April 29, 2008 -- Before traveling to Egypt to work on his graduate school thesis, James Buck, a 29-year-old American student at the University of California Berkeley, had never heard of the social blogging site Twitter. But after a run-in with Egyptian police, Buck says that the relatively new technology may have saved his life.
On April 10, the day before Buck was to head back home from a three-week assignment studying the Egyptian blogosphere, he traveled to Mahalla, Egypt, with his translator Mohammed, to take photos of a protest there.
"I was trying to take some photos of this small protest and trying to be very clear that I was not in the protest," Buck said from California. "It was very tense."
During his trip, Buck began using Twitter, which allows users to send out 140-character messages to their Twitter feed via e-mail, instant messaging or cell phone text-messaging. Twitter operates somewhat like a personal RSS feed; people who subscribe to your feed will receive all of the messages you send out.
As Buck and his translator tried to leave the protest in a taxi, Buck says they were chased and then detained by Egyptian police. As their cab driver drove the pair to the police station under direction by the police, Buck sent out a single-word message from his cell phone to his Twitter feed: Arrested.
"I sent it to 10 different people, including Twitter. Right away I got [text messages] back from people saying, 'Right now? What do we do?'" Buck said. "I made use of sort of every second I could, trying to tell them to call the embassy immediately."
Twenty-four hours later, with help from the Egyptian bloggers who received the message and alerted his university and the U.S. Embassy, Buck walked out of the police station a free man. His translator Mohammad was left behind.
"If I hadn't been able to get a message to the outside world instantly and to a wide network of people, there's certainly a good chance I would still be there," Buck said.
Social Tool Does More
Founded in 2006, Silicon Valley-based Twitter was founded as a social tool for friends to keep in touch, according to co-founder Biz Stone.
While working at another company, Stone and Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey became obsessed with the idea of dispatch and status reports used in ambulances and police cruisers.
"What if this kind of status could be something that was more social and not so serious?" Stone said of the trio's thinking. At the same time, the founders started thinking about how to tie text messages to the Web.
"So the idea plus that suddenly might be really compelling," he said.
The founders took two weeks to build a prototype, which their pioneering friends tried out and loved.
According to Stone, Twitter was always intended to be a social medium, not an activist one.
"Right at the beginning, we kind of thought of it as a social kind of thing. That was sort of enough for us," he said.
Still, Stone admits that since the prototype was developed, its uses have expanded. Twitter was used for communicating during Bay Area earthquakes, and users in the Southern Illinois area also used Twitter a few weeks ago as aftershocks struck the area.
"This James Buck situation certainly isn't something we designed for, but we did try to keep the service so simple. Really, you can imagine it being used in any situation," Stone said.
Although Stone declined to give exact numbers of Twitter users, the service is used internationally and just expanded into Japan.
Start of a Revolution?
Long-time Twitter user and technology forecaster Paul Saffo says that technology has long been a medium for broadcasting messages of a revolution.
"This has a long and honorable history. The important thing to keep in mind is we use the word revolution so often that we forget that these technologies, at the right political moment, are truly revolutionary," Saffo said. "Yeah, that's what Twitter's for."
Like e-mail and text messaging before it, Twitter has ushered in a "just-in-time" effect, according to Saffo, bringing electronic communication into real time. He even believes it could have an effect this November. Politicians that see themselves behind in the polls could send a Twitter message for supporters to come out and vote.
"On the next election day, Twitter may end up being an important vehicle," Saffo said. "It's a sleeping giant."
Big Companies Join In
Underground bloggers and arrested students aren't the only people using Twitter for reasons other than social ones. Large corporations are getting in on the action, too.
Earlier this month, Michael Arrington, co-editor of the tech blog TechCrunch, began experiencing trouble with his broadband connection. When several calls to Internet service provider Comcast didn't provide any respite, he posted complaints on Twitter. Within 20 minutes, an executive from Comcast called him, asking what he could do to help.
That executive was Frank Eliason, a manager in Comcast customer service. Eliason has spent the past six months running a Comcast initiative to respond to customers questions and complaints online. The team checks blogs and Twitter as a part of that effort.
While Arrington may have been the most high-profile Comcast customer to get personal attention, he wasn't the first and won't be the last.
In the past three weeks, Eliason estimates that he's made 1,500 posts to Twitter. When he reads of a complaint, he tries to locate the customer's account. Depending on the problem, he'll respond to the customer via Twitter or personally by phone.
"Most are shocked and actually thrilled," Eliason said of customer response to his personal calls. "They're happy that we're there."
James Buck's story of using Twitter as get-of-jail-free card is already becoming the stuff of Internet legend. Snarky electronic e-card manufacturer SomeEcards.com has created an electronic greeting card that says "I hope someday a one-word microblog keeps you out of a Middle Eastern prison."
But for Buck, the story is far from a punchline. In fact, it's still going. When he graduates in a few weeks, Buck plans to return to Egypt to find his translator. While Egyptian authorities say that they released Mohammed, his friends and family can't find him anywhere.
"Twitter got me to the story in Mahalla, then helped me get out, and now I'm using it to try to help Mohammed," Buck wrote in an e-mail.
Buck now has 300 followers on his Twitter feed.
"Technology got us into this, and I'm trying to use it to get us out, too," he wrote. "Information makes the world smaller."