Twitter Generation 10

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 celebrating the 10th Anniversary is about very much celebrating its users.

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 board for your interests that it was when it launched. Twitter, on the other hand, is one of the world’s longest-running projects. Well, it all started on March 21st, 2006, the iconic first tweet:

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 14.39.06

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-adopters 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 Anderson. 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? Most of the defining events for Twitter have been what’s-going-on events. Until our tragic day in Brussels, right now. 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 and celebrities indecency. But Twitter simply builds the infrastructure; it has always been up to the users to make it compelling.

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.

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 the history took another way by restricting developers to get into it. And then started the whole mess with management, business decisions…and Twitter became as not so interesting as it used to be.

Twitter, we wish you a Happy Birthday. And if we want to celebrate again, give back the power to the people. They made you, they will make you change, they will save you.


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