It started with a 24-character message on a quiet Tuesday evening in San Francisco. Twitter has exploded from its humble beginnings in 2006 to become the rapid-fire social network at the heart of major world events.
From spawning revolutions in the Middle East to disseminating Justin Bieber's latest aperçu, the 140-character network has established itself as a hotline to the world for 200 million people.
Its co-founder, Jack Dorsey, may never have imagined subverting the worlds of newspapers and showbusiness when he sent the first ever tweet on 21 March 2006. "Just setting up my twttr," he wrote into a silent corner of cyberspace.
That single tweet has since become a cacophony, with 1bn sent every 48 hours by an unlikely mix of Hollywood A-listers, world leaders and ordinary people.
It was 2009 when the site rocketed in popularity. Stephen Fry used Twitter to tell the world he was trapped in a lift – he had a modest 113,000 followers at the time, compared to today's 6.1 million – and a succession of dramatic events unfolded in a way that made the social network a beating pulse of global news.
Within minutes of US Airways flight 1549 ditching in New York's Hudson river in February of that year, observers were tweeting pictures of what become known as "the miracle on the Hudson". Later that year, Twitter was asked by the US state department to delay maintenance work so that Iranian protestors could continue using the service.
It has also made waves in showbusiness, with Lady Gaga pitted against Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher in a frenzied race to become the most popular person on Twitter – a PR-fuelled battle that saw the site's users rocket from five million to 71.3 million in 2009 alone.
The role of Twitter in the Arab Spring will be scrutinised by historians for decades to come, but industry experts credit the site's burgeoning influence with its perception as a key destination for breaking news and off-message celebrity missives.
"It has grown way beyond its techy roots to become part of the fabric of life for hundreds of millions of consumers worldwide. This is a platform where you've got Stephen Fry and Justin Bieber, and then an acceleration of news that is serving our desire for instant updates, so there's a diversity that is its strength."
Such an unfettered platform will bring its own challenges as a public company, Thomas said, as Twitter will have to resolve its commitment to being an open platform with renewed pressure from advertisers and shareholders to clean up the more "unhygienic" aspects of the site, not least in light of the latest trolling controversy.
He added: "The rules of engagement are changing and Twitter has been at the heart of that. It has allowed all sorts of celebrities, companies and brands to talk to people in a direct way. We're still at the early days of learning how powerful this can be."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Anthony Ryan
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