Happy 5th Birthday, Twitter

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It’s hard to believe that Twitter turns five years old today, and I’m not just saying that because time flies.

Twitter was a slow burn instead of a slam dunk. When it launched to the public in 2006, it had a different name (Twittr), and hardly anyone used it. A chart at Business Insider shows that Twitter didn’t reach 1 million unique visitors per month until the summer of 2008.

But from there, the social messaging service took off. Within six months, monthly unique visitors quadrupled. By February 2009, Twitter had a year-over-year growth rate of 1,382 percent.

(LIST: The World of Twitter)

What was all the fuss about? Simple: Twitter lets loosely-connected groups of people communicate in 140-character bursts. That could mean sharing links, having back-and-forth mini debates, keeping up with celebrities, building your own news service, or — as naysayers like to point out — talking about what you ate for breakfast. The important thing is that Twitter makes people want to associate with other like-minded people in a huge open forum, regardless of whether they’re friends or strangers in the real world.

It’s a model that others have tried to copy. Facebook launched status updates in 2009 as a more dynamic alternative to wall posts. Last month, Google launched Google+, a social networking project with an emphasis on controlling who sees what.

But Twitter has its own vibe, marked by strange ideas like the @reply, the #hashtag and the RT. These things have become part of the Internet lingo. You might use an @ in a blog comment to get someone’s attention, or insert a hashtag into an e-mail for comedic effect.

As a freelance writer, I’m grateful for Twitter because it provides a sort of digital water cooler that’s otherwise missing from my work day. Any losses in productivity are easily outweighed by the links and story ideas that float through my timeline. If Twitter was older, I’d buy it a beer.

Here are some other Twitter statistics, shared today on the company’s official Twitter account:

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