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Twitter reaches fifth birthday with 1 billion tweets per week

Twitter is turning five this week -- a week in which a staggering 1 billion tweets will be sent. We look back at the 140-character highs and lows of Twitter's first five years.

Twitter is about to turn five years old. The first tweet was sent on 21 March 2006 by founder Jack Dorsey, and, five years later, 1 billion 140-character bursts of hilarity, mundanity and obscenity are sent every week.

It took three years, two months and one day for users to send 1 billion tweets. The 5 billionth tweet was posted in late 2009, and the service now publishes a billion tweets every week, from 200 million registered accounts. The record number of tweets at one time is 6,939 in one second, sent as the clock ticked over into New Year's Day 2011.

We began tweeting as @cnetuk in April 2007, although not everyone in the team was convinced. In 2009, as Twitter exploded into the mainstream, we ran a week of articles on becoming a Twitter expert.

CNET UK is a little older than Twitter, launching in May 2005. YouTube predates us by a couple of months, while Facebook opened its doors to the masses in September 2006, although it has been around since 2004.

Twitter revolution

Alongside other Internet services, like Facebook and YouTube, Twitter has been used by protesters rising up against injustice in Egypt, Iran, and here in the UK.

Users have sometimes found themselves in hot water when tweets have backfired. A Chinese user was arrested on her wedding day for tweeting a joke, while Briton Paul Chambers attracted celebrity support after his conviction in the so-called Twitter joke trial.

There are also plenty of hackers, spammers, and hijackers trying to ruin the fun for everyone. Boo, hiss and so on.

Celebrity tweets

Twitter's very simplicity has seen it used in a dizzying number of ways. Uses range from police forces tweeting every 999 call to the Twitter hive mind creating operas and novels.

The technology press cottoned on in early 2008, followed by celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Ashton Kutcher and Sir Alan Sugar. Earlier this month, tiger-blooded warlock Charlie Sheen signed up to the service and attracted a staggering 1 million followers in a single day.

It was the arrival of celebrities that sped Twitter's rise into the mainstream in late 2008 and early 2009. Stars' Twitter feeds are now a rich source of quotes for mainstream journalists looking for uncensored opinions straight from the horse's mouth.

How Twitter did it

In the early days, Twitter encouraged growth by allowing others to access the service, not by restricting access. Twitter opened up its code to developers, who quickly created an ecosystem of new features and apps so you could tweet from anywhere. It's a Web 2.0 model for success -- services succeed when they are open, easily integrated with other services, and convenient for the user. Twitter's growth shows the importance of mobile phones for enabling Web services to really take off.

Twitter has also embraced change, absorbing and improving ideas that have come from users and other apps. New features have included trending topics, retweets, lists and geolocation.

Over the past year or so, Twitter has moved into a new phase, overhauling its Web page with plenty of fresh features, and introducing official mobile apps for Android, the iPhone and the iPad. It's also asked developers not to make any more apps. Who knows what's next? Perhaps Twitter will figure out how to make some money.

Are you a Twitter user or do you still not see what all the fuss is about? What's won you over, or turned you off, about Twitter? Who's your favourite tweeter, and what's been your favourite use of those magic 140 characters? Tell us in the comments section below, on our Facebook wall, or, of course, at twitter.com/cnetuk.