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Twitter: The five biggest stories of 2012

Twitter got bigger than ever, and is now essential in daily life. When the pope tweeted, it capped a 2012 full of controversy, business battles, and helping spread crucial information.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read

Let's face it: Twitter is an integral part of everyday life. And while that's been true for some time, 2012 was the year the microblogging service became truly mainstream. It was a vital tool during catastrophes, it was the medium of choice for presidential candidates, and it was at the center of political turmoil around the world.

2012 was also a year of business battles for Twitter, with strife between it and Instagram ramping up slowly over the course of the year, and a standoff between Twitter and developers.

But in the end, Twitter's biggest moments of the year coincided with the world's biggest moments -- from an election victory to a successful Olympics and even to a lonely fire department dispatcher sitting in a room letting waterlogged New Yorkers know help was on the way.

1. War with Instagram
Twitter and Instagram used to be best friends. Instagram's CEO used to intern at Odeo, which spawned Twitter, and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey was an early investor. Instagram is even located in Twitter's old office space. You could make the argument that if it wasn't for the ease of sharing Instagram photos by tweeting them, Instagram wouldn't have grown as fast as it did.

But while Twitter had wanted to buy Instagram, Facebook got it -- for a princely fee. And ever since, relations between the two companies have been getting steadily more icy. In 2012, that enmity turned into a full-blown war. Twitter began putting out new tools that made it more like Instagram, and then its rival decided to move onto the Web.

It's only in the last few weeks, though, that the fighting has gotten particularly intense. First, Instagram took the major step of cutting off Twitter Card integration, meaning that Instagram photos would no longer show up embedded in tweets. And then, in a bid to out-Instagram Instagram, Twitter unveiled its own set of photo-filtering tools.

2. Cutting off developers
One could make the case that Twitter would never have become as large or as important as it is without the contributions made by third-party developers. Those outsiders readily adopted the microblogging platform and built new services that made using it easier and simple. They also invented some of the most important user conventions, things like hashtags and the @-reply.

But 2012 was the year that Twitter brought the hammer down on developers, in large part because the company worried that too much of the advertising revenue potential was being lost to developers of Twitter clients like HootSuite or Echofon. As a result, Twitter implemented API limits and controls over how many users third-party clients can have that made it very difficult to maintain a business as a Twitter client. It also pulled the plug on third-party photo-hosting services in its mobile apps. Developers quickly cried foul.

Instead, Twitter seems intent on getting developers to build new applications around Twitter's data, and around the idea of what CEO Dick Costolo calls creating "accretive value" for users," not around serving up tweets. It's been quite clear about this, and there's no question that developers know what the guidelines are now. But the question is whether third-party developers will forgive Twitter for imposing the various restrictions and continue to build the kinds of tools that users love, and that help grow the platform.

3. Big Bird and the presidential election
It was thanks to this year's first presidential debate between Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that Big Bird became one of the biggest stars of the 2012 election. But it was also clear that Twitter itself was an election star, becoming an indispensable tool for those who wanted to weigh in on the latest developments in the race for the White House.

Over the course of the four debates -- three presidential face-offs and one vice-presidential showdown -- Twitter users posted 27.5 million tweets packed with their thoughts on whether President Obama had done better or if Gov. Romney had prevailed. There were also lots of tweets about binders full of women, and even about Jack Kennedy.

It also became clear in 2012 that Twitter is worth candidates' time, because appeals for action and money work better on Twitter than elsewhere.

And part of that has to do with the fact that it was evident Twitter users were really engaged in the election. That's one reason Twitter itself set up a special page for the presidential election and why there were 31 million election-related tweets sent on Election Day. Of course, one of those tweets became the most retweeted in history: President Obama's victory tweet, which has been retweeted more than 817,000 times.

4. Hurricane Sandy
It will probably never be clear if Hurricane Sandy had a material outcome on the 2012 presidential election, but what is clear is that one of the few winners during the horrible storm that devastated the Northeast was Twitter. During the disaster, there were more than 20 million storm-related tweets sent. A small, but not so insignificant number of them were sent by the woman running the Fire Department of New York's Twitter feed, @FDNY, who stayed online throughout the worst of the storm, tweeting out dispatch calls, and making it easy to see that the department was doing its best to help.

For one day, as Sandy smashed head-on into the East Coast, the Twittersphere got more serious, keeping snark to a minimum, and reflecting the attitude of the moment. And no snark could have been fairly directed at Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker, who turned to Twitter to give out crucial information and offer help to struggling residents.

5. Twitter goes fully mainstream
It's hard to argue with the notion that Twitter is now fully mainstream. It is seen by many as the quickest way to get information about breaking news, and it's where an increasing number of celebrities, politicians, athletes, and others interact with the public at large.

Singer Justin Bieber, for example, tweeted a heartfelt goodbye to a young fan that died of cancer, and his followers (31.4 million as of this writing) responded, retweeting it more than 220,000 times.

It seemed that every day, Twitter broke new records for number of users (140 million at last official count) or number of tweets per day (half a billion per day). But one probable new record -- Twitter couldn't confirm it -- is the number of followers that the pope got before he ever sent a single tweet. At last count by CNET prior to his first tweet, the pontiff (@pontifex) was at 638,000 followers. Now, just a day (and seven tweets) later, he's up to 965,000 followers.