DUBAI // You could be excused for dismissing it as another social messaging toy for geeky teenagers, but then a pithy message from Barack Obama pops up on your screen and, admit it, you are impressed. Twitter is the latest internet phenomenon sweeping around the world like some benign pandemic. Part of its attraction is that it is simple to operate. Very simple. Users register with the Twitter website then can share short messages of under 140 characters via their mobile phone or computers. And they can choose to receive updates from other users they find interesting. Celebrity twitterers include Mr Obama, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, Britney Spears, the pop singer, and Demi Moore, the actress.
Last year registered membership worldwide grew 752 per cent, to 4.4 million users. Originally conceived as a social networking tool, it came of age during the attacks in Mumbai last November when people caught up in the horror used it to get news out to friends as it happened. It is also becoming increasingly popular with businesses who use it to communicate with customers. In the UAE, usage has mushroomed since the Twitter website was unblocked by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) in August last year. The UAE now has the Arab world's biggest number of Twitter users, with 510 "twitterers" sending or "tweeting" updates, known as "tweets", according to research by the Dubai-based public relations agency Spot On.
"It's the great equaliser and it's helping to level the playing field," said Carrington Malin, Spot On's managing director. "The internet was supposed to give everyone the same access to the same information and knowledge. Twitter really helps bring this down to the lowest common denominator because it is so easy to use. You don't need specialist knowledge, all you do is swap 140-character messages. It's a network. It's not much different from a telephone or meeting people at a party."
Tonight it will demonstrate how it can be used as a force for good, when more than 100 UAE Twitterers converge on Dubai as part of a global volunteer-run event inspired by the technology that is predicted to raise more than US$1 million (Dh3.67m) for charity. UAE Twitter users represent 28 per cent of the total number of users in Arab countries and almost half the number of users in the GCC states and the number of UAE users is growing by 27 per cent each month.
Yet the service was unobtainable in the UAE until last August when it became one of about 1,000 websites to be unblocked by the TRA after it implemented a new internet access management policy, said Mohammed Gheyath, the TRA's executive director of technology development affairs. The new strategy allowed UAE internet users to contact ISPs with feedback about individual websites. "In the UAE there are a lot of people who are familiar with Twitter from elsewhere in the world, so relatively soon after Twitter was unblocked here there was a mass movement of these informed people on to it," said Mr Mahin. "The UAE's whole internet market is different from those of other Arab countries. The internet has been around here for much longer and people have multiple connections at work, at home and on the move."
Twitter users in the UAE can be divided into three groups, said Prashant Gulati, a 38-year-old investor and Twitter user, who helped organise the first Dubai Twitter meet-up, or "tweetup", last month. "The first group are completely geeky and use it to chat about the latest technology," he said. "Then there are youngsters discussing teenage stuff. And the rest are very interesting people sharing links to great news stories or blog posts online."
For the Dubai-based hi-tech entrepreneur Baher al Hakim, 27, what began as aimless dabble in a new technology has become the driving force behind his business. "For me, Twitter started off for fun but it ended up being the best thing ever for business," said the Syrian founder of CloudAppers.com. "I have got 80 per cent of my business so far from Twitter-developed connections." Mr Hakim is followed by 1,707 people who choose to receive the tweets he sends out. He himself follows 1,509 other Twitterers, who he selects based on his interests and social circle. He has sent 6,689 tweets since joining Twitter. firstname.lastname@example.org