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On the trail: With Twitter, Dorsey says anybody can spark an 'international conversation'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: If tech-savvy individuals want to engage in a cringe-worthy exercise, have them download a full archive of their Tweets.

The results aren’t pretty. When this writer joined Twitter back in April 2008, the first Tweet I hurled through cyberspace was: “This confuses me.” The second missive issued just two hours later – “Things” – probably wouldn’t qualify as a literary marvel, either.

But it’s fair to say that the micro-blogging service has thoroughly matured in the last few years – and not just for bespectacled political writers. Besides being a running commentary on the rigors and joy of everyday life, Twitter is now as normal in the political world as a long-winded speech or baby's kiss.

Since it debuted in 2006, the service spurred momentum for unknown causes, linked elected leaders directly to citizens and even fostered revolutions. Twitter is so big now that an errant message can spur a sprawling analysis from a Washington Post – or end a career.

Jack Dorsey is largely responsible. The St. Louis native helped develop Twitter back in the 2000s, a feat that he discussed in length during an appearance last week at the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting at Washington University.

Former President Bill Clinton noted on Friday hundreds of millions of Tweets are sent out every day by nearly a half-a-billion people, a feat Clinton quipped was “reasonable growth.” And speaking with reporters Friday, Dorsey admitted that he and others were “surprised at the velocity and also the canvas it’s provided for the diversity of uses.”

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey discusses the impact of the micro-blogging service on politics and advocacy.

“We started by Tweeting what was happening around us and following what people were doing that we cared about,” Dorsey said. “But people Tweet about everything from what they’re having for breakfast to a news article to a revolution that they’re currently in to everything in between. That’s been amazing to watch.

“Any time you provide a communication channel, any time you provide a venue, the right communication is going to find a way to be there and to thrive,” he added.

Indeed, Twitter and other social media conduits have been extensively used during revolutions throughout the Middle East. It's provided a mechanism for a government's opponents to communicate with the world – and with each other.

When asked why young revolutionaries were using his service to force government change, Dorsey pointed to the service’s universal applicability.

“The reason we chose a 140-characters is because of a 160 character limitation of SMS. And SMS is so important,” Dorsey said. “Why we did that was it can work on any device on the planet. So a $5 cell phone in the middle of Kenya can participate in the conversation that Justin Bieber was having with his iPad. And that dynamic range is really, really important because it levels the playing field. It means that the merit of the idea and the content of the idea is the most important. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are. You can still participate and still have massive impact.”

One example: A man with 20 followers made international news when he Tweeted a picture of a plane in the Hudson River. That person, he said, went from relative anonymity to being part of an “international conversation.”

“That was really magical. It was really powerful,” Dorsey. “When people see that potential and see that could happen, it means it could happen to anyone.”

Of course, not all Twitter usage is linked to toppling governments.

In Missouri, for instance, it’s been used as tool for state and federal lawmakers to stay engaged with wired constituents. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is a prime example, as she’s been the subject of a bajillion articles documenting her use of the service.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is also incorporating social media into message and constituent communication. And nearly every Missouri legislator of consequence uses Twitter. 

The interaction between public figures and their followers “really changes the dynamic for them when they start replying to people and loosen that guard a bit.”

“One of my favorite people in this regard is Rupert Murdoch. Because Rupert Murdoch started with no followers,” Dorsey said. “And he got on and he started Tweeting his opinions. And then suddenly, he started learning how to reply to people. And he did this really interesting thing where he had all these people complaining to him that they weren’t getting the Wall Street Journal."

Dorsey said Murdoch told one person “‘it will be fixed tomorrow morning. Tweet at me if it’s not fixed.’” And sure enough, the person got his paper the next morning.

“It’s little stuff like that for really public figures to really go down that road and be human again, and go off the pedestal to engage in conversation that changes people’s perception of who he is,” Dorsey said.

But even as Twitter continues to be intimately linked with politics and advocacy, a burning question remains:  Was Dorsey horrified after he downloaded his Tweets?

“No,” he said. “I’ve been keeping a journal since I was 14 years old. So like, do you go back and look when you’re 14 and say ‘Oh my God, who was that?’ Well I was 14 years old. Any new technology, you’re going to learn how to use it. And you’re going to approach it in a very specific way you start and then it evolves. Ideally it evolves very, very quickly depending on where you want to go.”

“To me it’s this ultimate journal,” he added. “It’s everything that’s happened in my life.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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