A decade on Twitter
I wrote my first tweet ten years ago.
I’m off to grab some lunch.— Jeremy Keith (@adactio) November 1, 2006
That’s the tweetiest of tweets, isn’t it? (and just look at the status ID—only five digits!)
Of course, back then we didn’t call them tweets. We didn’t know what to call them. We didn’t know what to make of this thing at all.
I say “we”, but when I signed up, there weren’t that many people on Twitter that I knew. Because of that, I didn’t treat it as a chat or communication tool. It was more like speaking into the void, like blogging is now. The word “microblogging” was one of the terms floating around, grasped by those of trying to get to grips with what this odd little service was all about.
Twenty days after I started posting to Twitter, I wrote about how more and more people that I knew were joining :
The usage of Twitter is, um, let’s call it… emergent. Whenever I tell anyone about it, their first question is “what’s it for?”
Fair question. But their isn’t really an answer. You send messages either from the website, your mobile phone, or chat. What you post and why you’d want to do it is entirely up to you.
I was quite the cheerleader for Twitter:
Overall, Twitter is full of trivial little messages that sometimes merge into a coherent conversation before disintegrating again. I like it. Instant messaging is too intrusive. Email takes too much effort. Twittering feels just right for the little things: where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m thinking.
“Twittering.” Don’t laugh. “Tweeting” sounded really silly at first too.
Now at this point, I could start reminiscing about how much better things were back then. I won’t, but it’s interesting to note just how different it was.
- The user base was small enough that there was a public timeline of all activity.
- The characters in your username counted towards your 140 characters. That’s why Tantek changed his handle to be simply “t”. I tried it for a day. I think I changed my handle to “jk”. But it was too confusing so I changed it back.
- We weren’t always sure how to write our updates either—your username would appear at the start of the message, so lots of us wrote our updates in the third person present (Brian still does). I’m partial to using the present continuous. That was how I wrote my reaction to Chris’s weird idea for tagging updates.
Thinking that hashtags disrupt the reading flow of natural language. Sorry @factoryjoe.— Jeremy Keith (@adactio) November 6, 2007
I think about that whenever I see a hashtag on a billboard or a poster or a TV screen …which is pretty much every day.
At some point, Twitter updated their onboarding process to include suggestions of people to follow, subdivided into different categories. I ended up in the list of designers to follow. Anil Dash wrote about the results of being listed and it reflects my experience too. I got a lot of followers—it’s up to around 160,000 now—but I’m pretty sure most of them are bots.
There have been a lot of changes to Twitter over the years. In the early days, those changes were driven by how people used the service. That’s where the @-reply convention (and hashtags) came from.
Then something changed. The most obvious sign of change was the way that Twitter started treating third-party developers. Where they previously used to encourage and even promote third-party apps, the company began to crack down on anything that didn’t originate from Twitter itself. That change reflected the results of an internal struggle between the people at Twitter who wanted it to become an open protocol (like email), and those who wanted it to become a media company (like Yahoo). The media camp won.
Of course Twitter couldn’t possibly stay the same given its incredible growth (and I really mean incredible—when it started to appear in the mainstream, in films and on TV, it felt so weird: this funny little service that nerds were using was getting popular with everyone). Change isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different. Your favourite band changed when they got bigger. South by Southwest changed when it got bigger—it’s not worse now, it’s just very different.
Frank described the changing the nature of Twitter perfectly in his post From the Porch to the Street:
Christopher Alexander made a great diagram, a spectrum of privacy: street to sidewalk to porch to living room to bedroom. I think for many of us Twitter started as the porch—our space, our friends, with the occasional neighborhood passer-by. As the service grew and we gained followers, we slid across the spectrum of privacy into the street.
I stopped posting directly to Twitter in May, 2014. Instead I now write posts on my site and then send a copy to Twitter. And thanks to the brilliant Brid.gy, I get replies, favourites and retweets sent back to my own site—all thanks to Webmention, which just become a W3C proposed recommendation.
It’s hard to put into words how good this feels. There’s a psychological comfort blanket that comes with owning your own data. I see my friends getting frustrated and angry as they put up with an increasingly alienating experience on Twitter, and I wish I could explain how much better it feels to treat Twitter as nothing more than a syndication service.
When Twitter rolls out changes these days, they certainly don’t feel like they’re driven by user behaviour. Quite the opposite. I’m currently in the bucket of users being treated to new @-reply behaviour. Tressie McMillan Cottom has written about just how terrible the new changes are. You don’t get to see any usernames when you’re writing a reply, so you don’t know exactly how many people are going to be included. And if you mention a URL, the username associated with that website may get added to the tweet. The end result is that you write something, you publish it, and then you think “that’s not what I wrote.” It feels wrong. It robs you of agency. Twitter have made lots of changes over the years, but this feels like the first time that they’re going to actively edit what you write, without your permission.
Maybe this is the final straw. Maybe this is the change that will result in long-time Twitter users abandoning the service. Maybe.
Me? Well, Twitter could disappear tomorrow and I wouldn’t mind that much. I’d miss seeing updates from friends who don’t have their own websites, but I’d carry on posting my short notes here on adactio.com. When I started posting to Twitter ten years ago, I was speaking (or microblogging) into the void. I’m still doing that ten years on, but under my terms. It feels good.
I’m not sure if my Twitter account will still exist ten years from now. But I’m pretty certain that my website will still be around.
And now, if you don’t mind…
I’m off to grab some lunch.
Adactio: Journal—A decade on Twitter adactio.com/journal/11436
“It’s hard to put into words how good this feels. There’s a psychological comfort blanket that comes with owning your own data. I see my friends getting frustrated and angry as they put up with an increasingly alienating experience on Twitter, and I wish I could explain how much better it feels to treat Twitter as nothing more than a syndication service.” Adactio: Journal—A decade on Twitter https://adactio.com/journal/11436 Jeremy Keith’s reflections on 10 years of Twitter make for interesting reading. And as he says, it isn’t worse, it is just different. Different enough to abandon? Maybe.
and comments on how things have changed on Twitter at large and, more importantly, on Twitter for him as he for the past few years has been treating it as nothing but a syndication service. I do the same and for the past few months I’ve visited Twitter.com very rarely and I no longer have any Twitter client installed on my iOS devices. It’s liberating to know that you own your content and as long as you keep your site running it’ll live on regardless of the rise and fall of various social networks.
I’m not sure if my Twitter account will still exist ten years from now. But I’m pretty certain that my website will still be around.
That last paragraph rings so true to me. I intend to live for at least fifty more years and I hope my blog will be with me all the way. How many huge companies have existed for fifty years? How many of those have not changed in significant ways in fifty years? Do we really think that the social media of today will preserve our ideas, our quips and snapshots, and our memories – happy and sad – for the foreseeable future? Or do we not care if they don’t?
Jeremy beat me by 6 days and only 5,000 tweets. Can you believe that back then only 5,000 tweets were sent in 6 days? These days I’d guess that 5,000 tweets happen a few thousand times per second. And tomorrow, on Election Day, you can guarantee millions of tweets per second.
Jeremy reflects on the early days and also on some of the things that changed over time. Please, please go read his post. But I’ll expound slightly on what he’s written.
Most notably this bit:
The most obvious sign of change was the way that Twitter started treating third-party developers. Where they previously used to encourage and even promote third-party apps, the company began to crack down on anything that didn’t originate from Twitter itself. That change reflected the results of an internal struggle between the people at Twitter who wanted it to become an open protocol (like email), and those who wanted it to become a media company (like Yahoo). The media camp won.
If you listened to audio bit E8, wherein Danny and I chat about Twitter, one of my suggestions for Twitter is to go back to this. To go back to supporting third-party development. We chatted about the whacky uses of Twitter (like drawbridges, plants that need watering, etc.) but there are very, very practical uses too.
But now, just a few weeks later, I do not feel that would be enough to save Twitter. And I do mean save it. It is dying. It will go away. I do not see anyone coming in to rescue it at this point. In fact, if someone does step up to the plate to try to rescue it, it may be the wrong entity to do so and it may get worse.
Jeremy has a leg up on me that I do not have. He posts his “tweets” first at his site and syndicates to Twitter. Well, I do too. However, I don’t only post to my site. I tweet. A lot. It is a hard habit for me to break. I love tweeting during sporting events. I love even more tweeting during tech events like Apple’s Media and WWDC events or Microsoft’s Build events or rocket launches. In context they are fun, sometimes funny, sometimes informative to follow those conversations happening on Twitter. If I published those particular notes to my site first they’d be in a silo of sorts and out of context. Someone stumbling upon them would have no idea what I was talking about. So do I just not write those tweets any more?
Unlike Jeremy I will be sad if Twitter goes away. It has been part of my life for 10 years and I think it is the best social network we have going. But, like Jeremy, I’ll keep posting here. Because my site will be around for as long as possible.
Now I just need to break the habit of posting tweets to Twitter.
Ten years ago today:
Signing up for Twitter— Aaron Gustafson (@AaronGustafson) November 10, 2006
Wow. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. User #12,028 (back when they were still sequential).
If memory serves, Jeremy Keith was the first to suggest I join Twitter. Jeremy and I had met for the first time at SXSW in 2005 and became fast friends. That was the same year I met Andy Budd, Richard Rutter, Jeffrey Zeldman, Eric Meyer, Shaun Inman, Leslie Jensen (pre-Inman), Jason Santa Maria, Rob Weychert, Stuart Langridge, Andrew (née Andy “Malarkey”) Clarke, Jon Hicks, Tantek Çelik, Glenda Sims, and so many more amazing (and influential) web designers. We became quite the posse and dutifully packed the mezzanine of the Hampton Inn each and every morning before the conference started and generally pal-ed around throughout the week. Then we all returned to our respective locales and prepared to do it all over again the next year.
As I mentioned, I think Jeremy was the first to suggest I try out the burgeoning service our friends Biz and Ev had come up with. We all knew Ev from Blogger and he & Biz had worked together on Odeo (a podcasting service that was way before its time) too. Together, under the moniker “Obvious Corp.”, they had just rolled out a new messaging service called “Twttr” (because who needs vowels). It later spun out of Obvious Corp. as “Twitter”.
Twitter filled a very interesting niche for me back in those days, but I didn’t really notice how much until we all returned to SXSW in 2007. When we had regrouped in 2006, we had spent a lot of time catching up on the developments in our lives that had taken place in the intervening year (at least those we hadn’t blogged about). 2007, however, was different.
By the time SXSW rolled around in March of that year, we’d all been actively using Twitter for nearly six months. And because so few people were on Twitter at the time and we all followed each other, it was quite easy to keep up-to-date with what was going on in everyones’ lives. Twitter created this sort of ambient awareness of everything important that was going on with the folks in the group. So when we returned to Austin in March of 2007, we didn’t spend any time catching up on the events of the intervening year because we didn’t need to. We already knew and were able to pick right up as though we hadn’t missed a beat. It was a pretty amazing feeling and played a big part in my falling in love with Twitter.
That love affair continued for years. My relationships with my friends deepened and our collective relationship with Twitter deepened. I don’t think anything illustrates that more than my good friends Stephanie and Greg getting engaged via the service (yes, they were the first):
@stefsull - ok. for the rest of the twitter-universe (and this is a first, folks) - WILL YOU MARRY ME?— Greg Rewis (@garazi) March 3, 2008
@garazi - OMG - Ummmmm… I guess in front of the whole twitter-verse I’ll say—I’d be happy to spend the rest of my geek life with you…— Stephanie Rewis (@stefsull) March 3, 2008
In the past decade, Twitter has changed dramatically. Most of us, with the exception of Brian, moved away from tweeting in the third person. Here’s my transition (circa 2012… I tweeted for nearly 6 years in the third person!):
has decided, after much internal debate & consideration of your thoughts, to abandon 3rd person tweeting style. #3pT will be the transition.— Aaron Gustafson (@AaronGustafson) October 17, 2012
You are confused and confounded by this move and wonder why @aarongustafson did it. Perplexed, you scratch your head.— Aaron Gustafson (@AaronGustafson) October 17, 2012
When it came down to it, I decided it was about you, my readers, more so than my enjoyment of the mental exercise of writing 3rd person.— Aaron Gustafson (@AaronGustafson) October 17, 2012
The truth is that while I love writing and 3rd person was fun, this change will let me play with other authoring styles.— Aaron Gustafson (@AaronGustafson) October 17, 2012
Ideas we played with, like Chris’ suggestion that we add tagging to our tweets, “d” messages, at-mentions, and Retweets (later, RTs) changed from things we did as a matter of necessity while using the service to integral pieces of “Twitter the Platform”.
In the past decade, the culture of Twitter has also changed. When we were starting out, there was this great feeling of solidarity, togetherness. Twitter was a huge public commons where we were all friendly and respectful, even when we disagreed. In the intervening years (the last few perhaps even moreso), however, Twitter has become this wedge that seems to be driving our society apart. The decisive, bile-and-hatred fueled posts, rampant bigotry, threats of violence, and gross intolerance has become such a downer that each year I pull back a little more. I don’t browse the public stream anymore; I can’t deal with it. I have reduced the number of people I follow and have become more dependent on lists and tools like Tweetbot and TweetDeck to help me identify the shallows of Twitter I’m interested in wading into. Don’t get me wrong, Twitter still manages to prove its value every now and again. It can absolutely be a force for good, but like so many things that work well in their ideal state, us messy humans have come along and fucked it all up.
In the past decade, Twitter itself has also fundamentally changed. I remember being gobsmacked when I visited the service’s ginormous San Francisco headquarters last year and saw the massive number of people working there. It made me pine for the days when I used to duck out of Adaptive Path’s SoMa office two grab lunch with the 12 (!) people who were running Twitter at the time. Twitter looks all grown up, but to me it still seems like it’s going through a painful adolescence, unsure of what it wants to be. I hope it can find its way, but I’m uncertain if our relationship will survive that.
Ten years in, I am still in love with Twitter, but I’m unsure if that love is for the service it has become or if it’s simply a manifestation of my nostalgia. I guess time will tell.
Jeremy Keith also recently celebrated his first decade on Twitter. You should definitely read his thoughts & recollections too.
How do you consume and interact with Twitter tho? Like where did this reply tweet come from?
I think about replacing reading experience of Twitter as much as posting. RSS reader redux / New kind of browser.
I don’t (yet) own my own replies. Some other indieweb folk are doing that though.