Ten years of twitting about

Fail whale

Today marks ten years since I first set up my Twitter account.

Back then, the character limit was 160, not 140. Hashtags hadn’t been invented yet. Retweets were a pipe dream. Even @ replies weren’t a thing yet.

In all, it was a much simpler proposition. This is how the Internet Archive remembers the Twitter homepage as it was on 18 November 2006.

Twitter screenshot from 2006

Apart from the visual design, which we would now describe as being “of its time”, the first thing that strikes me is just how friendly and welcoming it seems.

It is a world away from the daunting image that Twitter has built up. Today Twitter has a problem with trolls. It has terrible trouble with usability. The company itself seems more interested in positioning Twitter as a conduit for celebrity gossip.

Twitter screenshot from 2016

Look at the Twitter homepage today. There is no polite way of describing it. This is simply dross. It is little wonder Twitter is struggling to grow its userbase or become a place where civility rules once again.

Simple beginnings, but radical ideas

Today Twitter asks you: What’s happening? Back in 2006, the question it asked you was: What are you doing?

In its simple beginnings, Twitter was essentially designed as a status log. I would say what I was doing, and I would see what other people were doing.

Another striking characteristic of the Twitter homepage as it was ten years ago is the emphasis on mobile. Remember, this is before the iPhone was launched. Yet here is a service ahead of the curve, thinking mobile first:

You can also get updates by SMS, IM, and Web – Join today!

There is web, relegated to third in the list behind SMS and IM. You could sign up with your mobile number rather than your email address.

I remember receiving and sending my tweets via SMS in the early days. I would occasionally send the odd missive from the train on the way to university, or in the library when I should have been studying.

As Twitter grew, it became unmanageable to use it over IM. As people began to use Twitter for general commentary on world events, many tweets I received over IM made no sense when I didn’t have access to the web to look up what the hell was going on.

The early days of Twitter

While records show that I signed up to Twitter on 18 November 2006, it took me a few days to actually post my first tweet. As seemed obligatory back then, my first tweet was about trying to work out what Twitter was all about.

I got the hang of it pretty quickly, because within a minute I had posted my second tweet:

By December I was really getting into it, posting more than a tweet a day on average.

I remember first realising the potential power of Twitter when I saw people beginning to actually have conversations. But how that could fully work wasn’t clear to me. I am not sure it is clear to anyone even today.

Ten years ago I was a student, struggling to keep my chin up during what in retrospect were the worst years of my life.

The future of bad liveblogging

In March 2007, I decided to tweet my way through the Australian Grand Prix. I made perceptive comments such as:

and:

Following that, Chris Applegate, a fellow Twitter early adopter, imagined how Twitter would have covered important historical events. Commenter Greifer described it as “the future of bad live blogging in a nutshell”.

The following month I opened another account — @vee8 — so that I wouldn’t bore all of my followers with this sort of dull F1 chat.

Fail whale

Twitter turned out to be a pretty terrible platform for liveblogging — or indeed archiving of any sort. In its early days, the service frequently went down, and users worldwide became familiar with the fail whale.

Even worse, tweets had a tendency to disappear completely.

Still, my own usage patterns show that Twitter was — and is — the place to be for talking about events as they unfold. Most years, I post the most tweets in May. This is thanks to a double-whammy of events I’m interested in — elections and the Eurovision Song Contest.

Meanwhile, my busiest ever month on Twitter was September 2014, the month of the Scottish independence referendum.

Building communities

In first few years after I joined Twitter, I found myself following more and more people. Looking back at those first few years, it is incredible just how conversational it was. For me at least, it was much more about building networks and having conversations.

On occasion, those conversations spilled over into real life. I attended tweetups. On one or two occasions, I went to a twestival.

To be a tweeter was to be a geek, and part of a relatively small — but growing — community. Back then, Twitter was a fringe part of the internet. At first it felt like another add-on to blogging, like Technorati or MyBlogLog (remember them?).

Before long, Twitter began to take precedence over blogging. This was the beginning of the end of the blogosphere.

Hats off to Evan Williams. He founded Blogger and helped kickstart blogging as a medium. Then he launched Twitter, which swept the rug from underneath bloggers’ feet. More recently he has created Medium. He has effectively transformed the way people write on the web three times in little over ten years.

Going mainstream

Twitter wasn’t to stay niche for long. I remember hearing Richard Bacon begin to talk about it a lot on his late-night Radio 5 Live show. Soon, Stephen Fry had joined. He even followed me. Apparently he followed all of his earliest followers, surely making him the first ever member of #teamfollowback. It was an exciting glimpse of the way Twitter was to transform communication.

It was exciting to see Twitter transform from a geek enclave to a mainstream form of communication. Before long it was talked about everywhere, as though it was as ubiquitous as email.

It’s a bit like when your favourite indie band becomes big. At first it’s exciting, but soon you resent it.

Post-peak Twitter

Since then, Twitter has become less conversational and more noisy. It is more like a broadcast channel, and I am now as guilty of that as anyone.

My own use of Twitter peaked in 2011, halfway through the journey so far. Then I posted 7,124 tweets across my two main accounts. In 2015 I posted just 2,755. This year’s figure will be similar.

Along the way, I have changed username twice — from doctorvee to Stepreo to today’s @DuncanBSS. That partly reflects my own insecurities amid Twitter’s transformation from niche, quirky platform to slightly-serious-worky-thing.

I find it difficult to imagine that I would want to sign up to Twitter today. But I have been using it for ten years, and I’m still there. And no matter how much of its initial appeal has been lost along the way, I find it difficult to imagine life without it.

So why not follow me if you are not doing so already? My main Twitter account is @DuncanBSS. If you’re into motorsport, you can also follow @vee8.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *