The Power of Twitter? All in a Hashtag

By Laurel Hattix
UJW Staff

ASHBURN, Va.—Twitter broke the news of Whitney Houston’s death 27 minutes before the first news organization. The death of Osama Bin Laden was announced play-by-play on Twitter prior to any journalist nabbing the story. Even with the evolution of online newspapers and breaking news alerts, trending topics on Twitter are becoming a substitute and often times more timely than news sources.

But Twitter has not always had trending topics much less the ability to search for key words. Why was the ability to search for key words and find “trends” not an original feature of Twitter?

Simply put, its creators did not invent the technology. They bought it.

Twitter began in 2006, the culmination of work done by Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone. Slow to catch on with social media users, cumulative growth remained under 5 percent over the next year while Facebook blossomed with over 20 million active users. In need of more functionality to increase staying power in the market, Twitter turned to Summize.

Other than technology gurus, few have heard of Summize and its co-founder Jay Virdy. Unlike Facebook, there is no singular figure such as Mark Zuckerburg behind the social networking giant that Twitter has become. This is in part because Twitter’s technology is a culmination of not just several people but several companies.

“Twitter already had product folks and desperately needed software developers to help stabilize Twitter,” Virdy said in an interview from his northern Virginia home. “Twitter and their investors came knocking and quickly bought the company.”

A generic business transaction that set Twitter apart from the status updates and “thumbs ups” that created the ability to track the trend now has over 140 million followers.

“Summize was originally a ‘review search engine’ to help consumers make buying decisions,” Virdy said. “Our initial idea did not work, so we had to go back to the drawing board and pivot to a new idea. We pivoted to develop a real-time search engine using Twitter and we instantly took off like a rocket.”

Twitter users have the ability to see “trending topics” or what topics are being talked about the most through the technology introduced by Virdy’s team.

“Trending topics looks for common words and phrases, in real-time, that millions of people tweet about. If a lot of people are tweeting about a particular subject, such as the iPhone 4s then this shows up on Twitter’s home page as a trending topic,” said Virdy.

Twitter finally had the missing piece. After the merging of technology with Summize and emerging use of Twitter by celebrities such as actor Ashton Kutcher, Twitter more than doubled the number of users in a matter of months.

“Summize identified and created the killer features -search and discovery- needed to make Twitter a success,” Virdy said. “Summize helped by giving Twitter two very valuable news services: Twitter search and trending topics. Both of these services are successfully being monetized by Twitter today.”

In 2008, two years after the buyout of Summize, Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote in a piece for Read Write Web about the impact Twitter was already having.

“There’s a reason why so many journalists, lawyers, moms, animal doctors, students and other normal people are so obsessed with Twitter – and it’s not because they are flighty, superficial people intent on telling the world what they ate for breakfast,” said Kirkpatrick.

He went on to say: “The creators of Twitter deserve big accolades because they have invented what could be compared to a newly discovered, very usable, radio-wave frequency. It’s a new plane of communication. It’s truly world changing.”

Even with the possibility to grow an independent business, Virdy has no regrets.

“We were at the right place at the right time to capitalize on the tremendous growth of social media and search,” Virdy said.

Social media’s most prominent and savvy users, young adults, see the ability to find what is “trending” pertinent to the company’s success.

“Trending topics and searches are the backbone of Twitter’s effectiveness,” said avid tweeter Gabriel Yokoe, a 20-year-old college student. “I usually hear news or gather information quicker on Twitter than using any other source.”

Today, a portion of the voices behind the loudest social movements are sitting behind computers and typing on smartphones; not passing out flyers and yelling into megaphones. The irony: millions of the voices behind the movements will have never met.

The Invisible Children campaign, a nonprofit focused on raising awareness of the use of child soldiers, is just one example of Twitter opening the door to a digital bombardment of new ideas, often spurred on by the “trendiness” of it all.

“Kony 2012, the Invisible Children campaign, spread like wildfire,” said tweeter Divya Ramoo, a 18-year-old high school student in northern Virginia. “I think it was trending the same day the video came out. By the end of the week the story was all over major news broadcasts and was getting serious attention.”

While she acknowledges the vast amount of information being dispersed, Ramoo often questions the credibility of the trending ideas.

“It is very good at spreading opinions, rather than facts,” Ramoo said. “Part of the appeal is the lingo. It gives people a sort of unifying goal. If something is trending it entices people to get in the know because most people are interested in what is trendy. I have seen the most ridiculous words that make no sense but seem to catch on quickly if placed behind a hashtag.”

Even with skeptics, Twitter’s continues to grow, but will the social media trend last forever?

“Living in an ‘age of information’, the ability to connect with news and what is going on in the world will never be outdated,” said Yokoe.


Founded in 1975, the Washington Association of Black Journalists is an organization of Black journalists, journalism professors, public relations professionals and student journalists in the D.C., metro area. WABJ provides members with ongoing professional education opportunities and advocates for greater diversification of the profession.