I joined Twitter on a lark in the summer of 2007. My art gig at the Onion News Network had a hurry-up-and-wait rhythm to it: rush to construct and dress a set, then loiter around the craft table until a PA needed me to make a prop or repair a broken flat. I'd heard of Twitter from a co-worker, and it seemed like a fine distraction. My membership and interest lasted a week.
Over the following nine years, I've rejoined Twitter, leveraged connections for survival as freelance writer, made friends, inspired enemies, and written a shabby series of think-pieces about the heartburn it so regularly gives me. Looking back, each year I spent with Twitter had its own unique shape, both on the personal and cultural level. To parse why that is, I've attempted to break apart my nine different uses for Twitter over the last nine years.
2007: A text message to nobody
The first time I joined Twitter, there was no app. If I remember correctly you joined on a website, then communicated with the service via text message. Twitter was more akin to group message platforms like GroupMe, the kind popular with today’s youngs. To use Twitter in 2007, I needed my friends to join. This request was swiftly and unanimously vetoed by everyone I love, which in hindsight, may have been their subconscious effort to protect me from myself.
2008: An ongoing work of Mad Men fan fiction
The second and more permanent time I joined Twitter was to read Mad Men fan fiction. @Roger_Sterling, @JoanSCDP, and a handful of other accounts inspired by characters from AMC’s melancholy drama gained attention with their more fiery online exchanges, peaking with a trend piece in The New York Times. This was before media Twitter, when the service was more like Tumblr, dominated largely by the aggregation of oddball experimentations.
Most of those original accounts are now abandoned or deleted. @The_Don_Draper is not the first Don Draper fiction account — it came to be a year after the Times trend piece — but its caretaker still occasionally tweets to their 17,800 followers, including a coterie of knockoff parody handles still trying to keep the dream of 2008 alive. Ever wonder what Roger Sterling would think of the 2016 presidential campaign? Me neither.
must not look at mad men tweets in fear of spoilers— Chris Plante (@plante) October 27, 2008
2009: An existential identifier
I was a year into my first job at a crummy media company, and like any creatively unchallenged early 20-something who learned rapidly that a degree isn't a FastPass to your dreams, I craved entertainment, praise, and conflict — not necessarily in that order. Nobody knew who I was, especially not me.
Twitter became my soapbox, and tweets became screams for attention. This period wasn’t all bad. When you pick an intellectual fight, even over something as mundane as retro roleplaying games, you’re forced to justify your beliefs, a preliminary step in self-discovery.
This is Twitter in default mode. I was a master of empty phrases that kind of sounded nice and might impress the wrong people.
For the first time this season, Mad Men's presience felt necessary and pertinent. What a show.— Chris Plante (@plante) November 2, 2009
2010: A personal brand builder
The personal brand building era began around the time Twitter became a mandatory app on a content creator’s smartphone. Personal brands never really end, rather they overlap every new epoch. To this day, PBs are the closest Twitter has a marketable product. The first and best example was ex-sitcom star and digital camera pitchman Ashton Kutcher, who was the fastest to reach 1 million followers.
It's my final day at UGO and my first day as a freelancer. More details to come, of course. But if you need a writer now, I'll be here.— Chris Plante (@plante) October 22, 2010
I left my desk job in 2010 for a career as a freelance writer, and my bank account was suddenly reliant on my Twitter relationships. My personal brand buttered my bread. If an editor knew me, my emails were more likely to survive their daily purge of press releases and unsolicited pitches. Hungry and overly confident, I leapt into the conversations of my idols uninvited.
When I managed to get something published, I bombarded my couple thousand followers with promotion, hoping to send the story lots of foot traffic so that the editor would toss me another assigment. The result: using a dopey neologism, a hashtag, and some flattery (deserved, to be fair) to promote an article for the third and fourth time in one day.
Apparently, I also thought it was a good idea to tweet about sports:
Mizzou. Wow.— Chris Plante (@plante) October 24, 2010
The Chiefs are un-be-lievable. The officials, not so much.— Chris Plante (@plante) November 7, 2010
2011: A weapon of snark
For a game with Revelations in the title, I'm wary we'll see many.— Chris Plante (@plante) May 5, 2011
What was life like before Warlight? I only faintly remember.— Chris Plante (@plante) May 4, 2011
I imagine the PlayStation tablet meeting began with "So how can we give consumers something less appealing than what they already have?"— Chris Plante (@plante) April 26, 2011
Hey PSN Plus users, we finally have an awesome exclusive for you! It's the Mortal Kombat demo and... UNDER MAINTENANCE. BACK IN 11 HOURS.— Chris Plante (@plante) March 9, 2011
I would love to say that my snarky tone reflected the national mood, but I have no evidence. In fact, Gawker founder Nick Denton began the year saying, "People can't live on snark and vicious gossip alone." He was right, and so my snark was supplemented by more sports tweets.
If you like baseball and you're not following the Kansas City Royals, what's the hold up?— Chris Plante (@plante) April 6, 2011
2012: A praise giver
By 2012, I had swapped freelance for another full-time job, this time at a place I liked. As co-founder and editor-at-large at Polygon, I enjoyed the freedom to write whatever I wanted, and for the first time, my work had a reliable readership.
Getting too far into my own navel here, a Twitter account mutates when you know people are reading it. My reaction when this change took place was to be more pleasant. Rather than interrupt those who inspired me, I imitated them. I self-promoted because I wanted people to see my work, not because it fulfilled some tacit freelance obligation. I praised people I’d never met. Without question, Twitter became more of a performance, but it was a performance in which I strived to be a better version of myself.
I’d later become friends and co-workers with some of the folks I praised. Others I’ve still never met. But my favorite takeaway from this period is how defensible it all is. I still can stand by so much of what I said.
2013: A vuvuzela
After years of damming the stream, my timeline burst into the surging river of sports Twitter.
Fantasy points for my KC starters:— Chris Plante (@plante) October 13, 2013
Nothing was safe, not even video game preorder humor.
2014: A happiness blackhole
On one hand, 2014 was a continuation of my obsession with sports Twitter, thanks in large part to the unexpected World Series run of the Kansas City Royals. When your sports team is on the path of greatness, Twitter takes on a tribal vibe. People you’ve never met become family. And your actual family becomes precious:
@JohnnMetz thanks man, I love you too— Chris Plante (@plante) October 11, 2014
But Twitter's most powerful function, to instantly erect and dismantle communities, is too often used for nefarious means. Despite the bits of positivity I can dig from my 2014 timeline, what I remember most clearly about Twitter at the moment is its disuse. That September, I wrote a piece that reflected on the grim events in the video game community, and asked people not to threaten the lives of others. Within the week, a band composed largely of angry young men, many of whom I imagine were working their way through the phase of self-identity, warped my plea into a conspiracy of collusion at the highest levels. I was bombarded by thousands of threats from GamerGate, and though it was a personal low point, my harassment couldn’t compare to the attacks on the brave women who criticized this cultural abomination.
Months before GamerGate, as if I knew I'd later need it, I wrote "Quit Twitter before you’re hard, quit Instagram before you’re soft." Here's the pertinent line from that piece: "I've gradually learned the most dangerous thing to do on Twitter is to actually DO something. Doing something makes you a target, whether it's silly and fun, or noble and vital, or somewhere in between. The safest thing to do is nothing." Before the year ended, I wrote a follow-up about my inability to protect myself from negativity: "Why I deleted Twitter off my phone, reinstalled it, and deleted it again."
2015: A positivity supplement
The internet harassment of 2014 was consistent and debilitating enough that for months my public-facing email account redirected to a catch-all account that could be racked for anything worthwhile by a colleague. Twitter itself became a professional chore. Looking back, I can spot a clear break in my behavior and writing, both skewing toward the life-affirming, the cute, and the strange.
My 2015 experience, if anything, clarified the function of cute things on the internet, one of my timeline's tributaries that had hitherto gone unanalyzed. Twitter accounts like @cuteoverload, I saw, counterbalance the cynical commentary, self-promotion, and joyless public spats. They are manipulatively viral, sugary sweet, and an underappreciated force for good.
2016: An RSS feed
At my nine-year mark, I take pleasure in practically every other social media platform but Twitter. If I have something worthwhile to say, I have The Verge. Snapchat has fulfilled my initial hope for Twitter: a warm place to keep in touch with friends. Facebook connects me to my family. Instagram is a daily dose of glossy happiness.
I regularly delete Tweetbot from my phone, only to reinstall it during a work-related trip. I try not share anything I would call personal, though I still sometimes slip up. In my eyes, Twitter service barely resembles what I remember from 2012, let alone 2008. Maybe that's a positive. Surely our conversations and the technology that allows for them should both evolve. Though I can't help but feel at some point along the way, Twitter the company lost control of Twitter the service. Instead in 2016, we're all on an aimless raft in the ocean, waiting for the current to take us somewhere, keeping our heads low, hoping not to be attacked by pirates who've learned shrewdly to use the sea's apathy to their advantage.