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Twitter at 10: a people’s history

Twitter at 10: a people’s history


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More than any other tech company, Twitter was invented by its users. That’s no slight against the engineers and designers who actually built the thing. It’s just to say that what we think of as Twitter — that 24/7 torrent of news and entertainment, millions of people taking measure of the global heartbeat daily — came from us. And on the service’s 10th birthday, it feels like something very much worth celebrating.

Other big social networks have expanded over time, but they’ve largely stayed true to their original premise. Facebook remains a directory of people who you know in real life. Instagram is still mostly a way to share life’s happier moments using photos. Pinterest is the same digital cork board for your interests that it was when it launched.

The world's longest-running hackathon project

Twitter, on the other hand, is one of the world’s longest-running hackathon projects. The story has been often told: a startup named Odeo that made software for finding and listening to podcasts found itself near death after Apple added a podcast directory to iTunes. An eccentric engineer suggested doing something around statuses — something like AOL Instant Messenger’s old away messages, but distributed to friends using SMS. He and his teammates hacked together a prototype. And then, on March 21st, 2006, the iconic first tweet:

Had it remained a way to broadcast status updates, the service then called Twttr likely would not have endured. But in those early days it attracted a host of early-adopting smarty-pantses who saw potential for something more: having conversations with other users, coming together around a single keyword, amplifying messages to a broader audience.

And so came the @ reply, credited to Robert Andersen. The hashtag, suggested by Chris Messina. The retweet, first proposed by Eric Rice. Each of these ideas came from an everyday user, and they led Twitter further from the idea of a service used to broadcast status. For years the writing prompt inside the tweet composer asked, "what are you doing?" But as users chose to answer a different, un-asked question, Twitter changed the prompt to what’s going on?

From 'what are you doing?' to 'what's happening?'

Most of the defining events for Twitter have been what’s-going-on events. The US Airways flight landing on the Hudson. The pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring, which were greatly amplified by Twitter. The riveting, terrifying hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. #BlackLivesMatter.

The result of all this user innovation and changing behavior was a global, real-time information network that, for those patient enough to tailor it to their interests, all but replaced the cable news networks that had preceded it. Twitter became the place where news broke, and the place where that news was discussed. Regrettably, it also came to host a torrent of abuse — something that users recognized as an existential threat to the company long before executives did. No user-led innovation could stamp out harassment — although users made several worthy efforts, including shared block lists, another idea later adopted by the company.

Twitter simply builds the infrastructure; it has always been up to the users to make it compelling. When I asked my own Twitter followers what their favorite tweets were, it struck me how nearly all of them were things that made them laugh. Shaq’s smart-ass reply to Oprah. The llama chase. Ed Balls. Zola. #TrapCover. I’m the same way. This is my favorite tweet ever, and it makes me laugh every time:

There are funny moments on every social network. But to me it seems indisputable that Twitter is the funniest.

Today Twitter’s future is uncertain as ever. The platform that its users invented turned out to support more than 300 million people, but not the billion or so that investors and advertisers were expecting. There’s a case to be made that enshrining so many user behaviors as features made Twitter less usable for newcomers — and why Twitter still finds itself trying explain what a retweet is a decade on. The company seems to be perpetually six months away from the product change that will make it intuitive to all. During the last quarter, Twitter’s active users declined for the first time, and it is not profitable.

Evolving at a glacial pace

But given how inventive users were in Twitter’s early years, it’s worth asking how things might have been different had the company continued to welcome their contributions. Had another generation of developers built Twitter apps of their own, experimenting with the way tweets were displayed and organized, it seems entirely possible the service could have found a broader audience. But that dream ended in September 2012, when Twitter announced changes that restricted developers from building third-party clients and making heavy use of its API. Twitter was once a design playground for developers; after 2012, the company became determined to chart its own destiny.

But Twitter flailed without those developers. The company churned through five vice presidents of product in five years. The company’s core apps evolved at a glacial pace, while the rest were neglected. When more significant changes arrived, longtime users have complained the company had betrayed them. Dorsey returned to the CEO role last year, hoping to blunt those users’ criticisms by putting in charge the person responsible for the founding vision.

A decade later it all still seems so improbable. That the company would survive years of boardroom intrigue, CEO shuffles, and crippling anxiety over how the product should evolve – and still become a public company.

Ten years later, Jack is still setting up his Twitter. But it’s a Twitter that is far broader and more significant than the one he first imagined. Twitter may have built Twitter. But users were the ones who made it. Amid today’s celebrations, the company ought to save a slice of cake for them, too.