UC Berkeley student proved pivotal in the rise of Twitter

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. Photo: Joi Ito/Creative Commons.

It was a one-word tweet that did it. The word was “Arrested” and it was posted on April 10, 2008 by UC Berkeley J-School grad student James Buck who was in Egypt photographing anti-government protests, and ended up getting detained by the police.

Unwittingly, Buck played a pivotal role in the development of micro-blogging service Twitter, which until then had been seen primarily as a social tool — but from that moment on was viewed as having the power to change society.

At least that’s how Twitter co-founder Biz Stone sees it — as he explained to NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air yesterday.

Stone said he first realized that Twitter could be used as a global organizing tool when Buck was arrested while covering the protests in Egypt — three years before Twitter was to play a key role in demonstrations in the same country which, this time, toppled the head of state.

Even though he was from the Bay Area, Buck had not heard of Twitter. It was Egyptian friends who told him about how they were using the service to organize protests and led Buck to sign up. After Buck tweeted the word “Arrested” on his way to the police station, his friends in California read it and were able to call the consulate and Egyptian authorities and help secure his release. His next tweet was simply “Freed.”

“That was one of the early eye-opening experiences for us that made us realize that this was not just something in the Bay Area for technical geeks to fool around with and to find out what each other is up to, but a global communications system that could be used for almost everything and anything,” Stone said.

Twitter, launched five years ago next month, now has an estimated 200 million users worldwide and, as Gross pointed out, has been used by heads of state, astronauts in outer space and protesters in Iran, Moldova and Egypt trying to disseminate information after news media crackdowns in their respective countries. Despite rumors to the contrary, Stone was keen to stress that Twitter is not for sale and that the company’s founders value their independence.

You can listen to the podcast of the Biz Stone interview on the NPR website.

As for Buck, he tells Berkeleyside that he graduated Cal in May 2010 with degrees in journalism and Area Studies (focusing on the Middle East). His translator on the fateful Egypt trip, Mohammed, was in jail for about three months after Buck was let go but was eventually released.

Buck, who is now a multimedia journalist and producer at The Washington Post, wrote about his experience immediately after his return on his blog and for Frontline World.

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