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Twitter traits

Technology | Five years of tweets yield surprising results

Issue: "Clutching two, dropping four," April 23, 2011

Twitter turned five in March. From its inception, the ways it is used have evolved with the needs of its user base. Since creator Jack Dorsey wrote the very first tweet-"just setting up my twttr"-the site has grown from a novelty to a robust global information network with its own vocabulary and customs. News services, celebrities, companies, and public figures have turned to Twitter to broadcast easily to their networks, and it has even helped foster everything from global uprisings to theological debates.

Twitter's popularity has also had one unexpected result: The site provides sociologists and researchers with a rich source of information about the way people interact and form communities. For instance, one group of researchers recently found that users tend to reply to one another based on mood-those who send messages containing the word "loneliness" tend to reply to and follow others who use the same word. The same rule holds for those who express happiness. Other researchers found that Twitter users follow those with similar politics as their own even when they don't post about politics-making it possible for a computer to accurately predict a user's political leaning.

Custom concepts

Want M&Ms printed with "Marry Me"? A batch of T-shirts printed with "Smith Family Reunion" to fit everyone from the baby cousins to Grandpa? A Mini Cooper that expresses your own personal style? Postage stamps imprinted with your family photograph? The flexibility of commerce on the internet makes it possible for companies to offer highly customized goods at prices that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. One company, luxury men's clothing retailer J. Hilburn, now offers custom-made dress shirts through its website and via iPhone. And because it doesn't have traditional retail locations, the company offers lower prices than most outfitters-even with a "personal style advisor" who comes to the customer's office to ensure the right fit.

Wireless giant

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AT&T recently moved to acquire competitor T-Mobile from Deutsche Telekom for $39 million, a merger that would reduce the number of wireless service providers from four to three in the United States. The newly formed company would be largest of the three-at 79 percent of the U.S. wireless market, it would be a third larger than Verizon. Apple stands to gain from the merger as well, since T-Mobile customers would be able to get an iPhone without switching carriers.

But the merger is likely to face some stiff opposition from Congress and the Federal Communications Commission. The Department of Justice must also approve the deal from an antitrust perspective. Some grassroots groups advocate stringent regulations or a complete ban on the merger, worrying that the FCC's recent "net neutrality" ruling-which lets wireless companies prioritize traffic on their networks as they wish-means a giant provider such as this could exert too much control in the app market.

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