It’s almost hard to believe that such a simple social-media platform—whose idea boils down to “public text messages”—became such a driving force in media, tech trends, and modern culture. Like any social-media giant these days, they’ve been as controversial as they’ve been innovative, and despite continuous derision they’ve continued to assert themselves as useful contributors to the Internet Age.
The initial 140-character limit for tweets probably caused some of the first jeers; compared to Facebook, its more intimate contemporary, Twitter at first only seemed capable of superficial, self-absorbed micro-posting. But its unique value became clearer in time:
Twitter is for watching the forest, Facebook is for watching the trees.
Consider, for example, the hashtag. Invented by Twitter engineer (and ex-Googler) Chris Messina, it borrowed the IRC’s idea of using the # symbol to denote categories, except that you could use as many as you wanted. At first, Twitter turned down Messina’s idea, saying (no joke) that it’d only be a thing for nerds—but now, it’s the web’s closest claim to universal tags. Which means that, whether you’re trying to tweet about the conference you’re attending (usually lame) or emergency conditions in your area (usually important), use the right hashtag and you can find and contribute real-time info with unprecedented speed.
Consider also the possibilities enabled by one simple pre-Twitter invention: link shortening. TinyURL was the first, launched in 2002, and a horde of others followed shortly after. Combined with Twitter, it was possible to broadcast a post with links, images, hashtags, and a quick note, all in one tweet, even with the 140-character limit (which has since been expanded).
We realized this platform was legit when we read that news on Twitter can spread faster than seismic waves during an earthquake.
Twitter continues to face serious problems in 2020, but they’re still trying to adapt. As two examples: the site has a weakness for circulating propaganda and fake news (often via bots), but in 2018 they released several million tweets produced by a Russian propaganda mill for analysis. Different but similarly serious: Twitter’s anonymity makes it especially susceptible to cyber-abuse, especially toward women and minorities (and intersectionality is definitely a thing here, as women of color are likeliest to be targets of Twitter abuse). Twitter started requiring account confirmation via phone or email last year, but Dorsey himself has admitted that this area is one of Twitter’s failings.
Call us nerds, but we like the idea of a (limited) human hivemind…as long as it’s a fair and benevolent hivemind. Keep trying, Twitter. You’ve already proven you’re clever enough.