Micro-blogging social network Twitter has recently announced that it is to be floated on the stock exchange. Initial figures have investors valuing the company at over $10bn, which might only be a tenth of the valuation that Facebook achieved, but is still a hugely impressive feat for a service that has a very basic website, is free to use, and limits posts to only 140 characters.   

See also: Beginner's guide to Twitter

In the lead up to the Initial Public Offering (IPO) Twitter has been shoring up its brand by restricting the use of its API (which third party clients need to refresh the Twitter feeds for their users) and recently spent $350 million acquiring mobile ad company MoPub. These moves are seen as ways to promote the use of Twitter’s own official app and open up revenue streams to keep investors happy. This is sensible business, as a company needs to make money to survive and prosper, but it does suggest a potential change to one of the simplest and most powerful services available online.

Twitter logo

Since its launch in July 2006 Twitter has quickly become one of the most important social networks in the world. Alongside the inevitable tweets about food and cats, the site has also been responsible for breaking major news stories, enabling political protests, and is now a constant feature on live television shows where audiences share their comments. Facebook might seem like the dominant entity in the social space, with over twice as many users as Twitter, but somehow those 140 character messages have claimed a higher visibility in society.  

Perhaps one reason for the interest in Twitter is its unusually high number of famous users, many of which are actively tweeting on a regular basis. In an age where celebrity culture has reached new extremes, Twitter offers fans a personal insight into the lives of the stars, plus the chance that they might even interact with the celebs themselves. Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) has been a long-time, and particularly avid, Twitter user who brought the site to a wider audience back in 2009 after he found himself stuck in a lift. He tweeted about it from the insides of the elevator and received replies from his thousands (now millions) of followers. Eventually Fry posted a photo of himself and his fellow captives which ended up being circulated by the major press outlets, and helped publicise Twitter to the mainstream.

Today the site has become the social media of choice for professional athletes, writers, actors, musicians, politicians, and leading figures in the tech industry. Bill Gates (@billgates) regularly uses his account to promote the work of his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Apple CEO Tim Cook (@tim_cook) began tweeting on the day the iPhone 5S was launched, and the head of another organisation with a passionate religious following, his holiness Pope Francis (@pontifex), even took to Twitter recently to bring spiritual wisdom to a platform over-run with the thoughts of Premiership football players and Miley Cyrus (@mileycyrus).  Of course if you prefer words from the heavens to have a scientific edge then you could always follow Curiosity, NASA’s Mars Rover (@marscuriosity) as it shares the details of life on the Martian landscape that it now calls home.

To think of Twitter though as just a celebrity fan site would be missing the real strength of the medium. First and foremost the service is all about communication : Ideas, causes, jokes, disputes, and how did that person manage to survive another week on the X Factor when the other one was clearly better? The real genius behind it all is how short the messages have to be. On Facebook or Google+ you are free to wax lyrical about whatever is on your mind, quoting sources of inspiration and even inserting the odd photograph or twenty. On Twitter you need to cut to the chase. This makes it very different, and allows users the freedom to quickly share something and move on. There’s little chance of being caught up in the notorious time-hogging fashion that the bigger social media sites offer, instead you dip in and out, quipping here, discussing there, but always moving at speed.

In 2007 while trying to organise a conference via Twitter, Chris Messina stumbled across a single character that would dramatically affect the way that people would go on to use the service. In an attempt to group together tweets related to the conference he suggested the prefix # (or hashtag), which had traditionally been used in IRC chat clients. The idea quickly spread and turned an ever changing group of unrelated tweets into single subject streams, unleashing the true potential of Twitter as a news service. In subsequent years the hashtag #egypt would bring the struggle of the country’s people against a repressive government to international attention, while #japan collected the tweets about the tragic Japanese Earthquake. Marketing companies have also used  hashtags to run campaigns online, television shows enable audience participation in the same way, while activists such as the Occupy Movement have brought their causes to the fore by the simple addition of the # symbol.

With Twitter now firmly embedded in the fabric of digital culture it becomes a very important matter how the company sees its future. This week it announced a deal to show in-game highlights (accompanied by sponsored ads) for the NFL during live games, which mirrors similar agreements struck with the NBA and ESPN earlier in the year. These form part of Twitter’s Amplify strategy, that targets the collective viewing behaviour of its users. This is no surprise when a recent study by Bluefin stated that 95 percent of online conversations that occur during live events do so on Twitter. How these deals are implemented without disrupting the normal flow of a news feed remains to be seen.

There’s also the issue of trolling and aggressive threats, particularly towards women, that have grabbed the headlines in the past few months. Politician Stella Creasy (@stellacreasy) and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez (account now deleted) received rape and death threats for their entirely reasonable view that a woman should appear on one of the UK bank notes. Arrests have been made, but the incident was one that would make shareholders nervous as their investment was publicly attached to such a high profile scandal. Whether this would trigger calls for censorship by those who would want to protect their stock value is questionable, but the possibility exists and would be a worrying road to start down.

In the short space of seven years Twitter has gone from ‘a short burst of inconsequential information’ as co-founder Jack Dorsey described it, to a rich source of news, opinion, and global shared experiences. Proving, at least so far, that sometimes less really is more. What it will be a decade from now is anyone’s guess, so we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed and hope that money doesn’t make a total mess of one of the best things in technology right now.