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App Economy

On Twitter's 10th Birthday, What I Learned From Rereading My 32,417 Tweets (So Far)

Tens of thousands of tiny, fleeting moments add up to something worth revisiting—and a reminder of what makes Twitter unique.

Ten years ago today, Jack Dorsey, the cofounder of a service then called Twttr, sent the world's first (and possibly still most famous) tweet:

Slightly less than a year later, I joined Twitter as the 817,268th person to sign up—which makes me either a late early adopter or an early late adopter. My first tweet was pretty much the same as those of the 817,267 who preceded me, and countless others who have since come on board:

Since then, I've sent more than 32,000 additional tweets. But I didn't give much thought to them as a body of work until a Twitter rep reminded me of the service's impending 10th birthday and offered to round up some stats about my use of the service over the past nine years.

My Twitter archive

Once I started thinking about my time on Twitter, I downloaded my Twitter archive—a compressed file of tweets and retweets that anyone can request in their profile settings. I've long known this feature existed but assumed that it dumped out some sort of unformatted file that would be tough to parse, and of interest mainly to people who were leaving Twitter and wanted to take their intellectual property with them.

Wrong! Download your archive, and what you get, effectively, is a mini-Twitter that runs off your own computer. It has a nice interface that lets you browse tweets by month or search for keywords. If you've been on Twitter for any length of time, you should snag yours and take a look.

Once I started exploring mine, I just kept going until I'd skimmed all the way through what amounted to a journal covering a fair chunk of my life, 140 characters (or fewer) at a time.

Peak Tweet

First, let's start with some of the stats that Twitter provided. My busiest hour for tweeting is around 10 a.m., and I tweet the most on Tuesday and Wednesdays, which, if it means anything, may indicate that I like to tweet at work, but only after I've tended to more pressing matters on the first day of the workweek and first hour of the workday.

Twitter also confirmed something I already knew off the top of my head: My two most-retweeted items were a photo of Oreo-flavored Oreos and an image of Batman and Robin managing their schedule on a Batcomputer. (Moral: People on Twitter like silly images.)

The people I mention most often on Twitter, the company informed me, include my sister, a former coworker, two people whose work I've edited, and a fellow alumni of PC World magazine. And then there's @apollo729—the one person on the list who I don't know in any other context other than that I like chatting with him on Twitter.

On my own, I pulled up some numbers relating to the stuff I tweet about. I've mentioned Twitter itself 4,006 tweets, Facebook 584 times, and Google+ 105 times. I've mentioned the iPhone 1,110 times and Android 545 times. RadioShack? I've name-checked it 181 times, mostly last year in long jags when I was obsessed with its liquidation.

My most prolific period on Twitter to date was the first six months of 2015, when I tweeted at a torrid pace (for me) of an average of 25 items a day. I'm not sure why I had so much to say, and my conclusion is that Twitter isn't about volume, since I enjoy the service just as much right now even though I'm tweeting at about a third that pace.

Indeed, thinking about all these numbers has mostly told me that stats can't tell you that much about why Twitter matters. (That's why people who are fixated on follower and retweet counts don't understand Twitter.)

It was reading old tweets rather than tallying up figures relating to them that told me something about Twitter and my relationship with it. Even my very earliest tweets, when I was still figuring out exactly what it was, many of them were a) about Twitter, b) misfires, or c) so agonizingly mundane that I'm not sure why I bothered:

Repeatedly, I either gave up on Twitter or forgot about it. Checking my archive, I found that in 2007, I tweeted 7 times in March; not at all in April, May, and June; 11 times in July; not at all in August, September, and October; 27 times in November, and once in December. In January 2008, I didn't tweet at all, but in February, something clicked. I tweeted 67 times that month and have never stopped since.

(Well, hardly ever. Among the factoids Twitter provided to me was that the last time I went three days without tweeting was from November 8-10, 2013. I happen to remember that I went on a vacation right after that, so perhaps I was distracted by work deadlines before I took off.)

By mid-2008, I was tweeting the sort of stuff I tweet today, more or less—musings, little jokes, and notes on my work and personal interests—predominantly, but not exclusively involving technology and related matters:

Dashing off that sort of stuff was fun then, and remains so. But you know what? The main reason I settled into an ongoing regimen wasn't because I got the knack of squeezing at least vaguely worthwhile items into 140 characters. It was because Twitter became an ongoing conversation involving old friends, new acquaintances, and folks who I know only by @name and Twitter avatar. The moment that happened, Twitter no longer felt like shouting into a canyon, and I understood precisely why I'd want to use it.

Here, I think, is my first @reply—which happened to be addressed to my colleague Jason Snell, whose desk was a few cubicles away from mine at the time.

Incoming tweets are so core to Twitter that I'm sorry that the downloadable archives don't include them. You can use the service's super-powerful advanced search to pull up ones you've received. It looks like the first @reply I ever got was from my old friend Greg Peverill-Conti, and I think maybe I either wasn't paying attention or didn't know how to respond, since I didn't acknowledge it:

Shortly after I started chatting with other Twitter users, I began complementing my snippets of text with photos, screen shots, and other imagery—which I had to do at first via a third-party service such as TwitPic, since Twitter didn't yet have the capability itself.

Here's what might be the first image I tweeted—a crummy photo of Al Gore—and the first screen shot:

I'm lucky, by the way, that TwitPic, which had a near-death experience in 2014, still exists and has kept the images I uploaded to it eons ago. In the early days of Twitter, I tried out a variety of image-hosting services, link shorteners, and other Twitter enhancers. Rummaging through my archive, I discovered that some of them, such as Yfrog, later went away and broke my tweets in the process.

Twitter Time Machine

Once I got through revisiting the tweets from the era when I was a clueless Twitter newbie, I just kept reading my archive until I reached the present day. Any boilerplate analysis of what makes Twitter unique involves the fact that it's about real-time communications, which might lead you to think of tweets as having a fleetingly short shelf life. But I found the experience of reliving my life on Twitter exhilarating, surprising, and even moving.

A sample of tweets that mean something to me for one reason or another—sometimes just because I'm still tickled by something I found funny or intriguing back then:

(Note: I wrote that when I left PC World, when magazines were collapsing all around me. But my prediction for my own career turned out to be wrong, wrong, wrong, since I now write for Fast Company and made a stop at Time before that.)

I seem to have started using Facebook in July 2007, a few months after my earliest tweets, and have spent copious amounts of time there, too. But I don't think I'd find gorging on my old Facebook status updates and folks' responses to them nearly as rewarding. Mark Zuckerberg has been known to call the service he created a utility, which is about right: It's plumbing for routing status updates, photos, and other items around, and for keeping track of how people are connected to each other. The form itself has no more personality than Microsoft Word does.

Twitter is different. It lays down constraints that haven't changed that much over the past decade—the 140-character limit, the still-sparse variety of items you can append to a tweet. But it then invites you to improvise in collaboration with others. It's remarkably expressive—has anyone ever compared it to jazz?—and no two people put the same thing into it, or get the same thing out.

That's why reviewing my past tweets was meaningful. It's also why I like reading other people's tweets, which is how I ended up following more than 4,000 of my fellow users. And it's why I feel, even after nine years, like I'm still learning to use the service—and that, if I keep at it indefinitely, I'll discover new things that Twitter can do, in a way that has nothing to do with any features it may add in the years to come.

Twitter celebrating its birthday on its own Twitter page