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 2:12 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
updated 5:24 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
updated 7:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
updated 7:50 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT