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 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT