It was somewhere between 2007 and 2008 that I discovered Twitter. It probably was around the time when Obama was running for president. In fact, my join date for Twitter is listed as June, 2008, so while I was early to the party based on the numbers you probably couldn’t call me an early adopter since there were over 1 million users in March, 2008. I remember it then and it was a good place to gather and share information. It still is, but who knows what the future holds.
Twitter was “born” in early 2006 when Jack Dorsey, a young NYU college student, had an idea about sharing short messages like a text to a group of users. At that time, social media was in it nascent stage. Facebook had been around since 2004, but really didn’t start picking up until around 2006. I joined it in September, 2007 and somehow ended up in some of the beta testing programs of the platform.
Twitter’s real launchpad was at SXSW of 2007 when Dorsey, Evan Williams, Biz Stone, and Noah Glass worked with the organizers to put up TV screens around the venues displaying tweets of people attending the festival. After SXSW, tweets per day jumped from 20,000 to 60,000 and then started growing even faster after that. By early 2010, the site had over 50 million tweets per day which is when we early users experienced the infamous “Fail Whale” when things would get hot and heavy.
Back then, people would share information about things they were involved in or had experienced. I would often bring my laptop to political debates or events and use Tweetdeck to not only tweet about the event, but follow the tweets of others. It was a way to share what was being said by candidates or politicians and garner a reaction, often a retweet.
That last part is where Twitter picked up much of its traction as people could easily reshare a piece of information they saw from someone else and essentially amplify the message. It’s how we passed along what we had seen or heard to our friends or followers. While the function was introduced in 2009, it wasn’t until about 2010 or later when people started really utilizing it which is when Twitter’s usage skyrocketed as I noted earlier.
The problem with retweets is that it became so easy to share that few people really vetted the information they were sharing. The urge to share what we knew was just too compelling and often allowed bad information to become amplified quickly. Once the cat, or bad information, was out of the bag it couldn’t be easily pulled back in.
Another feature that quickly increased tweeting was introduced in 2011 when Twitter offered an easy way to share a link. Just paste the link in and Twitter would shorten it for you so it wouldn’t eat into your 140 character limit. It seemed like a great idea until the rise of the bots. You see, companies could generate click traffic by simply retweeting tweets with links. To automate this, tech companies would create bots to crawl Twitter feeds and reshare information automatically whether it was true or not.
By this time, you can see how this cool technology idea dreamed up by Dorsey and crew started creating an information nightmare. At the time, no one really regulated tweets because no one really needed to. But just give bad actors time and they’ll learn how to use something that powerful for their own objectives.
That brings us to today. As we have all seen, Twitter has grown into one of the largest information sharing tools in the world. It has helped give rise to political rebellions and allowed us to keep track of the latest news. It’s offered some a soapbox that they never had before and allowed misinformation to be shared at lightspeed.
It’s not clear why Elon Musk expended so much capital to purchase the company, but now he owns this nightmare and is responsible for its daily impact on society. While there’s no doubt Musk is a smart man, it’s hard to draw comparison of his prior successes to the revamp of Twitter. Based on the events of the past few weeks, it’s hard to really tell what he’s going to do with it. He changes his mind from day to day.
Will Twitter survive? It’s hard to say. From a technical point of view, Musk has done all the wrong things to keep something of this size afloat. His hit squad from Tesla has no clue how to deal with a cloud social platform the size of Twitter. Remember, their technology expertise is on manufacturing and vehicle operation. Musk may think technologists are interchangeable, but he’s about to be in for a rude awakening.
For now, we must deal with the drama that seems to engulf Twitter. People will keep tweeting, including those who use the platform to spread misinformation. My best advice is to treat each tweet with some degree of caution. If it seems too incredulous, do the legwork to validate the facts before taking any action, particularly retweeting. Be a part of the solution, not the problem.