Happy Birthday, Twitter

It’s hard to believe that it was only five years ago today that Twitter went live with Jack Dorsey’s “inviting co-workers.”

In that brief time not only has Twitter grown in leaps and bounds — 140 million tweets a day, up from 50 million a year ago — it’s changed the entire media landscape.

Today, Twitter’s cultural influence – it breaks news, connects celebrities to their fans, identifies trends and starts conversations – has garnered the attention of thousands of brands, become an essential distribution channel for every media channel in the world that has a digital presence, and in the process attracted well over 200 million new users.

While there are plenty of long-time users who miss the days of the smaller community and the intimate, though still public, conversations that took place on Twitter a few years ago, Twitter’s most loyal participants (22 percent of users account for 90 percent of all Tweets) continue to praise the remarkable value inherent in those 140 character updates.

I’ve written enthusiastically about Twitter for a long time now. But even today I still continue to marvel at its potential. Some thoughts on how it continues to deliver.

Twitter connects you to incredibly smart people you might never meet otherwise

Critics talk a lot about weak ties and their limited value. But I can make a list of 30 or 40 inspiring, challenging, engaging individuals from all over the world, who have become friends, sources of great content, and connectors to other people worth knowing and learning from. They’ve joined me at workshops and panels. They’ve introduced me to prospective clients. In some cases they’ve even become clients. I doubt I’d have met any of them, virtually or in person, if not for Twitter. Truly there is no easier way anywhere to make an introduction, start a conversation, or even ask a favor.

It lets you customize a personal editorial board

The New York Times still has good content, but its editors can’t possibly do as good a job as my Twitter lists at filtering content that’s relevant to me. It only takes a couple of months to determine great sources of content and links and to organize them according to subject. Better yet, as you do the same, sharing content you think others will find interesting, your own followers learn what matters to you and become even more efficient and focused in what they share back.  It makes the line, “if there’s news that’s important to me it will find me,” actually true.

It helps you test out prospective employees

In the last year and a half, I’ve hired four people whom I  met on Twitter. The platform offers a way to question, challenge and engage with people in a setting that’s actually less pretentious or forced than the traditional interview. You can get a sense of the speed at which someone reacts, their comfort at initiating conversation, evidence of their experience and a sense of how others respond to them. Granted Twitter itself is an artificial environment compared to the real life interaction of a business setting, but you get to see things play out over time, which is something you can’t do in a one-hour interview.

It inspires serendipitous learning and discovery

You click on a link from someone who knows your interests. It leads you to a blog post by a writer of whom you’ve never heard. Next thing you know you’ve discovered a library of content that entices you further. Maybe it’s about emerging trends, or mobile technology, or design thinking, or organizational change or the role of improvisation in creativity. Maybe it’s just an insight about a new platform or social network. Either way, you’ve had your mind opened to something new that inevitably inspires your own content.

A couple of months ago, for a blog post I never got around to, I asked a few people I actually met on Twitter what the platform meant to them. Here are their answers.

Deeper relationships: Bob Knorpp, the Beancast

The biggest surprise for me in using Twitter is the depth of the relationships I continually find here, albeit, for real friendships to blossom the conversation usually migrates to chat, Facebook or even my show (The BeanCast). However, it’s Twitter where I am making the contacts, meeting folks, networking and making lasting connections. You wouldn’t think 140 character posts would be enough, but it seems to be exactly the right length for deciding if someone is worth getting to know. Bob Knorpp, The Beancast

A gateway for good stuff: Mel Exon, BBH and BBH Labs

The speed and breadth of thinking on Twitter remain a wonder. We treat Twitter like a test bed on crack, trying stuff out, getting our thinking appraised and improved. Personally, I’m helped and inspired daily. As for the superficial lack of depth people (still) complain of, when you look harder it’s patently rubbish. Un-follow the people who don’t make you think, make you smile, challenge you. Twitter is a gateway to good stuff; an engine made of people, with a ton of serendipity thrown in for good measure. Whenever it starts to feel like an echo chamber, I try to remember I built the walls myself. Time to follow some people from different industries, countries and cultures; mix it up a bit. Mel Exon, BBH Labs

A personalized discovery engine: Patricia McDonald

For me, Twitter is the ultimate in serendipity. It’s achieves, through a simple peer to peer value exchange, what it would take a highly complex algorithm to deliver and one that no search engine has yet cracked; Twitter consistently delivers content I am highly likely to be interested in but don’t yet know about. It’s a kind of highly personalized discovery engine. Patricia McDonald, CHI and Partners

The power to achieve, create and connect: Erik Proulx, creator of Lemonade

I wouldn’t have met 70 percent of the new people in my life who, over the last two years, have become valuable friends and business associates. Lemonade the Movie would never have come to be. I wouldn’t have raised $45,000 so for far from 1400 donors who’ve contributed to the making of Lemonade Detroit. And I would never have re-connected with my long lost step brother who I hadn’t seen for for more than 10 years. Erik Proulx, filmmaker

An incentive to read more: Len Kendall, co-creator of the 3six5 Project

Twitter forces me to read more. I’ve gotten into the habit of finding interesting links for people to read each day. Before Twitter I read online content in a somewhat passive state. Now that I’m putting my weight behind articles I’m sharing on Twitter, I want to make sure I understand and support the thoughts of those I’m passing along to others. Len Kendall, 3six5 Project

An introduction to new ideas: Thas Naseemuddeen

There are some incredible bits lurking around the interwebs– funny Tumblr blogs, beautiful videos, innovative google experiments, things that are helpful to my (day) job, and things that are just plain inspiring (even if I’m not entirely sure how/why in the moment). Those 140 characters are an introduction–whether to an idea, an actual thing, a meme or even a person. Rarely a day goes by that I see something via twitter that doesn’t surprise me or make me smile–even on the worst of days. Thas Naseemuddeen

A great way to start the day: Jonathan Fields, author/blogger

I start nearly every day on twitter with “Morning, friends. Who can I help today?” I’ve been doing it for over a year. Many times the asks are silly ones, like “do my laundry” or “bring me a cup of coffee.” But, then there are people who need genuine help, introductions, funds, advice, someone to listen or access to my tribes. When their request resonates, I do what I can do help. I’ve given all of the above (except the laundry and coffee) many times over.

But, truth is, the daily ritual helps me more than it helps the person who asks. It sets the tone for each day, starting from a place of proactively looking for ways to give, rather than take. And that tone often flows into everything that comes next. Funny enough, I occasionally end up feeling guilty, because I end up benefiting as much as the person I’ve helped. Net-net, I guess that’s not such a bad thing. Jonathan Fields, author/blogger

Since the launch of Twitter, we’ve welcomed the arrival of Tumblr, Posterous, Foursquare, Quora, Instagram, GroupMe and dozens of other new platforms. But for me, none of them yet rival what Twitter offers.

Happy Birthday.