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At 9:50 pm on March 21, 2006, Jack Dorsey posted the message “just setting up my twttr” to the website he co-founded with Noah Glass, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone. That website was Twitter, a social networking and microblogging service. It allows users communicate with each other using short, under-140 character messages called “tweets.”

Unlike LinkedIn or Facebook, Twitter’s social network is often related more by common interests than by business or personal relationships. Accounts are followed, and that account’s tweets appear on the user’s dashboard in reverse chronological order. Following numerous accounts can make reading updates a time-consuming process; that’s the reason why Twitter’s notoriety comes more from its use as a news-delivery tool than from the plethora of often mundane updates for which it is otherwise used.

Notably, Twitter played a large part in the 2009 Iranian protests, as hundreds of Iranian protesters used the site to broadcast news and events that otherwise would have been repressed by government censors. Twitter was used to warn about acts of violence and to organize protestors on the fly; people knew where and when to meet before government officials could block the tweets. In addition, the fact that tweets are sent out in real-time means that Twitter provides a unique platform for information to get across quickly to many people.

In an effort to remain relevant in an increasingly high-paced world, traditional media and news services have started using Twitter. It is not uncommon for a newsfeed to feature a Twitter poll — often using a hashtag keyword — or submitted tweets from viewers. Corporations also reach out to their customers with news or alerts through Twitter; the savviest ones track their name and respond directly when a user tweets a problem.

This is not to say that all of Twitter is complaints and updates from newsworthy locales; the vast majority of accounts are made up of users whose grand ambitions go no further than letting their friends know what is going on in their lives. In this way, Twitter does have a kinship with Facebook status updates. Its 140 character limit imposes a different sort of communication, but it hardly limits the sort of world-shaking events for which Twitter is famous. If you just want to tell your friends about an awesome sandwich you just ate, that’s good too.