What is Twitter? The history, how it is used and the technical characteristics

Twitter is a free social networking and microblogging service that provides users with a personal page that can be updated via text messages with a maximum length of 140 characters.

Twitter is built entirely on Open source architecture.

Updates can be made through the site itself, via SMS, with instant messaging programs, e-mail, or through various applications based on the Twitter API. Twitter was created in March 2006 by the Obvious Corporation of San Francisco.

The name “Twitter” derives from the English verb to tweet which means “to chirp”. Tweet is also the technical term for service updates. Itweet that contain exactly 140 characters are called twoosh.

Updates are shown on the user’s profile page and communicated to users who have signed up to receive them. You can also limit the visibility of your messages or make them visible to anyone.

The value of the social network has been estimated at around 8.4 billion dollars. Twitter in 2012 reached 500 million subscribers and 200 million active users who log in at least once a month.

To the story of Twitter

The creation

The birth of Twitter dates back to 2006, to a long brainstorming among the members of Odeo, a Californian company that was about to launch a particular platform for creating and managing podcasts with a very similar functioning to that of a voicemail.

The idea never came to light because shortly thereafter, with the launch of the first iPhone, Apple would launch a new totally revolutionized version of iTunes, which would have widely spread an integrated platform for the new generation of phones and iPods. subscription and management of podcasts.

Finding themselves at a dead end, the members of Odeo began looking for another original idea that would save them from sure bankruptcy.

One day, sitting on a swing in the park while eating Mexican food, Jack Dorsey came up with the idea of ​​a service that would allow an individual to communicate with a small number of people through text messages.

The first name of the project was twttr, a name inspired by the then already lucky Flickr and the 5 characters long short numbers for sending SMS to the USA.

The developers initially chose the number “10958” as a short code for sending messages, which was soon replaced by the simpler “40404”. 

The development of the project officially began on March 21, 2006 when Dorsey at 9.50 PM (PST) published the first tweet: “just setting up my twttr“.

The first prototype of the platform was tested internally among Odeo employees, while the final version was launched and opened to the public on July 15, 2006.

In October 2006 Biz Stone, Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey and some other members of Odeo created the Obvious Corporation, absorbed Odeo and redeemed all of its projects, including Odeo.com and Twitter.com, from the investors and shareholders of the former. society. In April 2007, Twitter formed an independent company.

Luck and popularity

The popularity of Twitter saw a turning point with the 2007 edition of the South by Southwest festival: in the days of the event, the use of Twitter tripled from 20,000 to over 60,000 tweets per day.

At the event there were two large 60-inch screens used exclusively to stream the public tweets.

The festival was a major publicity event for the service and the staff received the Web Award prize.

January 22, 2010 was the day of the first tweet sent from space: the author was NASA astronaut Timothy Creamer from the International Space Station.

Starting in late November of the same year, several other NASA astronauts began sending updates via a joint account: @NASA_Astronauts.

In the same period, the Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, who returned to the International Space Station for an ESA mission, began sending constant updates and photos of the Earth seen from space through his personal account.

The astronaut is also one of the famous protagonists of the video with which Twitter in March 2011 celebrated the 5 years since the launch of the service.

In Italy, on January 29, 2012 Twitter for the first time broke a news of institutional relevance well in advance of traditional media: the death of President emeritus Scalfaro was in fact tweeted by a university professor (Alberto Gambino), his friend and collaborator , with a message on twitter 45 minutes before the news agencies, giving rise to a lively debate on the net. 

On February 28, 2012, a photo of NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski taken by himself on the track, during an interruption of the race due to an accident, was tweeted to testify and send to the world those minutes in which all the drivers in the race they were still waiting for the restart at Daytona international Speedway.

On September 14, 2010, almost 5 years after its launch, Twitter launched a completely revised new interface with better integration of the features gradually introduced over the years and changed its logo.


Dorsey was the company’s first CEO. On October 16, 2008, Dorsey became president and Williams took over as CEO.

On 4 October 2010, Dick Costolo, former chief operating officer, took his place. Dorsey returned to work for Twitter in March 2010 dividing himself between the company of the well-established social microblogging platform and Square, a company in which he holds the role of CEO whose offices are a few steps away from those of Twitter in San Francisco.

Features of use

The service has become extremely popular, even as an opponent of Facebook, thanks to the simplicity and immediacy of use.

There are several examples where Twitter has been used by users to spread news, as a tool for participatory journalism.

For example, in the case of the earthquake in Abruzzo on April 6, 2009, Twitter users reported the news before traditional media.

Twitter also owes its simplicity to the lack of some functions typically found in social networks such as Facebook, including photo sharing.

However, there are many external services that can help enhance Twitter and implement it with typical Facebook features (for example TwitPic is a valid solution for distributing images within the social network).

The set of status messages posted on Twitter by users constitutes a huge amount of material, which can also be used by companies: for example, Dell has opened a communication channel with its customers on Twitter and many services offer reputation monitoring of brands on Twitter.

Also in Italy some companies, universities, schools and public administrations use Twitter for educational purposes.

The company that manages the service is not listed on the stock exchange but based on the latest investments made by external investors it has been estimated that the company is worth about one billion dollars.

In June 2009, the cover of Time and an article by Steven Berlin Johnson on the innovation brought by this service were dedicated to Twitter.

As reported in July 2009 by James Halton, chief marketing of the Microsoft company, Twitter and Facebook would have been part of an online service of the Xbox 360 before Christmas of the same year.

Since 11 December 2009, the active languages ​​on Twitter are French, Italian, German and Spanish together with English and Japanese which were present from the beginning.

Since April 2010, Twitter has introduced the ability to create sponsored tweets, called “Promoted Tweets”. For the moment they are only available to a limited number of accounts.

Technical characteristics of Twitter


Twitter’s web interface is written in Ruby on Rails, and messages are stored in server software running scheduled in Scala.

There is also an API open for all developers, which is a big plus for those who want Twitter as a service integrated into other applications (web, desktop or mobile).

According to Biz Stone, over 50% of Twitter traffic goes through its API.

However, due to technical and scalability issues, Twitter could ditch Ruby on Rails as its development framework and create a new one based on PHP. Evan Williams, however, quickly denied this information in a tweet he sent on May 1, 2008.

Twitter interface

Steven Berlin Johnson describes the basic mechanics of Twitter as “very simple”:

«  Like a  social network , Twitter revolves around the principle of followers ( followers ). When you choose to follow another Twitter user, that user’s tweets are displayed in reverse chronological order on the Twitter home page.If you follow 20 people, you will see a mixture of tweets scroll through the page: Breakfast Cereal Update , new links, music tips, including reflections on the future of education. 

On April 30, 2009, Twitter changed its web interface with the addition of a search bar and a summary of current affairs (Trending Topics), ie the most common phrases that appear in the message. “Any public update sent to Twitter from anywhere in the world can be instantly indexed and used for real-time search,” says Biz Stone. “With this feature that Twitter recently launched, it has become, surprisingly, a search engine to find what is happening now.”

Unlike Facebook or other social networks, there is no chat or sending of attached files, and it is not allowed to send messages to people who are not already in the Tweet contact list.

Messages can only be viewed if the recipient is already a “follower” of the sender. Instead, to send a public direct message it is sufficient to have the recipient as “following”.


Twitter short messages can be tagged with the use of one or more hashtags: chained words or word combinations preceded by the hash sign (#).

Tagging a post with a hashtag creates a hyperlink to all recent posts that mention the same hashtag.

In 2010 Twitter introduced the “trending topics” on the first page, that is the list of extremely used hashtags. In 2012, “localized trending topics” were introduced which allow the display of the most popular hashtags for each country.