It was launched in 2005 and took about two years to become popular. And although, when it started becoming popular, many called it an alternative to Facebook, Twitter was neither modeled on FB nor had been meant to rival it. FB was originally launched as a photo sharing app which eventually became a platform where you could do several other things around networking apart from photo sharing.
Twitter, on the other hand, was launched a networking site where you could only post short (140 letters) messages. Given the succinct nature of messages, it never became another FB-like site and established an alternate pattern of networking, less chatty and more impersonal, promoting, in sum, the kind of messages you wouldn't share with a friend or a family member but a person you shared an interest with. This is why Twitter became a platform to engage with others on issues of public interest, politics, social issues, films, books etc.
There are enough rabble rousers on Twitter but very few people who have no opinion or at least are not on a networking site to express them or review them based on others', the type FB mills with.
But does Twitter have an impact? Last week, the India govt blocked the Twitter accounts of some journalists and social commentators because they had attacked the government. A couple of days later, however, their Twitter accounts were unblocked again. Nothing can establish Twitter’s power better than this flip flop by the govt. First, fearing that a few Tweets might cause a fire, you block an account; then realizing that blocking will lead to a backlash both on and offline helping the blocked person to become the face of opposition, you unblock his account again.
This kind of incident is not new to Twitter. While I have been on Twitter, the site has faced threats and demands from various governments and heads of states (China being one of them and very frequently so) demanding that Twitter content be sanitized, dissenters blocked, etc. Although Twitter resisted the demands to block sites or give sanitized content initially, eventually it gave into the coercion, promising to sanitize content based on regional preferences/threats.
You can’t blame Twitter for this because the networking site may be one without national boundaries but its servers are vulnerable to being blocked by national governments and their cyber security apparatus. There are ways to circumvent even that but lack of easy access to the site will still shoo away some users from the site.
Twitter is not the only networking site that has suffered this fate and no networking site can avoid this for too long. And, if you were not a starry-eyed idealist, you would realize that toning down content is more preferable to being blocked. However, this whole cycle of people expressing their dissenting views and governments asking networking sites to block them or remove dissenting content and the networking sites resisting the demands – is not a futile affair.
The bad press governments receive each time they try to curtail networking sites’ freedom will eventually make them hesitant about attacking networking sites and push their boundary of tolerance a little further . And each time a new fight between governments and dissenters breaks out, it will be fought from a point where the boundaries had been laid last time, making each clash a step towards a more tolerant world. That’s the role Twitter has played since its birth together with other networking sites.