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Exceeding the 140-Character Limit: Twitter Leaves the Twitter-Sphere


by Ysabel Yates

On January 15, 2009, an airplane carrying 150 passengers collided with a flock of birds just 15 minutes after leaving New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. The quick-thinking pilot landed the plane in the Hudson River and became a hero when every passenger survived. The flight made history that day, but something else did, too: a rapidly expanding social media platform called Twitter.

That day, a rescue worker on the ground tweeted about the incident and took the now-iconic photograph of the plane in the water. In a recent CNBC documentary, “The Twitter Revolution,” Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder, said that for him, this was the moment when the platform revealed itself to be more than just a 140-character status update.

“It just changed everything,” he said. “Suddenly the world turned its attention, because we were the source of news—and it wasn’t us, it was this person in the boat, using the service, which was even more amazing.”

Since then, Twitter has gone on to do things even its founders couldn’t have predicted: fueling the flames of overseas revolutions, being the source of breaking news stories and giving life to inanimate objects, to name just a few. But the platform of 200 million active users has evolved into something much more than text, photographs and videos. Increasingly, it is operating and exerting influence outside of a platform for short communications between people.

Here are just a few examples showing how Twitter is exceeding the 140-character limit.

Twitter-enabled ‘bots

Tweet-powered robots are gaining popularity because Twitter’s unique programming interface allows machines to readily interface with the platform. Many of the applications are novelties. There’s the tweeting toaster, the “Kitty Twitty,” a cat toy that tweets when your cat plays with it, a robotic popcorn machine that pops a kernel whenever somebody uses the hashtag #popcorn, and a tweeting Roomba.

But some uses for a robot that interfaces with Twitter aren’t as trivial. Take the One Street Tweeter, for example. It was designed by ONE, an advocacy group seeking to fight poverty and preventable disease. The ONE Street Tweeter prints real-time tweets straight onto the street using nontoxic, water-soluble paint (as long as they don’t exceed 40 characters). It was used during the G8 summit to print messages that urged world leaders to act on poverty and preventable disease.

In addition, as the machine-to-machine communication network called the Industrial Internet makes headway, so do more useful reasons for robots and sensors to be hooked up to Twitter. For example, an instrument in Cape Cod, Mass., automatically tweets the tide's cycles. As talking machines become more common, we’re likely to see more that tweet useful information.

Twitter as predictor

People love to complain, and people love social media. Adam Sadilek, a computer scientist at the University of Rochester, put those two together when he built nEmesis, a system that uses tweets to predict which restaurants are serving up cases of food poisoning.

As New Scientist reports, Sadilek built the system to scan tweets from the New York City area to find users who had sent messages from one of the 25,000 restaurants monitored by the city’s health department. It then monitored those accounts for certain keywords or phrases that might indicate food poisoning, including “throw up,” “my tummy hurts” and “Pepto-Bismal.”

The system ranked the restaurants based on the tweets, which ended up closely matching the official health scores on record. The trial run of nEmesis turned up 120 restaurants that were likely responsible for food poisoning.

Another example of Twitter as predictor comes from Indiana University. Researchers there found the frequency with which users tweeted about Republican and Democratic candidates in the 2010 and 2012 House of Representatives races closely matched the percentage of votes each candidate received, regardless of whether the tweets were positive or negative. “We call this the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ finding. Even if you don’t like somebody, you would only talk about them if they’re important,” said sociology professor Fabio Rojas in a press release.

The results not only mean that Twitter might one day replace conventional polling and surveys, but it could also enable anybody to become an election prognosticator like Nate Silver. As Karissa McKelvey, a study co-author said, “With the right planning, someone could monitor races in 2014 on their personal computer.”

Tweets from inside

The most radical of the Twitter innovations on this list, and perhaps not too far off in the future: A company called Proteus Digital Health has developed a “digital pill” (a pill with a built-in sensor) that can send a text or tweet when it completes the journey from mouth to stomach acid, which is its power source, the BBC reports. “Effectively, when you swallow one of our digital drugs it will say, ‘Hello I’m here, I’m Novartis, I’m Diovan, 1.2mg, I’m from plant number 76, I’m batch number 12 and I’m pill number 2,’” said Proteus CEO Andrew Thomson.

Top image: Mapping of aggregated geotagged tweets since 2009 reveals geographic shapes like that of New York City. Courtesy of Miguel Rios / Twitter.

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