spread malware and spam to your friends and followers," says Graham Cluley, senior security consultant at Sophos, who adds: "As an alarming 41 per cent of Internet users foolishly use the same user name and password for every website they access, the potential for abuse is even greater."

According to Sophos, thousands of Twitter users have reported getting these messages with writer, actor and Twitter afficiando Stephen Fry among those who unwittingly clicked on the link. ("Lawks. Hope I haven't been phished for all my details. Clicked on scam URL last night before I knew what it was. Eeek. x").

Fry also fell foul of an entirely non-digital security issue, when he tweeted too specifically from an aeroplane ("We're already over Las Vegas. 59 mins to LAX.") and was 'papped' by a tech-savvy photographer.

Another series of attacks targeted celebrity accounts. Among the victims were US President Barack Obama, pop star Britney Spears and news networks CNN and Fox News.

The hacker posted a fictional update to the Twitter feed for CNN anchorman Rick Sanchez which read: "I am high on crack right now, might not be coming into work today." A similar post was made to the Fox News blog claiming that anchorman Bill O'Reilly was homosexual, while the Spears feed sported a vulgar message claiming to be from the pop singer. Obama's feed included a link to a survey site which pays users for traffic referrals.

Nevertheless, Twitter has clearly worried the establishment (or what passes as the establishment in the faddish Web world). A recent redesign of the Facebook interface has been interpreted as aping Twitter - much to the chagrin of its users. Imitation, then, is the sincerest form of flattery - or the most desperate strategy for survival.

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