twitter

Twitter. Triumph of humanity.

Twitter’s meteoric rise to ubiquity is proof positive that the world, in all its complexity, is eager to embrace simplicity. Wielding more impact on social networking than most communication tools this generation has yet seen, Twitter is one of those universal phenomena where the product name self-conjugates. To engage with Twitter is to “tweet”.

Biz Stone, one of the firm’s co-founders and director of communications, never imagined that this real-time short messaging service would have such immediate impact on how people communicate. Twitter lets everyone within a network of contacts know what is going on in each others’ lives, from the mundane to the dramatic. Limited to 140 characters, Twitter messages, travelling over multiple networks and devices, have touched the lives of families needing help during natural disasters, strangers becoming friends, and politicians reaching out to their constituents.

At the uniquely styled Twitter office – the top floor of an old warehouse South of Market in downtown San Francisco, where flocks of birds are appliquéd on the walls and healthy lunches are served family style – the Mac is everywhere and Apple solutions enable creativity on a daily basis. In keeping with the casual, open office theme, Twitter’s common areas are equipped with Mac mini and iMac systems, Bluetooth keyboards and mice for presentations and demonstrations, and Apple Cinema Displays.

Twitter started out as a simple idea, when co-founder and chairman of the board Jack Dorsey thought it might be a useful concept to consolidate instant message status like “getting coffee”, or “too busy to chat” into a social networking tool that subsequently became a phenomenon that would provide real-time, up-to-date status, from the office or the road. Stone and others are amazed by how asking the simple question “What are you doing?” has become such a hot commodity since Twitter was prototyped in 2006.

“What jumps out to us is that Twitter has become more a triumph of humanity than a triumph of technology”, says Stone. From finding available gas during fuel shortages, to feeling the impact of earthquakes within 10 seconds of first shock, to facilitating tsunami relief in sub-Sarahan Africa, people are instinctively attracted to Twitter and are using it in ways its co-founders never imagined.

“Tens of thousands of people followed the account of the touch-and-go unmanned Mars Phoenix landing, as NASA’s director of communications tweeted about key equipment procedures in real time. Twitter catalysed an entirely new kind of public involvement in science. By the time the mission’s press release went out, it was old news”, says Stone. Millions of people, Stone notes, also use the service as a serious business tool for everything from communication and branding to gauging a product’s success in the market.

With just under 30 employees, the sense of social responsibility runs high at Twitter. Big pitchers of filtered lemon-cucumber water are in the office kitchen, so Twitter employees have clean drinking water without the plastic bottles. At the same time, Twitter stakeholders never forget that a billion people go without clean drinking water every day. The company’s environmental concerns extend to its choices when it comes to technology.

Among the many reasons the Twitter organisation is attracted to the MacBook and MacBook Air is their low power consumption, which reflects the company’s green ethic. “We haven’t measured our energy savings yet, but the environmentally conscious aspect of Mac systems and the fact that they are made without the harmful chemical compounds found in older PCs is very important to us and affects our buying decisions”, says Stone.

At Twitter, software engineers use Mac systems running the most recent version of Mac OS X. Twitter was built using software tools like Ruby on Rails, which is provided as part of Mac OS X. Lead Engineer Alex Payne notes that engineers tap into other tools such as TextMate, a friendly and powerful code editor available only for the Mac.

Software engineers, many of whom were attracted to Twitter as an employer because of its bent for the Mac, love the fact that Mac OS X is an operating system designed from the ground up for serious software development work. And, from a security standpoint, Macs are inherently more secure than other systems, so Twitter can worry less about safeguarding source code and other intellectual property.

Twitter design teams run site testing by flipping between Safari and Firefox, and if they want to test on Windows, they fire up a virtual machine running VMware on their Mac systems.

While Twitter employees can work on whatever computer they choose, they invariably request the Mac. On the business side, staff has everything it needs using Apple and third-party software solutions. Everyone creates presentations in Keynote as well as making heavy use of Numbers and Pages, all part of the iWork application suite.

Naturally, Twitter employees collaborate using Twitter. But, when the need for other ways to connect arises, people also flock to iChat and Bonjour technology to stay in the loop. On Fridays, people gather in the afternoon to catch up on the week via video iChat, where remotely located, free-floating talking heads on MacBook systems are hoisted to eye level around the conference table. When software engineering teams work in multiple group chats, they use Campfire, a web-based group chat service for the Mac and iPhone. They can share documents using another third-party application, DropBox.

Clearly, Twitter has an affinity for Apple tools, but then again, the attraction goes both ways. Explains Stone, “We’re contributing to the Mac ecosystem by providing an interface for developers that enables them to build clients for the Mac and iPhone. There is always a ton of Mac activity on Twitter itself. During the last Macworld conference, the traffic spike on Twitter went through the roof. Historically, people thought about the Mac as something for entertainment or graphics, but now they see the value of the Mac as a serious business tool. The same is true of Twitter”.

Those staff members who use the MacBook Air claim it has totally changed their attitude toward mobility. No longer do they settle for toting a stripped down facsimile of a computer to events. The MacBook Air machines they travel with are the same ones they use for software development.

When it comes to availability, iPhones accommodate peoples’ needs to work remotely and stay connected with the Twitter team. Stone notes that Twitter remains loyal to iPhones even though other handset manufacturers offer them free equipment.

Stone admits that yes, Twitter is fun. “But more importantly, the use cases we see emerging tell us that Twitter is a minimalist communication tool that is very powerful”, he says. “The Mac is the same way. It offers beautiful design, simple elegance, and a system that’s incredibly flexible and powerful to use”.