Of course Twitter is the most popular English word of the year.
Yesterday, the Global Language Monitor declared the San Francisco-based micro-blogging site as the top English word of 2009. In a decade marked by the growth of most everything Internet-related, this marked the first time a Web company has earned that distinction. MySpace (founded in 2003), Facebook (in 2004) and YouTube (2005) never made that spot in their early years.
But Twitter's achievement also underlines a sobering reality -- one that President Obama, a BlackBerry addict, hinted at in a town hall meeting in Shanghai two weeks ago. Asked via the Internet if the Chinese should be able to use Twitter freely, Obama responded: "Well, first of all, let me say that I have never used Twitter. My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone."
For all the buzz (our "first Twitter Christmas," the New York Times wrote Friday, noting how retailers like Best Buy use the site); all the magazine covers ("How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live," read a headline in June's Time magazine); all its undeniable impact in all aspects of life, from politics to entertainment (remember country-pop princess Taylor Swift thanking her Twitter followers during her speech at this year's MTV Video Music Awards?), Twitter is not mainstream.
Not mainstream in terms of usage; though many live, swear and exist through Twitter's 140 character limit, Twitter's retention rate, as been widely reported, is somewhere around 40 percent. (A caveat: that doesn't take into account people who use Twitter through third-party applications and mobile phones.)
Not mainstream in terms of omnipresence and ubiquity; Twitter ain't Google.
In other words, Twitter is not for everyone -- not yet, at least. Many people are confused by it. (If I had a dime for every time a friend or a relative who's not glued in front of his/her computer all day said to me, "I still don't get this Twitter thing!"). Others don't see how it relates to their everyday lives. ("So why do I need this again?") Broadly speaking, and with many exceptions, Twitter is still largely the province of the world's digital elites and early adopters, who from the streets of Tehran to the fragmented Republican Party are getting their message out, whatever that message may be, unfiltered, unedited, be it photos, videos, opinion or just plain news. And the message will get out. And the message will inevitably spread. It's no coincidence, by the way, that the top English words of the past few years, as surveyed by Global Language Monitor, are news-related. Last year, the top word was "change," in reference to Obama's improbable and winning campaign. Three years before that, in 2005, it was "refugee," in reference to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. In 2000, it was "chad" -- as in the hanging chads of Florida, which played a central role in the tight race between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
Twitter, after all, is about having a voice. Here in the U.S., it may mean tweeting about this or that party. Abroad, in authoritarian regimes such as Iran, it means tweeting about the fight for democracy.
"Twitter has gone in the way of YouTube. At first, people thought YouTube was silly and weird; they didn't know how to YouTube and what a YouTube channel was. Now YouTube is synonymous, the industry standard, for online video -- for everyday people to watch, upload and share videos," Scott Goodstein, the text messaging expert who ran Obama's social networking presence during the campaign, told me. "Twitter is going through the same process. Twitter has become synonymous with quick, short opinion and perspective -- coming from anyone, going everywhere."
The Web is flat. And in a world made smaller by the Internet and new technologies, Twitter forces us to become each others' witnesses, one tweet at a time.
That's why Twitter, only three years old, is the most popular English word of 2009.
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