A simple message, less than 140 characters, is sent out to followers around the world and within hours, perhaps minutes, more than 100 million people have been mobilized to act. The message might instruct those who read it to look at a certain website, protest at a designated time and place, or perform any number of other acts, promoting an agenda or cause whose intentions may be either benign or downright evil. But whatever the message, whatever its agenda or intentions, the message has been sent and the world is shaken by its power. A tweetbomb. That is what this message is called. Although we haven’t seen one yet, you better believe it is coming, and it is coming soon. Welcome to the era of Twitter, an era of mass communication where a single individual or institution can mobilize massive numbers of people as never before.
There once was is a Twitter account @tweetbomb that used a viral technique to ‘bomb’ an increasing number of followers with a message once a day, but this was not a true tweetbomb. It was simply an interesting exercise by the same name, quickly shutdown by Twitter for violating terms of service. Meanwhile, as various famous tweeters are now eclipsing the milestone of one million followers, the prospect of a true tweetbomb looms ever closer.
The tweetbomb is a single, simple message that is sent into the wild of cyberspace, causing a minimum of 100 million people to act at its behest within hours, or perhaps at some future pre-determined date and time. It is not enough for 100 million people to receive the message – those who receive the message must act upon its contents for the message to rise to true tweetbomb status. The distinction of receiving vs acting on the message may seem minor, but in fact it is a defining feature of the powerful tweetbomb phenomenon.
Already today with our current outlets and models for information distribution we commonly see rapid dissemination of information to audiences of 100 million or more. Take the Superbowl, where roughly 1 billion people slurp in a cocktail of promotional messages, product launches, and news updates as they tune into the big event. Or take the death of a politician or actor with worldwide appeal and recognition, an event whose occurrence can easily travel the globe to hundreds of millions or even billions of people in a matter of hours.
Yet even as the examples above demonstrate that today’s information society already transmits pieces of information to enormous masses of people with alarming speed, there are very few examples where such large numbers of people are mobilized to take a particular, premeditated action. Continuing with our previous example, a Superbowl may be viewed by a billion people, but it does not typically cause even a mere 1 million of these viewers to do anything particular. With the rise of Twitter this is set to change.
It is conceivable in the next few years that a single individual or institution could have more than 100 million followers dutifully waiting to receive a message and take an associated action. Imagine an official Twitter account for the United States or Chinese Government, created with the specific purpose of mobilizing its citizens at a moments notice to respond to a natural disaster, military attack, or any number of other emergencies.
Even before Twitter accounts reach the 100 million follower milestone a tweetbomb is almost certain to occur. Either by direct intention or by sheer chance, the viral nature of Twitter allows for a tweet from a single Twitter account, large or small, to serve as the seed from which a message can be continuously retweeted to hundreds of thousands of other Twitter accounts. As a whole this cascade of viral tweeting and retweeting could ultimately lead to tweetbomb success.
At the moment, with the tweetosphere only comprising a few tens of millions of individuals, a tweetbomb is not going to happen. But perhaps in a year or two the tweetosphere will reach a critical mass of hundreds of millions of individuals, at which point the first tweetbomb will not be far behind.
One of the first tweetbombs will likely cause the ‘action’ of sending a vast and sudden surge of 100 million users to a particular website or document somewhere on the internet. Information distribution paradigms that came before Twitter, such as Slashdot or Digg, are famous for bringing surges of tens of thousands of users to websites within a matter of hours, but this is nothing compared to the power that will be unleashed by Twitter. A key difference between Twitter and previous paradigms is that Twitter automatically pushes information to users, whereas previous paradigms relied on users to seek out a specific website to find and act on information. This makes all the difference.
The power of a website like Digg to distribute information is only as large as the base of users that choose to go to its website within a short period of time. This base of users will always be limited to a necessarily narrow type of user demographic, such as technologically savvy, younger individuals. It will also be limited by the number of these individuals that are in a position and mindset to seek out the website within a short period of time, rather than cooking or driving their cars.
Twitter, on the other hand, allows information to be distributed to any number of people, anywhere, anytime with its ability to push information to users no matter what device they are using, no matter if they want it or not. Twitter is not limited to a certain user demographic, capable of sending a message of equal interest to techno geeks and Oprah worshiping moms.
The first signs of tweetbombs are already upon us. Look at the logs of any major website and you will see that they are littered with the remains of mini tweetbombs just waiting to become the real thing. Increasingly traffic to websites comes in surges or waves of people following a tweet that has been tweeted and retweeted across the tweetosphere. As the tweetosphere grows larger and larger each day, so too will these mini tweetbombs grow. Soon webmasters will see surges of hundreds of thousands, then tens of millions of Twitter induced users to their websites. Ultimately the tweetosphere will reach a critical mass and the first true tweetbomb will send a massive swarm of 100 million hungry eyeballs to some lucky or unlucky destination on the internet.
Having defined the tweetbomb we are compelled to ponder what it means for human society. Are tweetbombs a good thing or a bad thing? As with any technological weapon, tool, or advance, it depends on how you use it. Knives help us to cut fruit and open boxes, but they can also kill people. The same will be true for the tweetbomb. The tweetbomb is a phenomenon of awesome power, yet depending on the action it causes, its impact on the world could land anywhere on the spectrum of good or bad, unleashing great destruction or massive benevolence. Good or bad, like all technological breakthroughs before it the tweetbomb is inevitable. It cannot be avoided.
If you think the tweetbomb is impressive, then take a moment to ponder the tweetnova, a single blast of information that causes not 100 million, but rather 1 billion people to act. There may be some mathematical or other limitation that inhibits the emergence of the tweetnova within the current incarnation of a simple messaging service represented by Twitter. But rest assured that either Twitter or some successor platform or technology will soon allow for one billion people, and ultimately every single person on the planet, to instantly receive and then choose to act on a single piece of information.
So who will initiate the first tweetbomb? Maybe it will be us, in which case how about following @singularityhub so you can join in on the fun. Even if Singularity Hub does not send the first tweetbomb, we have tons of daily stories just like this one that you won’t want to miss.