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The #TwitterRevolution: The Pain and the Glory

  |  August 9, 2013   |  Comments

The new CNBC documentary looks at the seven-year rise of the service based around messages no longer than 140 characters.

Andrew Kitzenberg found himself a participant in a series of dramatic events on the evening of April 19, when the two suspects behind the Boston Marathon bombing engaged in a shootout with police just outside his home in Watertown, Massachusetts. His series of live tweets, which included close-up photos, became a key source of information to the watching world on the unfolding drama, catapulting him into the spotlight.

In a new CNBC documentary, the founder of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup GetonHand.com tells correspondent Carl Quintanilla how he went from having around 50 followers that night to tens of thousands of Twitter followers.

"Kitzenberg has turned the tables. Journalists are getting their information from a guy with quick thumbs and a Twitter account," intones Quintanilla.

This is just one of the handful of seminal moments highlighted by "#TwitterRevolution," a CNBC documentary that looks at the seven-year rise of the service based around messages no longer than 140 characters. The show, which premiered on August 7, seeks to explain the success, growth, and impact of Twitter, ahead of what is likely to be an IPO sometime in 2014.

For those of us who live and breathe social media, there are no huge surprises here. The documentary is probably more essential viewing for recalcitrant managers and other naysayers who still think the service is about "what I had for breakfast." Clearly those in the digital marketing space already "get" Twitter. But as the show reminds us, although more than 400 million tweets are pushed out every day, only 16 percent of American adults online currently tweet and 70 percent of Twitter users are based outside the U.S.

#TwitterRevolution only briefly discusses the commercial side of the service, explaining the role of sponsored tweets and reminding us that, for most of its existence, Twitter had no income. Nor does current CEO Dick Costolo help illuminate that question, as he declines to provide information on exactly how profitable the company is.

Still, it is exciting to relive some of the moments when it became clear that Twitter was starting to transform the way information is dispersed. Besides the Boston bombings, that includes the tweet from the January 2009 eyewitness who saw US Airways flight 1549 crash into the Hudson River, as well as the role Twitter played (and continues to play) in the political movements in the Middle East, as discussed by Bahraini activist Maryam Al-Khawaja.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey also reminisces about the company's beginnings as simply a way for him to tell his friends where he was. And it examines the role the new medium plays in the democratization of information, with both citizen journalism and sources' freedom from the official media.

"The police used to be at the mercy of the mainstream media. Now we can tell our own story," Cheryl Fiandaca, bureau chief of public information for the Boston Police Department, tells Quintanilla, elaborating on the role Twitter played in helping them locate the Boston bombing suspects.

The dark sides of the medium are also addressed, such as the Twitter-based hazing in February of two underaged victims of an alleged sexual assault by two 18-year-old football players in Torrington, Connecticut. And it reflects on our culture's obsession with celebrities as well as the ease which Twitter allows anonymous users to bash the rich and famous.

It also looks at Twitter's addictive nature. "This is the first time we have had a technology that is so intrusive into our moment by moment lives," says Nicholas Carr, author of "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains." "When we get new information, we get this little burst of pleasure in that we want to repeat it. The bad side is it can become kind of compulsive. Either you are always checking your Twitter feed or you are thinking about it."

Twitter's Costolo puts a better spin on Twitter as a "town square where we go to feel connected to one another." It is by necessity, he says, unfiltered and raw.

For good or for bad, the #TwitterRevolution reminds us how digital technologies continue to both reflect and transform our society.

The show will be rebroadcast on CNBC on Friday, August 9 (8 p.m. ET), Sunday, August 11 (9 p.m. ET), and Monday, August 12 (9 p.m. ET and 12 a.m. ET). It will also be available starting August 12 on iTunes and Hulu.

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Mary Lisbeth  D'Amico

Mary Lisbeth D'Amico is a freelance writer based in Jersey City who frequently covers digital marketing, social media, tech startups, and venture capital. She has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Red Herring, and Real Deals. Find her on Twitter at @mldamico.

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