Twitter in review 2012: The good, the bad, and the very ugly

A look back at some of the successes and victories, the bad times and controversies, and the downright ugly failures by Twitter and by its users, during 2012.
By Zack Whittaker, Contributor on
1 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Twitter in 2012: review

Twitter is one of the most open platforms for free speech on the Web today, and has seen record growth in the past year alone. Since helping to spur on the Arab Spring in 2010-11 and being subject to almost constant legal action, from super-injunctions to record-breaking tweets, the microblogging site has seen some good, some bad, and some ugly things in the six years it has been operational.

In 2012 alone, we've seen the Curiosity Rover land on Mars, President Obama win a second term, the 2012 London Olympics, but at the same time seen a spattering of changes that have angered developers and third-party content providers, notable love-to-hate characters join the service, and some privacy issues that have implicated large proportions of the service's users.

Here's 2012 on Twitter in review. 

2 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Twitter has 140 million users, 400 million tweets

The good: Pfffrrshhht sounds the party popper. Twitter turned six this year after co-founder Jack Dorsey's inaugural tweet. In the announcement, the microblogging site said it had 140 million active users per day sending more than 340 million tweets per day. Sure, it's not much compared to Facebook's one billion active monthly users, but for the social network underdog -- it certainly isn't bad.

A few weeks later, however, Twitter said it hit the 400 million tweets per day milestone, mostly from mobile devices. Describing Twitter's mobile advertising platform as "doing delightfully well" by Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo, he added that the firm is still not considering an initial public offering on the markets any time soon.

3 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Curiosity Mars Rover arrives on Mars, tweets it

The good: After numerous attempts to get to Mars, the Curiosity Rover finally landed on the planet in August. From the surface of the Red Planet, the Rover tweeted: "I'm safely on the surface of Mars." But the expanded tweet was quickly retweeted -- more than 71,000 times in total -- just as it was exploited after it was meme'd after making a sexual innuendo about being "in" the Gale Crater.

"Way to cheapen the whole experience," said one reply.

4 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Barack Obama scores second term, most retweeted status ever

The good: President Barack Obama scores a second term in the White House and in the space of a couple of hours, he smashes two Twitter records, one after the other. With just three words -- "Four more years" -- the President received more than 816,000 retweets in just a couple of days after he won the 2012 U.S. presidential election, after hours earlier smashing the same record with just a few thousand fewer retweets.

What did it? It was likely that adorable picture of the president hugging his wife, Michelle, which has received worldwide fame. On Facebook, the same picture has close to 4.43 million 'likes'. All in all, with 20 million tweets in total, Election Day became the most tweeted about event in U.S. political history, Twitter said.

5 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Marissa Mayer hired as Yahoo CEO, awkwardly announces pregnancy

The good: In taking most high-powered jobs, one wouldn't want to announce a pregnancy in the same month, let alone the same day. New Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer did, though. Within minutes after announcing she had the job, she took to Twitter to announce that she and her husband were expecting a baby boy in the coming months.

The technology news world buzzed with excitement and let out a collective "squeee!" at the news. After overseeing the development of Google Maps and Google Earth, among others, her move to Yahoo was expected to reinvigorate life back into the ailing former Web giant. Mixed results so far, but not bad all in all.

6 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

'Queen' remains at large, popularity soars

The good: Her Majesty the Queen (of Twitter, that is). While the real Queen doesn't tweet on a regular basis despite having a verified and official account on the microblogging site, her parody doppelganger does on an hour-by-hour basis. The account, which follows news events on a daily basis from the 'perspective' of the Queen with satire and often a mention of "gin o'clock," the anonymous tweeter still rakes in 400 new followers per day, on average.

Now with close to one million followers and a dairy-format book in all good bookstores, she remains one of the most popular Twitter accounts on the Web and continues 'her' success throughout the year.

7 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Twitter helps to spread the word amid Hurricane Sandy

The good: Sandy was the worst storm to hit the Eastern Seaboard in living memory. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook and citizen journalism, along with the regular news agencies taking advantage of social platforms, it became clear very quickly which areas would be worst hit by the super storm.

Quickly, #hurricanesandy, #sandy and #frankenstorm trended worldwide amid the rumors and false information, which was immediately debunked, including the bevy of fake photographs -- such as the Photoshopped shot of the Statue of Liberty. All in all, more than 1.62 million tweets were recorded during a 21-hour period.

8 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Twitter renews privacy fight in Occupy Wall Street subpoena

The good: The Occupy movement remains strong across the United States, particularly in New York. But as police continue to dig for users' data from the microblogging firm, Twitter renewed its defense against a protester accused of disorderly conduct during a protest in October 2011.

Prosecutors want Twitter to turn any information over, including tweets and email addresses, but the San Francisco, Calif.-based firm remains strong in fighting the subpoena.

It comes as major technology firms, including Twitter, Google, Amazon.com, Apple and Facebook press for changes to federal privacy laws to reflect the changes in the cloud computing era, despite struggling to make any significant changes as of yet.

9 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Olympic breaks records, Twitter smashes some too

The good: The 2012 London Olympics saw record after record, not just on the track but in terms of the sheer number of tweets during the two week event. During the Olympics opening ceremony, not only did we see HM the Queen 'jump' out of a helicopter after her debut dramatic real-life cameo with Daniel Craig as 'James Bond,' the three hour firework spectacular saw 9.66 million mentions of the ceremony.

Twitter began recording the volume of tweets between 8.00 p.m. BST through to the end of the delayed U.S. broadcast, more than three hours later, which in turn stirred controversy in itself. The microblogging firm didn't reveal which tweet or trending topic provoked the highest spike in traffic, Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee's "this is for everyone" tweet was retweeted more than 10,000 times in just a few hours after he was mentioned during the ceremony.

10 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Copyright infringing tweets: Now with added transparency

The good: While it may not look like a 'good' thing on the face of it, it certainly beats how Twitter dealt with copyright infringing tweets before. Previously, it would simply delete the tweet following a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notice. Twitter recently said it would replace tweets with a message that the tweet was withheld for copyright reasons in order aid transparency.

Every company, from Facebook to Twitter and Google, receive DMCA requests on a daily basis. While not all are valid, many are -- and these companies have to react or face legal sanctions. How these companies deal with such requests are under constant scrutiny, so Twitter's move to be a little more open about how it handles such requests -- particularly in an age where many users rely on Twitter for open and free speech -- is crucial for maintaining the company's "the tweets must flow" policy. 

11 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Twitter API changes angers developers, slaps ecosystem

The bad: Twitter angered third-party developers earlier this year when it announced it would add restrictions on its API used for applications and services that use the Twitter platform to run.

The move means that Twitter is gently nudging users towards its own applications, which could open the microblogging service into running in-application adverts or other ways to monetize the service.

Applications developers will be given a 100,000-user limit unless Twitter authorizes the changes, leading to major third-party Twitter applications to criticize the move. It follows a long string of changes to the terms of conditions that make it more difficult for developers to take advantage of the vast 140 million-plus user platform.

12 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Tweets censored by country; reiterates "the tweets must still flow."

The bad: The microblogging service announced at the start of the year that it would begin to limit tweets by country, in spite of its "the tweets must flow" mantra, in a bid to avoid legal action. 

For instance, during the 2011 super-injunctions controversy, many who had taken out privacy injunctions were named on Twitter despite breaking a court order that prevented the entire U.K. population from disclosing information that they weren't privy to in the first place.  Also, in some regions of the world, certain content is barred from publication -- such as Nazi content in Germany.

Ironically, it turned out that many European countries -- not the Middle Eastern or North African countries, often seen as oppressive or lacking freedom of speech laws -- that took advantage of the new censor-by-country service, including Germany and France. But many said they would boycott the service in protest of the move by the service.

13 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Rupert Murdoch joins Twitter: Fire in the hole!

The bad: Rupert Murdoch: love him or hate him -- granted, many seem to choose the latter over the former -- joined Twitter earlier this year. And, as one might expect, the Twitterverse returned heavy fire after the News Corp. chairman and chief executive after he tweeted some rather insulting remarks about Britain.

It just so happened earlier that year, Murdoch et al were in hot water with the British government and authorities in light of the ongoing phone hacking scandal, which forced Murdoch to shut down the U.K. tabloid News of the World. He said: "Maybe Brits have too many holidays for broke country," but then swiftly deleted it, leaving it there long enough for Google to catch it in its cache. 

Still, at least some high-profile celebrities and public figures had a laugh at his expense, and it gave this blogger something to write about, considering the New Year news cycle is typically dead.

14 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

British PM joins Twitter after calling users "t**ts*

The bad: And another chap we love, or love to hate, depending where you sit on the political fence. The British Prime Minister David Cameron joined the microblogging service in October to coincide with the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Referencing a morning breakfast show broadcast in which he called Twitter users "t**ts," only a few years before, he promised there would not be "too many tweets."

However, on the bright side, it now makes Cameron the 370th U.K. Member of Parliament to start tweeting, at the time of his joining.  According to Twitter at the time, around 70 percent of the world's governments have a presence on Twitter with at least one government department or elected official.

15 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Asus' sexist slur slammed by Twitterverse

The bad: Asus put a foot in its mouth by tweeting about a rear -- I'm sure there's a pun in there somewhere -- and received heavy criticism from the computer maker's followers, and more.

The picture uploaded by the hapless Asus Twitter account owner showed a model holding the latest Transformer all-in-one (AIO) machine at a media event. In an attempt to inject a bit of humor in the ordinarily boring stream of tweets from the computer maker, it referenced the model's rear as looking "pretty nice." The tweet was swiftly deleted, an apology followed soon after, and the employee had his tweeting smartphone smashed in front of him.

16 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Journalist suspended from Twitter after NBC criticism

The bad: Twitter landed itself in hot water after it suspended the account of a British journalist after criticizing the coverage of the Olympic Games.

Twitter had partnered with U.S. network NBC to create a curated Olympics event page for its users. However, The Independent journalist Guy Adams called the U.S. network "utter b**tards" for delaying the broadcast of the Olympic Games opening ceremony and other events. He then tweeted an NBC executive's email address and found his account swiftly suspended.

Some had questioned whether Twitter's relationship with NBC over the Olympics coverage had anything to do with it. Twitter remains quiet on the matter, despite the lingering "ethical issues relevant to journalism," Adams later described in a following newspaper column.

17 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Israel tweets Gaza assault, dubs it #PillarOfDefense

The ugly: Things took a turn for the worst in the Middle East after Israel launched "Operation Pillar of Defense" against the Gaza Strip earlier this month. But it took the unusual step by tweeting the operation as it went along.

"The [Israel Defense Force] has embarked on Operation Pillar of Defense," the IDF's spokesperson tweeted on November 14. Within minutes, #PillarofDefense and #IsraelUnderFire started to trend on the microblogging site. The IDF Twitter account began to detail where the country was targeting and dishing out facts and figures on the ongoing operation.

Hamas, the ruling party of the Gaza Strip, also tweeted in return fire. Both using graphical propaganda, the conflict in the region was not just a war on the ground with rockets flying back and forth over the two country's borders, but also a war of words on the microblogging site. 

18 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Twitter embroiled in iOS/Android contact upload brouhaha

The ugly: Twitter was criticized for failing to make clear what it does with your data, particularly personal and sensitive data, after a string of iOS- and Android-related data uploading controversies. Facebook and Path were both embroiled in the row, and Twitter was no exception.

The microblogging site admitted that it stores user contact details, such as phone numbers and email addresses, for up to 18 months when a user access the "Find friends" feature. Twitter quickly fixed the privacy fumble in a later version of the mobile device software.

19 of 19 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

British former politician wrongly named as pedophile after BBC programme

The ugly: Twitter wrongly named former British politician Lord McAlpine as a pedophile after being falsely identified as a child abuser by a victim during the 1970s on a BBC Newsnight program. While the program or the victim did not directly implicate the politician, many took to Twitter after the broadcast to start guessing and naming-names.

The victim subsequently withdrew his allegations, claiming that it was a case of mistaken identity, but it did not stop the British peer, who now sits in the U.K. House of Lords, from bringing lawsuits against potentially thousands of Twitter users who spread or retweeted the false information across the microblogging site.

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