In many industries, grey hair and wrinkles confer a certain amount of wisdom, knowledge in gravitas. In the world of computing, it’s the absolute opposite; the huge success enjoyed by web entrepreneurs like 24-year-old Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg shows that youthful ambition is the order of the day. And so it is with the founders of Twitterfall, Tom Brearley and David Somers, two 19-year-old computer science students at the University of York who have made one of the best Twitter tools on the market. Twitter, the microblogging service beloved by geeks, celebrities and politicians, is a fantastic communication platform, in which users send messages of 140 characters or less ruminating on the things that interest them. It provides a fascinating real-time insight into the hot topics of the day, and has played a key role in many recent breaking news stories, such as the Mumbai terrorist attacks and Hudson plane crash, where eyewitnesses provided a rolling account of events through Twitter.
The problem is, keeping a handle on these “trending topics” through Twitter itself is nigh-on impossible, which is why enterprising software developers like Tom and David have been quick to spot a gap in the market. Twitterfall is barely two months old, but it already has thousands of users who swear by it. This clever website allows Twitter nuts to track the major “trending topics”, presenting tweets in a waterfall-like cascade that tumbles down the page. Better still, it allows users to filter tweets by keyword or topic, enabling them to track the things that matter to them. There’s even a geolocation tool built in to the site, so that you can narrow tweets on a particular topic to within a set radius of your home or office.
Twitterfall, then, is rather like a Google for the Twitterverse. David Somers came up for the idea of Twitterfall in January, just two hours before Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, took to the stage in San Francisco to deliver Apple’s Macworld keynote in place of the unwell Steve Jobs. David had noticed how many Twitter users were discussing Macworld, and the strain it was placing on Twitter – a site well-known for its downtime – as Apple fans constantly refreshed Twitter’s own search engine to see what new messages had been sent about Macworld. “I thought, what if I do these searches instead, and then push the results out to people who are looking for information about Macworld rather than making each individual person search for new tweets?,” recalls David. “I’d already seen examples of this kind of technology being used to push content to people’s web browsers rather than them having to visit a site all the time. So even though there was only two hours before the Apple keynote, I decided to give it a go. I thought people might like it.”
One frantic instant message later to Tom pleading with him to rustle up a design, and the duo had built a rudimentary webpage that showed a cascading wall of tweets that contained the word ‘Macworld’. “It was a really simple site,” says David. “Then all we then did was mention the service on Twitter. I knew people were searching for Macworld, so I put that keyword in my tweet: ‘Are you searching for Macworld? Try this webpage’. It wasn’t even called Twitterfall at the time. “But people liked it. My tweets with the link to the site got re-tweeted, and within hours two or three hundred people were using it.” For Tom and David, hobbyist programmers who have always enjoyed coding and building websites, the success of this proto-Twitterfall was a revelation. “I’ve always wanted to make something and have people use it,” says David. “I’ve got all these little projects on the go, and you usually do it for yourself and no-one is interested. “But to see this response... amazing. It’s something which I think is very unique to Twitter – the platform is such an easy way to get something out. There I was, having made this new thing, and within five minutes, people were starting to use it.” In just a few short weeks, Twitterfall’s cachet has skyrocketed. It’s simple premise and highly customisable interface, as well as the ability to use it as a personal desktop Twitter client, has won lots of new fans – not least here at the Telegraph, where we have Twitterfall projected on to a wall alongside rolling news headlines from around the world – and Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, who mentioned the site on his own Twitter feed, resulting in a surge of traffic to Twitterfall. “We got 9,000 people a day after Kevin Rose mentioned it on Twitter,” says David. “We’d only been getting 300 or 400 a day before that.” Twitterfall’s capacity was severely tested earlier this month, when two major events sent users flocking to the site to track tweets about the Schiphol plane crash and the Gmail outage. “The day of the Schiphol plane crash was our biggest day ever,” recalls Tom. “That was about 40,000 people. So in five weeks we went from an audience of 20 users to 40,000.
Companies, in particular, could be interested in the tools that Twitterfall offers, says Tom. “You can watch people talking about your brand on Twitter,” adds David. “You can monitor it on Twitterfall and reply to a tweet that mentions your company in 15 seconds. You’re making this connection and breaking down barriers of communication.” “That’s the power of Twitter for brands, and the power of Twitterfall,” says Tom. “Twitterfall is great for searching and tracking trends in real time.” There’s lots of neat features on Twitterfall that make it stand out from a raft of competitors. Hover over a TwitPic link, for instance – the popular service used by the Twitterverse to share photos – and Twitterfall will show you a thumbnail image of the picture you’re about to click on. It’s even got an “anti-Rick Roll” feature, says Tom, expanding the shortened TinyURL web links commonly used in tweets so you can see which website you’re going to be redirected to. ( www.telegraph.co.uk )