As Twitter turns 10 we take a look at the impact the social media platform has had on our lives and culture in the last decade, as well as the challenges it faces going forward.
Ten years ago, back when Twitter was just another Web 2.0 startup, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, sent the first Tweet, launching the service:
just setting up my twttr
— Jack (@jack) March 21, 2006
Over the last decade Twitter has established itself as the place “where news breaks before everywhere else”. As Adam Schefter, a reporter for ESPN, comments, “Twitter has ramped up the news-cycle speed to unimaginable levels. News emerges, it spreads, people react, and within minutes, the story is widely disseminated and analysed.”
This infographic illustrates how Tweets featuring everything from One Direction breaking up to the Bin Laden raid can spread across continents and countries, often in seconds. As The Guardian observes, “when news breaks in places with good mobile connections, often you can find out exactly what’s happening on the ground via Twitter.”
The influence of Twitter has of course spread much further than just news media. As Andrew Hutchinson writes in Social Media Today, “Twitter’s strength is real-time. No other social platform comes close on this front.”In his article, Hutchinson highlights the social benefits of real-time Twitter data, citing a number of examples in which Twitter data is being used for the public good, from tracking earthquakes to predicting flu outbreaks. The US geological survey, he says, found that by following mentions of the term ‘earthquake’ it was possible to track seismic activity across the globe better than they’d been able to do previously.
Twitter is not Facebook – it’s not a place for socializing among friends, but rather delivers a feed of information that matches up with your own interests. In fact, some of the most notable moments on Twitter are those where the network has capitalized on that potential – like when Twitter served as a digital ground zero for Arab Spring, or captivated the world with images from U.S. Airways’ “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency landing in the Hudson River in 2009, for example.
Twitter is also often referred to as a democratizing platform, offering access to individuals and information which previously would have been out of the reach. The New York Times highlights the story of Kelly Oxford, a stay-at-home mother who used Twitter to promote her writing which was eventually picked up by Hollywood.
Twitter’s public social network can make the world feel smaller and more connected, as users from all over tweet about major events, including the passing of revered persons, like South African statesman Nelson Mandela, which saw Twitter flooded with tributes peaking at 95,000 tweets per minute. Other tragedies also drew people in, like the Boston Marathon bombings (27 million+ tweets), the mass kidnappings in Nigeria that gave rise to the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, or the Paris terror attacks which elicited empathy from around the world centered on the hashtag #PrayForParis.
But Twitter also brings people together over news of a more positive nature, whether that’s tweeting about World Cup – Twitter’s most discussed sports event ever with 672 million tweets, for example, or Pope Benedict becoming the first Pope to create a Twitter account.
The platform also gives a voice to marginalized and underrepresented groups of people, as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter campaign, which has used the hashtag to campaign against violence towards black people.
Twitter has changed the way brands interact with consumers. Consumers can now publically express instant opinions about brands, good or bad. This has forced companies to revise how they deliver customer service and become more agile. As Tesco’s director of digital marketing, Toby Horry says, “A lot of customers are using Twitter as a services channel and we’ve really embraced that, so we now have a lot of people who may historically have been telephone-based customer service who are now operating largely in the Twitter space.” Twitter facilitates a different type of conversation which is less formal and often more irreverent.
“Brands that inject humour into the conversation can be rewarded with thousands of re-Tweets” adds Mansoor Shah, our MD for the Middle East.
Despite Twitter’s popularity amongst its users, it faces considerable challenges. The democratic nature of the platform leaves it open to abuse. Gwen Ifill, a news anchor, sums up the dichotomy well, “Twitter is a double-edged sword. The good news is it’s a way of getting instant information, or disseminating instant information for journalists. The flip side is it’s sometimes an echo chamber in the worst way journalism can be, and it’s also a place where people can go and scream at each other.” As The Telegraph writes, “Twitter’s public nature, the ability to hide behind a pseudonym and its free speech ethos has made trolling an immense problem.” This was something former Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo, addressed in a leaked memo in which he took personal responsibility for the platform’s problems with harassment.
Twitter’s challenge, then, is to reflect the loud and disparate voices of the world, but cut off those who only shout into the void with the intent to harm others. That’s something the network has struggled with, to say the least, and could be an underlying cause contributing to Twitter’s stagnant user growth.
Much has been made of Twitter’s slow-down in user growth as well as its monetization difficulties, with many like Ben Thompson on Stratechery drawing unflattering comparisons with Facebook. Peter Eigner, Digitalis Europe MD explains it: “Part of the problem seems to be that Twitter can be overwhelming for new users, “the service’s unwritten rules of engagement, the work that new users have to put in to following the right people, and the frantic nature of Twitter’s real-time feed of messages can be confusing to the uninitiated”. Twitter has sought to address this with an algorithmic timeline which allows you to catch up on the best tweets from people you follow. However, this development has met with resistance from users concerned that the changes will transform Twitter from a real-time rolling newsfeed into a catch up platform reminiscent of Facebook”.
Twitter may have a user base which is only a fifth of Facebook but it is clear that these users value the platform immensely. DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter activist who uses Twitter, questions the constant drive for increased user numbers. For him the question is not how many users Twitter has but how it continues to attract the people who want to share information in this way: “For some reason, other platforms have made it a race to the number of users. It makes people feel comfortable from a metrics standpoint but it’s a misunderstanding of the power of the platform.”
Daniel Carnerero, MD at Darlings of Chelsea and regular collaborator at Digitalis, elaborates further: “Numbers always matter but, in most cases, it’s the engagement of those what ultimately makes the financial difference, as well as the quality of the content or information shared. To monetize anything in the digital era you need a quality audience, relevant to the advertisers and with a disposable income biased towards their products. The days where having the largest users’ pool counted are gone, and we are well into the segmentation and customization of content, ads and products. Companies invest in marketing with the idea of selling the ‘uniqueness’ of their products and services, therefore seek customers that react positively to it.”
For the company’s 10-year anniversary, Twitter released a timeline of what it defines as the network’s most memorable moments over the years. What many of these seem to have in common is their ability to give us a first-hand perspective on breaking news and information in a way that was never possible before. Twitter adds a human element to news that’s otherwise delivered in neutral tones by television broadcasters and other news media For example, we’ve gotten to witness the world’s happenings from a personal perspective, like when Sohaib Athar inadvertently live-tweeted the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.
And for those who have watched the service evolve over the years, look back at evolution of its mascot and logo: