Ever since Twitter’s debut in 2006, it has displayed content as a river of tweets, listed in backwards chronological order. As Twitter has become more about photos, video, and other embeddable content, the river has remained unchanged. Even a recent redesign, currently in testing, leaves the river alone as it otherwise changes to embrace a more Facebook-like format, with a wide horizontal cover photo overlaid with a left-aligned user profile and more.
In the fast-paced world of social media redesigns, it seems almost quaint that Twitter’s core experience is still based on a chronological river of tweets. Pinterest uses a mosaic layout to maximize the amount of embedded content you can fit on a single page, while Facebook automatically curates what you see in your timeline according to mysterious behind-the-scenes algorithms. But Twitter doesn’t bother with that, blasting users with a constantly updating live feed of the latest tweets, retweets, and replies from a user’s followers.
Twitter’s right not to muck with a good thing. The river of tweets is brilliant. It’s a throwback to the earliest medium of digital communication–the venerable ticker tape–and it proves that some ideas are so simple and intuitive, they don’t need to be redesigned, even as technology itself changes.
Hailing back to the mid-19th century, ticker tape was a paper strip that ran through a machine called a stock ticker, which recorded pulses of information on a connected telegram line and printed out the latest stock market prices in a long, chronological ribbon. Before the ticker tape, stock prices needed to be hand-delivered by messengers, causing considerable expense and delays. The invention of the stock ticker allowed investors (for good or for ill) to keep up on the market’s fluctuations in something approximating real time.
In a way, then, there’s an argument to be made that the ticker tape is the 19th-century financier’s proto Twitter: the first always-on social media stream, a river of information that blasts updates as they happen, designed to be read backwards, not forwards. As an app or on the web, Twitter is a ticker tape of the stock market of human interests. As a service, though, it’s a NASDAQ of information, tracking the fluctuations in the currency of ideas over time, not as stock market symbols but as hashtags and trending topics.
Although the service is many things to many people–a micro-blog, a social network, a news reader, a forum, and so on–what ultimately sets Twitter apart from the likes of Pinterest and Facebook is its immediacy. While Facebook is ultimately focused on documenting the life of its users, and Pinterest is all about cataloging their interests, Twitter is about what is on your mind. You can read backwards, of course, for historical context, but that’s not the point.
Like a ticker tape, with Twitter, the point is the now. Ever since Heraclitus, we think of the now as a river: No one ever steps in the same one twice. Why should our river of tweets be any different?