How Twitter changed the world
‘Inconsequential’ to monumental: how Twitter changed the world.
A look back at 15 years (and what the future may hold).
Fifteen years ago this weekend, @jack sent the very first tweet.
What started off as a side project at a now-defunct podcasting company has snowballed into a multi-billion dollar behemoth, with 330 million active users sending 500 million tweets a day. It’s changed the way we communicate and, in some cases, genuinely altered the course of history - not exactly what the founders had in mind:
“[W]e came across the word 'twitter', and it was just perfect. The definition was 'a short burst of inconsequential information,' and 'chirps from birds'.
And that's exactly what the product was.”
A Short Burst of Inconsequential Information
The first Twitter prototype, or ‘twttr’, is almost unrecognisable from the platform we know today. There was no ability to tag other users or retweet, the hashtag hadn’t yet been invented, ‘trends’ didn’t exist and users couldn’t share images or videos natively. As TechCrunch reported at the time, “people are using it to send messages like “Cleaning my apartment” and “hungry”.”
Courtney Love once wrote that “there’s one asset everyone has until they’ve spent it. Their mystique.” Twitter (and that noughties social media wave in general) provided us with a seductive means of frittering away this mystique - but largely things remained harmless, and inconsequential, in the early days.
In 2009, user @jkrums broke the “The Miracle on the Hudson” story via the app:
“It changed everything”, Dorsey told CNBC. Suddenly Twitter, or more accurately those using it, were the source of real news. “New Twitter” launched not long after, and it was around this time that Twitter really evolved from a fun and innocuous little app to a platform capable of far-reaching impacts and influence.
It’s become a bit of a hackneyed example now, but the Arab Spring in early 2011 was revolutionary in more than one sense at the time. It’s important to note that the various uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa didn’t happen because of social media, but Twitter did play a key role in allowing protesters to organise and protest.
A few months later @ReallyVirtual, an IT consultant in Abbottabad, Pakistan inadvertently live-tweeted the top secret Osama bin Laden raid after complaining to his followers about a helicopter hovering overhead at 1am. The platform was by now the go-to place for breaking news and on-the-ground information, providing unfiltered content for scavenging journalists (‘Hi, sorry to hear you’ve been in a plane crash. Can we use your image with credit?’ Thanks’).
The beauty of Twitter is its variety. Those inane “cleaning my apartment” and “hungry” type updates coexist right alongside these breaking conversations - with all kinds of individuals and online tribes colliding surreally. Then there are the tweets, or interactions, that qualify as news in themselves. The recent US President is the most obvious example here - coming stupidly close to kicking off nuclear armageddon in 2017 through his tweeted goading of Kim Jong-un.
Twitterification of Discourse
Trump’s brash language forms part of a wider trend too. One that’s been accelerated by the particular constraints and format of Twitter. Since being introduced in 2010, retweets have come to represent the ultimate form of validation for tweeters. Content triggering “high arousal emotions” is shared more than anything else, incentivizing retweet-seeking users to make their posts more cutting, over the top, weird, humorous, shocking or controversial.
On top of this, the 280 character limit (previously 140) ensures that context and nuance all too often go out the window, with complex issues heavily oversimplified into short, barbed ‘hot takes’ and ‘gotchas’. It’s perhaps no surprise therefore that pithy humour, snark and rage have become the platform’s prevailing emotions, with everything painted in black and white. Or, as Charlie Brooker put it: "Now, everything is either shit or brilliant, and there's no inbetween - and everyone is furious."
In this short space of time, politicians (and many brands) have adapted their tone of voice in line with these new norms and expectations. Even the CIA tried to play the funny guy after signing up in 2014 - something that simply wouldn’t have happened without this backdrop.
The ‘Toxic Internet’
As we’re all too aware though, the culture that’s developed on Twitter hasn’t just given rise to wisecracking spooks. Abuse and damaging pile ons, fuelled by the online disinhibition effect, have plagued Twitter in particular for years.
Meanwhile the phenomenon of ‘doomscrolling’ is something many have become familiar with over the past 12 months. This constant bombardment and negativity bias makes many of us overly aware of things that perhaps aren’t that important - and susceptible to thinking of the present as the most significant moment ever.
World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has talked of the web as a ‘neutral platform’: “Humanity uses it, and humanity is good and bad, across the spectrum”. Previously, Twitter had leaned on something similar when challenged over abuse and harmful content; as a communications company rather than a publisher, the argument went, Twitter are merely “conduits for information” and therefore, legally, not liable for any content - good or bad.
The Future: Platform or Publisher?
This stance appears to be changing. About 18 months ago, @jack abruptly announced that Twitter had decided to “stop all political advertising”. Since the Capitol insurrection, 150,000 accounts linked to QAnon have been purged in an effort to fight conspiracy theories, while Birdwatch now allows ordinary users to flag misleading information and add context.
These editorial decisions and amendments, alongside state crackdowns and new powers allowing regulators to heavily fine social media companies over content, could see Twitter shift from a passive communications platform towards more of a publisher model with an increasing say over what goes.
Maybe we’re not that far off already.
Unless you’ve got a blue tick and/or thousands of followers, the experience of tweeting has become like shouting into the wind - with visibility and engagement minimal, and therefore little incentive to keep doing it. In fact, a Pew Research Center study found that most users rarely tweet now - with the most prolific 10% creating 80% of tweets. Previous research showed that 44% of user accounts have never tweeted at all.
With this hierarchy of users now established, most of us primarily using Twitter to read and comment on popular tweets rather than contributing our own, and the company demonstrating a willingness to remove even its most high-profile accounts if they don’t play ball, who’s to say things won’t change even more significantly over the next fifteen years?