The Last and Next 15 Years of Twitter

I turned 15 on Twitter earlier this year, a long relationship by modern measures. We had our early infatuation when we probably spent too much time together. Then we had our glory years as we settled into a comfortable routine. But over the past five or so years we got into a rut and I was preparing for divorce. Another Twitter user DMed me, offering $2,000 for my username, and I figured it was time to go. Clearly, I was at risk of this turning into a toxic relationship.

But my friend Luis convinced me to persevere. He reminded me of the good times and helped me realize that the relationship could be saved if I were more intentional and made more of an effort. Not only that, we decided to launch a year-long project together that would take place largely on Twitter. We’re calling it The Twelve Inquiries, which sounds a little grandiose, and we’re thinking of it as a monthly conversational salon with internet friends about topics that interest us. I hope you’ll join us. You can read more about it here and subscribe to the newsletter and podcast.

We figured it was fitting for the first of the twelve topics to be Twitter itself. (And that was before the Internet when ape-shit-crazy over the richest man saying he’d buy it on a lark, turn it into a WeChat-like super app, and then … nah, never mind. 🤷‍♂️) So if you’ve been questioning your own relationship with Twitter, if you want to indulge in some nostalgia for its early days, and if you’re looking for tips on how to make it a more joyful experience, please join us on July 28th at 5pm ET to discuss the best and worst of Twitter with our friends Emily Parker, Lena Zuñiga, and Noah Segan. If you click here, you can set a reminder on Twitter for the Twitter Spaces conversation.

Digital Intimacy & Innocence

Here is one of my first tweets:

In its early days, Twitter was an online version of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg called a “third place.” Not work, not home, but the places in between where community is built: the French cafe, the German biergarten, the English pub. As I looked over my first few months of tweets, I noticed how they quickly shifted from boring updates about my days to witty banter with friends … and then with strangers. It all led to a new feeling of “ambient awareness” that we now take for granted:

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update, each individual bit of social information is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating.

The Gamification of Speech

Back in 2007, when Elon Musk’s net worth was still less than $1 billion, before there was a remote possibility of Trump as Tweeter in Chief, no one could have predicted that Twitter would become “the de factor public town square.” The platform was notoriously unreliable and struggled to compete with more exciting alternatives: Tumblr, Digg, Flickr, MySpace, Foursquare, Delicious, Facebook, and Blogger. What set Twitter apart at the time was its mobile-first design just as Apple began developing its first iPhone.

Twitter was an accident. It started as a side project for programmers to keep each other updated while they developed a podcasting app for the web. There was no vision, no strategy, and no business model. It just sort of stumbled along inelegantly, trying its best to catch up to the homemade hacks of its users: a way to respond to the tweets of others, a way to share others’ tweets in your timeline, and a way to message other users privately. Unexpectedly, these new features would present Twitter with a tempting business model: personalized advertising by tracking every user engagement and optimizing for more time spent on the platform.

They would also lead to what C. Thi Nguyen calls the gamification of public discourse. Gone was the witty, ”third place” banter after a morning cup of coffee or evening cocktail. Twitter transformed from a conversation to a game. The goal of the game is to enhance your brand and influence. The way to score points is by increasing your number of likes, retweets, and followers.

Here’s how Jonathan Haidt describes the transition from coffeeshop banter to performative game:

Once social-media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the major transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics … By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game … Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action.

Competing Cultures of Use

It has become a cliche for journalists and celebrities to make a big deal about quitting Twitter, only to return with their tail between their legs a few weeks later. As a WaPo article put it, “quitting Twitter is the new moving to Canada.” While Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat copy each other’s new layouts every quarter, the humble Tweet has persisted as social media’s most durable format.

For all its headaches and annoying sensationalism, Twitter is still a source of useful information, comedic delight, and a measure of the cultural zeitgeist. Where else to turn when you’re not sure if it was an earthquake or a passing garbage truck? Did Will Smith really just walk up to Chris Rock on live television and slap him? What is it like to be living in Ukraine while Russia invades? How are people reacting to the latest political debate, or for that matter the latest episode of our favorite TV show?

Twitter has always been a sphere of what Jean Burgess and Nancy Baym call “competing cultures of use.” Brand influencers, academics, journalists, comedians, activists, and investors all have different uses for the platform. In Real Life, activists and investors probably go to different coffeeshops; on Twitter they can’t avoid one another.

Lying beneath the angry, sensational game for influence, attention, and shame is still the quaint coffeeshop and witty banter. Can we still find the best of Twitter without getting distracted by the worst? And can Twitter, in its current state of disarray, find a business model that nudges us to become our better selves online? Or at least not our worst selves?

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I am looking forward to the conversation. I hope you’ll join us on July 28th!

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David Sasaki

Mostly ill-formed reflections to figure out what I think myself. Occasionally a fully formed essay with strong opinions, loosely held.