Stephen Fry has been besieged by requests to use the online social networking site Twitter “for good and noble ends” after more than 250,000 users signed up to follow his updates.
The rapid expansion of Twitter, which enables users to send 140-character updates to their “followers”, is the latest in a series of online social tools which are changing the way people communicate with the world.
Fry, who uses the site for everything from posting photos of him swimming with sea lions to letting fans know that he is stuck in a lift, is one of the stars of Twitter and faces constant requests to draw his followers’ attentions to worthy causes.
The large number of requests, fuelled by the rapid rise in the site’s popularity, led the comedian to devise his own method of randomly selecting one cause each week to highlight on Twitter.
“I have to be realistic about this,” he wrote on his blog, which was linked to the latest update.
“It isn’t vanity or braggadocio, but simply a melancholy facing of the fact that when I tweet a site that site will inevitably get stormed, stampeded and smashed into collapse.
“It has happened too often for me to doubt it, and after webmasters have sworn blind to me that their servers and hosts can easily shoulder the burden.
“It has happened to highly capitalised major servers that one really might have expected to be structurally sounder.
“The power of Twitter is only just being understood. The last thing I would want is to be responsible for slash-dotting worthy, important and useful services.”
His solution is to randomly select one cause each week, “check the one I have chosen for server resilience, kosher qualities of worthiness and so on”, then highlight the site in an update, called a “tweet”, to his followers.
He said the new method was needed because: “With a quarter of a million followers isn’t it my duty to use my captive twitter audience for good and noble ends?”
Many other high-profile figures, from celebrities to Downing Street staff, have harnessed “the power of Twitter” and rescuers even turned to the site for help finding two Britons missing in the Swiss Alps earlier this week.
Users appealed for help locating one of the missing men’s phone numbers so rescuers could track its location and Michelle Dewberry, the winner of the second series of TV show 'The Apprentice', later updated the site with: “2 of our ski party been missing since 4pm. Conditions terrible. 1 guy found but trapped. 20 man team searching for other.”
Barack Obama also harnessed the power of direct online updates in his presidential campaign, which revolutionised the way funds are raised for US elections, and more than 360,000 people have signed up to follow his updates.
He told them: “We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you.”
In the UK, staff at Number 10 were quick to highlight Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s meeting with Mr Obama yesterday, uploading photos and updates from the visit with its latest tweet, sent last night, reading: “The day is done for No10 Admin. Good night all and please follow tomorrow when the PM will deliver a speech to Congress.”
Billionaire businessman Richard Branson, who has more than 40,000 followers, uses his site to highlight his round-the-world trip while cyclist Lance Armstrong tells his 225,000 followers about his training and daily routine.
In an update this morning, singer Lily Allen, who is followed by almost 55,000 users, wrote: “Oh my god, I forgot to tell you all, I met Sally from 'Home and Away' yesterday. Her real name is Kate and she was soo pretty and lovely.”
And Britney Spears’ profile, run by her team, appealed for some of its more than 270,000 followers to tweet live from the opening night of her 'Circus' tour last night.
Twitter was also incorporated into this year’s Lent appeal by the Church of England, with religious leaders urging users to share their top tips for helping each other with “simple acts of generosity and thoughtfulness in the real world”.
San Francisco-based Twitter started as a side project in March 2006 when founder Jack Dorsey wanted to know what his friends were doing.
The first prototype was built in two weeks and launched publicly in August of the same year, growing rapidly and becoming Twitter Inc in May 2007.
On its website, a Twitter spokesman wrote: “The result of using Twitter to stay connected with friends, relatives, and co-workers is that you have a sense of what folks are up to but you are not expected to respond to any updates unless you want to.
“This means you can step in and out of the flow of information as it suits you and it never queues up with increasing demand of your attention.
“Additionally, users are very much in control of whose updates they receive, when they receive them, and on what device. For example, we provide settings for scheduling Twitter to automatically turn off at dinnertime and users can switch off Twitter updates at any point.”
He went on: “Simply put, Twitter is what you make of it – receive a lot of information about your friends, or just a tiny bit. It’s up to them.”