It's been seven years since Twitter was introduced to the world. And still the question remains: Are we better because of it?
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
The easiest way to take something away from someone is to give them a new thing that distracts from the old thing's absence. Seven years ago the parts of the world that can connect to the Internet were given Twitter, a messaging platform that transforms communication into a stream of nonsensical koans, which can only be made sense of with knowledge of the person or event that isn't transmissible through the service. The company's name itself was the result of random searching through a dictionary, where the site's founder Jack Dorsey told the Los Angeles Times, he and his coworkers "came across the word 'twitter,' and it was just perfect. The definition was 'a short burst of inconsequential information,' and 'chirps from birds.' And that's exactly what the product was."
The service has had many uses since it was released, tracking dramatic events like 2009 crash of a US Airways plane in the Hudson River before news services have published a story, or being used as a de facto organizing tool for protestors and revolutionaries anywhere from Egypt to Indiana. A study of Twitter in 2009 found that 78 percent of posts on Twitter were either conversational or pointless babble, while 3.6% had some news value. Another study found that 75 percent of all Twitter posts were made by 5 percent of the total user population, and that 70 percent of the total population had either not posted in more than a week or were simply abandoned accounts.
After a decade of utopian marveling at all the things we can get for free through the Internet—tools that make it easier to bear the social fragmentation and isolation we're living under—it's clear all of these social widgets are not for socializing but broadcasting.
As its grown, Twitter has become an increasingly volatile platform where the logic of inconsequentially babbling information has come in conflict with the visibility it gives to people who can make the inconsequential consequential again. Servers have been fired for posting about bad tippers, conference goers lost their jobs after joking about dongles in a crowded auditorium, a congressman forced to resign after accidentally sending out a photo of his genitalia, and yesterday the Union of Jewish French Students filed a $50 million lawsuit against for a number of anti-semitic posts connected to the hashtag "unbonjuif," which Twitter later deleted, while currently reviewing whether it will comply with a separate ruling demanding the identity of the posters be revealed to the court.
Its tempting to craft a narrative out of the unintended consequences Twitter has had in its few short years of existence, but the purpose of creating a technology platform for inconsequential information is ultimately dependent on a business model that translates the spectatorial marvel of public nonsense into a userbase large enough to be marketed to. This idea has been the long-term goal, as the company's COO Dick Costolo told the New York Times, Twitter's advertising model simply wants to "enhance the communication that companies are already having on Twitter."
The appearance of advertising eventually sours the atmosphere of any social network because marketing is by nature the opposite of socialization. Social networks that base their business model on reaching scale for advertising are always self-defeating in the longrun. Facebook has shown some signs of losing users, with 600,000 users dropping out of the service in Britain last December, the biggest monthly drop of users in any country in the site's history. The service is, likewise, losing out to Tumblr, Snapchat, and even Google Plus in attracting early teens.
Twitter's long-term conflict is that its proposed method of making money is antithetical to the spirit of its creation. The inelegantly mechanical layers of identification and meaning buried in hashtags and subtweets has its value and amusement, but it's of a nature that thrives on intimacy, depends on an audience with a sense of all the things a person's left unsaid in a post. The bigger the community gets, the further away from this spirit it grows, and, unsurprisingly, Twitter is gradually becoming a social antagonism tool, where the absence of context justifies the worst-case scenario interpretations that cannot be resolved in the keyhole limits of 140 characters.
Like Friendster and MySpace before it, the best parts of Twitter are the fake parts, the ones where users operate untraceable profiles, surreal inventions of random language, unselfaware idealism, and offensive stereotype. It's the flourishing of e_books, fake celebrity accounts, and experimental nonsense accounts like Glitchr that give the service value, provide something other than access to thousands of streams of coffee table conversation. After a decade of utopian marveling at all the things we can get for free through the Internet—tools that make it easier to bear the social fragmentation and isolation we're living under—it's clear all of these social widgets are not for socializing but broadcasting. The only entities that profit from broadcasting tend to be corporate, and that may be the truest summation of Twitter's historical value, a toy that let people pretend they were corporate entities for a while, rhetorical versions of inflatable sumo costumes in which we bashed against one another.