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Twitter turns six: Looking back at what 140 characters have accomplished

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Hard as it is to believe, microblogging platform Twitter celebrates its sixth anniversary today. That’s right; the powder-blue brainchild of Jack Dorsey took shape six years ago in its then-incarnation of “Twttr,” signaling the death of the overly verbose status update and ushering in the age of popstars feuding with news anchors. Celebratory tweets today range from the humorous (“Twitter is 6 years old today. This explains why so many of its users spell at a 1st grade level”) to the heartfelt (“Happy 6th birthday, Twitter! The way news and information is shared has been forever changed. Thank you, @jack and @biz.”)

One thing is for sure; the social media site and its devotees have wrought plenty of changes over the last six years. While certain elements of Twitter’s evolution — such as its adoption as a celebrity sounding platform and corporate customer engagement tool — were somewhat predictable, others were less so. Take, for instance, the rise of citizen journalism. News such as the assassination of Osama bin Laden last fall and the recent death of Whitney Houston were broken not by journalists or agencies but by an IT consultant hoping for a quiet getaway and user claiming to be the niece of a Houston employee, respectively.

Then, of course, there was the unprecedented role of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in the Arab Spring movement. A Washington University study released last September credited the use of social media with playing a “central role” in the popular uprisings that helped unseat Tunisian and Egyptian presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. In the study entitled,“Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?” Philip Howard, an associate professor of communication at UW, and his co-authors assert that Twitter and other social media platforms “played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring” through “online revolutionary conversations [that] often preceded major events on the ground” and  “helped spread democratic ideas across international borders.” Not bad for a six-year-old.

So, whether you’re toppling a vicious tyrannical oligarchy or simply Tweeting about your Shamrock Shake today, take a moment to appreciate the many facets of Twitter and wish it a very happy birthday.

Photo credit: Jack Dorsey