Why Britain is suddenly all a-twitter

Record numbers sign up to site that lets us share every detail of our lives

Amol Rajan
Friday 23 January 2009 01:00 GMT

It was established as a communication tool for geeks and now counts showbusiness stars and the American President among its users.

The popularity of Twitter, the micro-blogging service used by President Obama to remind Americans to vote and tennis player Andy Murray to update fans on the weather, has risen so much that it has seen its visitor numbers increase by nearly 1,000 per cent among UK users.

Latest figures from Hitwise, the online intelligence service, show a 974 per cent increase in traffic, jolting Twitter from the 2,953rd most popular site among UK users to the 291st most visited by mid-January.

Widely feted as the follow up to the networking site Facebook in the evolution of web communication, the service allows users to post short updates about what they are doing. Established as the preferred communication tool for members of the tech community, the service has now entered the mainstream as a form of instant news alert and marketing technique.

The recent explosion in user numbers is largely a product of enthusiasm for a new form of citizen journalism. President Obama has a Twitter profile, although it has been quiet of late, while news of the recent plane crash in New York's Hudson River first emerged from survivors' Twitter updates.

Jonathan Ross, the disgraced BBC presenter, has been using the service to chat with fans during his enforced absence from the BBC. He has said he will Twitter live with Stephen Fry, another celebrated Twitterer, on his BBC television programme tonight.

"Twitter was one of the fastest-growing websites in the UK last year, and shows no signs of slowing down," said Robin Goad, director of research for Hitwise. "If anything, the service is even more popular than our numbers imply, as we are only measuring traffic to the main Twitter website.

"If the people accessing their Twitter accounts via mobile phones and third party applications [such as Twitteriffic, Twitterfeed, and Tweetdeck] were included, the numbers could be even higher. Many people seem to find Twitter addictive: the average amount of time that people spend on Twitter.com has more than trebled from less than 10 minutes a year ago to half an hour now."

Twitter does not provide official figures for its usage, but industry analysts believe that more than 2.25 million "tweets" are posted every day, on top of more than 1.1 billion such messages since the service was launched in early 2007.

And the site is about to open a radical new arm of its operation by integrating search functions into the home pages of users. Until now, users who wanted to search for "tweets" had to go to a separate website, search.twitter.com.

That obstacle is thought to have put off many members of the public. But over the next 10 days, Twitter will start putting search functions into the home page of around 1 per cent of users, asking them for feedback about its efficacy. Biz Stone, one of Twitter's co-founders, deflected criticism of his creation as simply a platform for narcissists. "Search integration is a way of introducing relevancy to people", he said. "This is not just about, 'What are you doing?' but about what everyone else is doing. Twitter is about finding out what is going on out there right now in real time."

The fastest growing group of users in the UK is in the 35- to 44 year-old bracket and accounts for 17.3 per cent of UK visitors. Growth in the UK is likely to be accelerated by the reintroduction of free two-way text messaging of "tweets" to countries outside the US.

The service was withdrawn in Europe last year because it was too expensive for the company. For all Twitter's success, it remains a small player in online networking. Facebook is the most-visited networking site in the UK, with almost 38 per cent share of the market, followed by YouTube, Bebo, and MySpace, with 17 per cent, 9.1 per cent, and 5 per cent respectively.

Famous fans: From Obama to Britney

British comedians

Stephen Fry – @stephenfry

On being a guest for TV comeback of Jonathan Ross: "Show is recording earlier than usual to suit: a) Me, b) Lee Evans, or c) Tom Cruise? Answers on a tweetcard.

Jonathan Ross – @wossy

Keeps fans updated with his showbiz hobbies and family life: "Have just Wall E again with the kids. It was Jane's first time."

John Cleese – @JohnCleese

Joins in with the adulation of Obama: "What a truly great day for America."

US Politics

Barack Obama – @BarackObama

Flatters voters: "We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you."

Issued rallying calls to floating voters: "Asking you to work on behalf of democracy and register at least 1 or 2 more people to vote."

Joe Biden – @joebiden

John McCain – @JohnMcCain

Al Gore – @algore


Andy Murray - @andy murray

Documents his thoughts on being Australian Open favourite: "So hot here. Hit on court 4 around 3. First on Rod Laver arena tomorrow."

Kenny Egan – @kennyegan

Shaquille O'Neal – @The Real Shaq

Lance Armstrong – @lancearmstrong


Britney Spears – @britneyspears

Talks about reconstructing familylife after rehab: "I just took my babies to our new home and they loved it! I can't wait to move in. Britney."

MC Hammer – @MCHammer

Dave Matthews – @DaveJMatthews

William Shatner– @WilliamShatner


Richard Branson – @RichardBranson

Twitters on how tough it is at the top: "Been on GMTV with Holly and Sam"

Confessions of a twitterer: I couldn't live without it

Frequently updating the world as to the minutiae of one's existence is surely an exercise in narcissism and time-wasting in the extreme. Such was my initial impulse on discovering Twitter.

But having created an account I realise I was guilty of a lack of imagination, for Twitter has uses far beyond informing the world of what I had for breakfast.

It is not simply another Facebook-style social networking site where users may tag drunken photos of one another and relentlessly massage their egos, safe in the knowledge they have 5,000 friends.

Twitter has numerous highly-beneficial applications. First of all it makes a fantastic tool for marketing and advertising. Sinister as this may sound, it actually works almost solely to the advantage of those with something interesting to promote, like a blog, rather than a product for retail.

Indeed it can act as a blog in itself – a phenomenon known as microblogging due to the 140-character limit, which proves surprisingly liberating.

As to its undeniable potential to be a distraction, many people with more tech nous than me report that it can reduce your internet usage if used properly. Twitter can be an alternative to email, instant messenger and RSS (news) feeders because of its private message functions, thus streamlining the number of sites you must access to get all your news.

Some use it for networking – keeping up with the latest and greatest in their industry and constantly making new contacts. Meanwhile, others employ it to break news.

For the uninitiated Twitter hatchling like me it will probably be used to organise trips to the pub. Next step: find someone to Tweet.

Jack Sidders

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