Around lunchtime on March 21 2006, a 29-year-old software developer called Jack Dorsey tapped out a simple message. He only had 140 characters in which to do so — he wanted the words, plus a username, to fit in a single text message — but that was fine, because he didn’t intend to issue an earth-shaking pronouncement. A few seconds later, his words popped up on a website: “just setting up my twttr”.
It was the first tweet on the service that came to be called Twitter — once its founders had rejected “Status”, “Smssy” and “Friendstalker”. By 2007, its users were sending 5,000 tweets a day; by 2008, it was 300,000; by 2010, it was 50m. When the company filed its initial public offering in November 2013, it claimed 500m a day.
Today, the company no longer makes that number readily available, leading to suggestions that growth has stalled. And in October 2015, Dorsey — sidelined in a boardroom coup in 2008 — was brought back as chief executive, following a year in which the value of shares fell by 50 per cent. His first significant act on his return was to lay off more than 300 staff.
On Twitter’s 10th birthday, then, any celebrations at the company’s San Francisco headquarters will be tempered by the knowledge that it faces serious challenges over expanding its user base and monetising its activity. It also faces a deeper, existential question: what is the point of Twitter? Should it be useful or fun? Serious or silly? Should it aspire to world domination or be content to become an elite preoccupation, such as opera or HBO?
From the start, Twitter has inspired polarised reactions. For many of its 320m monthly users, it is utterly addictive. For others, it is a baffling land of trolls, narcissists and shameless self-promoters. “I’d rather have root canal treatment for the rest of my life than join Twitter,” the actress Emma Thompson once told Vanity Fair. “I can’t bear the thought of being connected all the time.” The comedian Stewart Lee was even harsher, calling it “a government surveillance operation run by gullible volunteers, a Stasi for the Angry Birds generation”.
Since joining Twitter in June 2007, I have tweeted 59,300 times — an average of 18 times a day, I have just calculated with horror — and amassed almost 49,400 followers. Like many other users, I have a conflicted relationship with the site. I once deactivated my account for a few days because of some minor imbroglio, and ended up being castigated in a newspaper article as a “Twitter flouncer”, alongside Kanye West and Stephen Fry.
It’s no wonder so many people use the language of addiction to describe their relationship with Twitter, because it does feel unhealthy to invest so much time in a service that brings so much anxiety (why is no one replying to me?) and stress (why are all these mean people replying to me?). It’s as though Silicon Valley created something approximating a perpetual high-school popularity contest, and I enjoy it because it turns out they like me, they really like me.
This attitude is not unusual. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said in 2012 that many analysts initially thought the service would fail because it had no obvious use. “Nobody thought it was a good idea,” he told a conference in Montreal. “And I distinctly remember my colleague Evan Williams saying, ‘Well, neither is ice cream. Should we ban ice cream and all joy or can we have something that’s just fun? What’s wrong with that?’ ”
Early news reports tended to describe Twitter as a “microblogging service”, where users posted short descriptions of their day. But soon its users started to turn it into a forum for conversations.
The first @ reply, indicating that a tweet was aimed at a specific user, appeared in November 2006. “@ buzz — you broke your thumb and youre still twittering? that’s some serious devotion,” wrote Robert S Anderson, who went on to co-found the payments service Square. (His Twitter bio now reads: “Invented the Twitter @-reply. Sorry.”)
During the first few years, Twitter felt fun and freewheeling. There were hashtag games, such as #ReplaceALetterRuinATVShow, which led to suggestions such as “Top Ear” and “Britain’s Next Top Yodel”. Celebrities would reply to you; you’d find yourself at 11pm having a passionate debate about politics with an author whose books you’d grown up reading and a Britpop musician you’d fancied as a teenager.
Twitter doesn’t feel like that any more. Silos have sprung up. Fans of the band One Direction send a huge number of tweets, for example, but I am blissfully unaware of them. Twitter is now infested with brands, some providing useful customer service, others thirstily jumping on every passing hashtag to flog their product.
The rules of engagement have calcified: do not @ someone into criticism; do not send rude tweets to Ricky Gervais unless you want him to set his followers on you; do not search your own name and argue with anyone you find being rude about you.
Unlike Facebook — where if you become friends with someone, they see your posts as well as you seeing theirs — there was no reciprocal obligation when being followed on Twitter to follow back. For the vast majority of tweeters with fewer than a thousand followers, tweeting could feel like shouting into the void.
Except, of course, when an unwary tweeter happened to say something offensive that got picked up by a mainstream news outlet. In 2013, a PR executive called Justine Sacco tweeted a self-mocking joke to her 170 followers just before getting on a plane. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” No one replied. But by the time she landed in Cape Town, the tweet had been picked up by the American news site Gawker, and she had become the number one trending topic on Twitter. Hundreds of thousands of people had seen that one tweet and concluded she was a racist. She was fired by her employers and received hundreds of rape and death threats. In his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson describes the Sacco incident as a “brutal nadir” of internet shaming.
So Twitter isn’t a carefree home of chatterboxes any more. And here’s something else it isn’t: a revolutionary tool that can overthrow totalitarian and repressive governments.
The idea of “Twitter revolutions” began with an uprising in Moldova around its 2009 elections and really caught on during the Arab Spring of 2011. That year, the Egyptian government shut down the country’s internet access for five days to stop protesters co-ordinating online. In Tunisia, activists created a satirical Twitter account to mock the foreign minister, bypassing the mainstream press. Across the Anglosphere, you couldn’t move for thinkpieces on how authoritarian governments were under threat from people power expressed online.
Even then, though, there were dissenters from that narrative. In 2010, the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell published an essay called “Small Change” with the provocative subtitle: “Why the revolution will not be tweeted”. He contended that the protests of civil rights-era America were successful because they demanded “close ties” — individuals who felt bound enough together, and to the cause, to endure beatings and arrests.
By contrast, Twitter created much larger networks held together by “weak ties”. By lowering the threshold of effort needed to participate, it encouraged more people to join social movements, but these amorphous, non-hierarchical groups had difficulty expressing a coherent message — or doing anything beyond creating a noise.
For the vast majority of tweeters, sending a message could feel like shouting into the void
Five years on from the Arab Spring, there are fewer thinkers ready to argue that social networks are inherently destabilising to the status quo: Egypt is now ruled by the head of the army, Yemen’s rebels are being bombed by Saudi Arabia, and it will take more than a hashtag to fix Syria.
Even worse for those who championed Twitter as an anarchic, anti-authority space, it has turned out that those qualities make it just as appealing to terrorists as pro-democracy campaigners. The company says it has deleted 125,000 accounts linked to Isis since mid-2015. And, on December 29, a British court convicted 25-year-old Mohammed Rehman of terror-related offences after he used Twitter to post extremist material and to ask his followers whether he should blow up Westfield shopping centre or the London Underground. The username he chose was “Silent Bomber”.
Twitter has also been affected by “astroturfing” — the simulation of grass-roots opinion. In 2015, newspapers reported on the existence of a Russian “troll house” in St Petersburg, where workers were paid 45,000Rbs (£520) a month to create fake identities on social networks. “We had to write ‘ordinary posts’, about making cakes or music tracks we liked, but then every now and then throw in a political post about how the Kiev government is fascist, or that sort of thing,” one former employee told the Guardian. Twitter feels authentic, spontaneous and heartfelt — which makes it incredibly attractive to propagandists.
Whether Twitter is at the beginning of a slow decline or merely entering a new phase, its effect on celebrity, media and political culture during the past decade is undeniable. It has intensified the effect of the 24-hour TV channels in speeding up the news cycle, particularly in the world of politics. Last summer, Labour MP Tristram Hunt summoned journalists to a speech wherein he promised to reveal whether he would stand for the party leadership. Unfortunately, the news that he had decided not to do so broke on Twitter before he had reached that part of his speech, rendering the entire exercise utterly pointless.
Twitter has always been a mixture of the serious and the silly, with earnest thoughts about the refugee crisis jostling for space with gifs of goats falling over. Its register is resolutely informal, and yet dozens of heads of state are on there, too, from @POTUS, with 6.58m followers, to India’s Narendra Modi, with 18.4m. The Pope has nine accounts, in nine different languages, which only follow each other.
It is now difficult to remember a time when presidential candidates didn’t tweet clips from Austin Powers movies to sass their opponents. (That was Ted Cruz to Donald Trump, using a video featuring a character called “Fat Bastard” threatening to eat Verne Troyer’s “Mini-Me”, in case you’re wondering.)
Critics talk dismissively about the “Twitter bubble”, but the truth is that even the most ardent Luddites are living in the media culture Twitter created. That will not arrest concerns about the core service itself, though. In the last year, even many of Twitter’s initial champions have begun to express their reservations about its future.
In June 2015, early investor Chris Sacca wrote an 8,000-word manifesto for the site’s future, beginning with his concerns about its current form: “For most people, Twitter is too hard to use. For most people, Tweeting is scary. For most people, Twitter feels lonely.” Sacca suggested there were a billion inactive accounts, and traced some of the problems to the fact Twitter was built by, and for, its “power users” — the type of people whose tweets always get responses, and who are comfortable navigating its unspoken conventions.
These users are disproportionately represented in the current debate over the site’s future, meaning that trolls and Twitterstorms can (wrongly) seem a bigger problem than the site’s unfriendly architecture.
There are many suggestions for how Twitter might change as it matures. It is considering letting users edit their tweets after publication — something reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, who has 41m followers, says she emailed the company to request last July. A more radical step floated by Jack Dorsey would be to remove the 140-character limit, which many see as Twitter’s unique selling point. It has already been scrapped for direct messages.
To me, the most intriguing suggestion would be to downgrade @-replies, the home of trolls and haters, making them harder to access when reading your feed. Admittedly, that would pivot Twitter back to a broadcast service and kill off any remaining pretensions to being a chatroom. But then again, there are any number of places to natter with my acquaintances online, while Twitter is the only place I can see a newswire customised to my individual preferences. Perhaps Twitter should do what only Twitter can do. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another 17 tweets to send today if I’m going to keep up my average.
Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman @helenlewis