Skip to main content

Why the pope and Obama turn to Twitter

By Nilay Patel, Special to CNN
updated 11:24 AM EST, Wed December 5, 2012
Pope Benedict XVI started a personal Twitter account on December 3.
Pope Benedict XVI started a personal Twitter account on December 3.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nilay Patel: Twitter used to be for tech nerds, now it's for the entire world
  • Patel: TV executives, celebrities, politicians, journalists all see Twitter as invaluable
  • He says Twitter faces challenges ahead, like free speech and how to make money
  • Patel: Sense of anarchy and openness and chaos is what makes Twitter vital

Editor's note: Nilay Patel is the managing editor of The Verge, an online website that covers technology, science, art and culture. Follow him on Twitter: @reckless

(CNN) -- As a tech reporter, it's my job to catch trends as they're developing — to be ahead of the curve. I like to think I do a pretty good job, but I will forever have one hilarious black mark on my resume.

My first tweet.

"I am already kind of over Twitter," I wrote on April 5, 2007. Twitter was a new service back then, and I had signed up early enough to get a pretty cool username. Frankly, I didn't think much of it since it seemed like a mild update to the IM status messages I'd already been using to communicate with my friends for years.

Nilay Patel
Nilay Patel
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Boy, was I ever wrong.

Twitter has grown from being an insider back channel for tech nerds into being the insider back channel for the entire world.

It is everywhere at once and everything to everyone: a public broadcast platform, a private messaging service, a way to share photos, a late-night therapy session, a journalist's best friend. We expect people to be their most honest on Twitter — and that honesty can spark firestorms of controversy.

Opinion: Twitterers -- take responsibility for your reckless claims

Television executives say that Twitter has brought live TV back to life after years of wilting in the face of the DVR — we're "social watching" now, which means we all want to tweet about shows as they're happening. Celebrities use Twitter to talk to their fans without media and publicists in the way — and their platforms can be so valuable that they can earn thousands of dollars per tweet. Every journalist I know says Twitter has redefined the way news is gathered and shared — stories break on Twitter now, not on TV or in the newspaper.

I have a friend whose cell phone is set up to get a text whenever Britney Spears tweets. I worry about her, but not as much as she worries about Britney.

Since Twitter is where the people are, that's where the politicians and world leaders have gone. The pope just signed up for a personal account, and his first tweet is coming on December 12. Senators and representatives of both parties have long made use of Twitter to talk to their constituents on an unfiltered platform — sometimes with disastrous results, as Anthony Weiner found out when he accidentally posted a private message publicly.

President Obama took to Twitter during the campaign season and again on Monday to rally support for his fiscal policies. Obama's use of social media during the campaign highlighted his significant tech advantage over Mitt Romney. But the president seemed to mostly use Twitter to acknowledge that he knows Twitter exists; he said very little of substance in his eight tweets during Monday's "town hall." We'll know Twitter has truly come of age as a political medium when our presidents use it to disseminate substance, not just show off that they're in the know.

Interesting dramas regularly unfold on Twitter. Last year the terrorist group Al-Shabaab gained notoriety for setting up a Twitter account. More recently, the Twitter accounts of Israel Defense Forces and Hamas began a war of words as the two sides began fighting each other on the ground. Human tragedy turned into theater on the Internet.

The episode drew scrutiny from Congress, with seven Republican members of the House calling on the FBI to shut down Hamas' Twitter account. "Allowing foreign terrorist organizations like Hamas to operate on Twitter is enabling the enemy," said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas. He continued, "The FBI and Twitter must recognize sooner rather than later that social media is a tool for the terrorists."

Actually, Congress can't tell Twitter what to do under the First Amendment, but the company will face increasing scrutiny as its user base grows — and for the level of control it can exert over free speech in a private platform.

Twitter faces numerous other challenges as well in the years ahead. The company might be a central part of Internet conversation, but it still has to figure out how to make money. Those struggles have led Twitter to exercise more and more control over its service as it tries to slowly transition from being just a platform to being a media company — control that's angered a developer and user community that literally made Twitter what it is today.

The @-reply, the hashtag, even the now-ubiquitous pull-to-refresh gesture: All these came from members of the Twitter community, and Twitter risks missing out on similar innovations as it imposes its own vision of the Twitter experience.

Tech: Will Twitter war become the new norm?

And make no mistake, the backlash against Twitter is real. Spurned developers and early Twitter adopters angry at Twitter's new policies have turned to the alternative service App.net, which promises to hold true to Twitter's own early ideals. The catch? In order to make money, App.net charges a subscription fee, a guarantee that it will never be as vibrant and free-wheeling as Twitter.

That sense of anarchy and openness and chaos is what makes Twitter important — what makes it the town square and a freshman dorm room and an international conference call all at once. The challenge for all of us is figuring out how to best turn such a tool into more than just noise — and the challenge for Twitter is figuring out how to make money without chilling the vibrant expression that makes it so vital.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nilay Patel.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT