On Twitter, Telephony & India

Historical Twitter

Ten years ago, on 21 March 2006, the first Twitter message — what would come to be called a tweet, but at the time was described as a status update — was sent. Four months later, on July 15, Twitter opened to the public as a messaging service. This is the first in a series of posts that explores Twitter through a historical lens. At least, it may become a series. We’ll see.

The image above, satisfyingly opaque with its mysterious number block and bevy of well-regulated golden pigeons, appeared on the Twitter blog on 17 January 2008. That blog post announced a short code for Twitter users in India: 5566511.

Short codes are special telephone numbers for SMS and MMS designed to be easier to remember than standard numbers. And shorter. They vary by country and operator, and a single number may be shared by multiple businesses. As a practice, short codes emerge from mobile telephony. For a landline phone, the telephony system recognizes a string of numbers as a complete telephonic address based on the pattern of digits entered. Recognized patterns typically include standard lengths for local connections, abbreviated dialing codes for emergencies — e.g., 100 or 112 in India, or 911 in the US — and a trunk digit plus regional code(s) for longer distances. When any of these patterns is entered, a connection automatically initiates. Mobile phones, however, rely on a ‘send’ button to mark completion. This eliminates automatic connection. It also tosses the definitiveness of string length in the trash: with a send button, a mobile phone can indicate any length of numbers as complete.

Remember, this is the beginning of 2008. At this point mobiles may be browser- or email-enabled, but the app–operating system relationship as we experience it today in 2016 is just beginning. Apple will open the first iPhone for third-party developers two months or so after this post. Later this spring MySpace will launch a data availability initiative to improve sharing and syncing data across services, with Twitter as one of its inaugural partners.

In 2008, Twitter remains grounded in texting. The 140 character limit is, of course, derived from SMS constraints, but SMS — texting — has ongoing influence. The texting frame is embedded in the way Twitter thinks about itself, with Twitter blog posts repeatedly returning to it. Earlier, posts touched on, among others, the role of texting in the movie release cycle, texting statistics and rates, and the dangers of texting and driving. (“Don’t text and drive. Twitter responsibly.”) Now, texting tends to surface more in passing mention and Twitter has begun highlighting a few third-party mobile clients. Nonetheless, though using Twitter via SMS no longer commands the intense popularity of the very early days, a significant portion of use occurs via SMS: People send updates to Twitter via SMS, and Twitter sends updates to people via SMS.

Stop and think about that for a moment: What if all of the tweets in your home timeline today arrived as text messages on your phone? You would see each and every one. You would probably be annoyed by constant buzzing. You would probably quit Twitter. At that point, though, only 10% of Twitter users followed more than 70 people; 90% followed fewer than 40. Pretty intimate.

As small as these numbers might seem today, Twitter is, in 2008, in the midst of huge growth. In January 2008 the service has 100,000 weekly active users (the gaping MAU or monthly active user has not yet solidified as the standard social media unit). Nine months earlier, it had 50,000. In March 2008, just two months after this, users will have doubled again, to 200,000. Throughout 2008, Twitter struggles to handle the infrastructural demands of scaling.

Internationalization, another important component of scaling for Twitter, has its own complex demands. The first non-English version of the service won’t launch until April. For Twitter at this point, internationalization is understood through and depends on short codes. (How many of you reading this have used a short code to access a web service in the last week? Month? Year? Knowingly used a short code?) Short codes are currently set up for the US, Canada, and, now, India. The rest of the world must make do with a UK-based long code set up in September 2006 — and international SMS fees.

While Twitter accounts themselves are — and have always been — free, charges apply to both sides of SMS: to Twitter users when they send a tweet via SMS, and to Twitter when it distributes that tweet to 17 followers via SMS. In 2008, Twitter users outside the US — including those in India — are limited to 250 SMS per week. At this point mobile operators in both India and the US are often charging individual consumers either per text or a flat fee for a set number of texts and then per subsequent text. Twitter presumably pays flat rates on its end. Additional carrier pass-through fees for web services using SMS are yet to come. Later, in August of this year, Twitter will discontinue outbound tweets over its international long code, citing costs as problematic.

In 2008, sending a message via short code in India typically costs more than a standard SMS. In October 2009, Twitter and Bharti Airtel will announce a deal that allows Airtel customers to send tweets at standard SMS rates and receive them for free. Other deals will follow, the app–operating system relationship will flourish, and Twitter’s internationalization efforts will shift to focus (more) on enticing brands to use the service. That is, these golden pigeons will break rank, grab their short code banner, and — not fly into the sunset exactly as you can still run Twitter via SMS today, but perhaps nest comfortably in trees high above the telephone wires.

Cross-posted here.