We’ve had Twitter for a decade. Crazy, right? As the social network celebrates its 10th birthday today, it’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always just been there, waiting for us every morning and during every major, televised event.
Today, Twitter is a relentless firehose of news headlines, jokes, GIFs, hot takes, snark, and whatever Kayne West happens to be thinking. At its best, it’s helped fuel revolutions and allowed the world to experience major sporting events together. At its worst, it can be a tool for trolling, harassment, and worse. But Twitter is Twitter. It’s here and recent growth challenges notwithstanding, it’s not likely to go anywhere anytime soon.
But Twitter wasn’t always Twitter. In fact, it used to be called “Twttr,” its vowels surrendered to the forced brevity of SMS text messages. Like all now-familiar things, it had to evolve into what it is today. So what was it like in the early days? Fast Company tracked down a few of Twitter’s earliest adopters for a “virtual roundtable” retrospective discussion. In these interviews (edited together for your convenience), we get a glimpse of OG Twitter from Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley; Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd; tech journalist Dan Frommer; CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis; and Nick Bilton, the New York Times (now Vanity Fair) reporter who literally wrote the book on Twitter’s early days.
What attracted you to Twitter in the first place? More importantly, when did you realize it would be useful?
Danah Boyd: I joined Twitter when Ev Williams told me about it. I had worked with him at Blogger and many of the things we used to talk about were on display in that new product so I was excited. At the time, I saw it primarily as a way of coordinating people across time and ideas. It was really at SXSW where things got fun and interesting. In some ways, I was much more into it back then than I am now, because it was just a small group of friends sharing interesting ideas, links, comments, and locations. It wasn’t so performative.
Nick Bilton: It was 2007 and I was working at the New York Times in the research lab. A colleague of mine Mike Young had heard about Twitter—no one knew what it was, of course. I signed up on my laptop and I remember having a conversation with him through Twitter, as if it was just two people IMing each other. Hey do you want to get a beer?… Yeah that sounds great. We weren’t using it how people tweet today. In retrospect, I had no idea how to use it.
We reached out to the Twitter guys about meeting up, thinking maybe there was some kind of news-related thing that we could do. We got on the phone with Jack and Biz in the summer of 2007 and they were clearly overwhelmed with what they had built. They didn’t know what was going on.
They told us this story about this guy who decided he was going to tweet every time he went to the bathroom. He thought it was really funny. Then apparently there was an explosion in New York and he live-tweeted. It was one of the first times they saw news take place on the service and it was from the guy who tweeted about using the toilet.
I remember being in the newsroom of the New York Times when the guy climbed the side of the building. We were on the 28th floor in the R&D lab. We were all on Twitter as we were watching this guy literally climb past our window on the 28th floor, but we were watching on Twitter to see what people were saying down on the street. Each time something like that happened, it made me want to use the service more and more. I stopped going to the New York Times and other places to look at what the news was and I started going to Twitter.
Jeff Jarvis: My son had to push me to Twitter, I will confess. It took a while, as it does, to follow the right folks and gain a following, but once I did, Twitter became addictive. I remember showing my journalism faculty colleagues Twitter early on. One of them challenged me to ask what this had to do with journalism. We brainstormed all the ways it could be used for news–and got many right–and my colleague quickly conceded its potential.
Dennis Crowley: I think the first time I really opened my eyes to it was when Michael Jackson died. I got this CNN text message about it. But Twitter beat that by a couple of hours, if I remember correctly. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, this thing is going to be a big deal.” Suddenly, reporters weren’t breaking news. People on Twitter were.
Back then, tweets were kind of like a precious thing. You would send one a day. It was like a mini blog post. You would put the same type of curation into it that you would into a longform blog post.
Dan Frommer: It took me a while to start using it every day. The hurdle was getting over the idea that Twitter, the service and company, was lame. The name felt embarrassing to say. The concept made sense to me—I was one of those guys in college who left zany away messages up for everyone—but I wasn’t into it right away. Probably because it seemed like a place where only the worst tech scenesters were posting. Also because Twitter is such a mobile product and I was using a Palm Treo with no Twitter app and only a limited number of text messages in my plan. Then in mid-2008 I got the iPhone 3G and started tweeting a lot from my phone using the excellent Twinkle app (RIP).
My first tweet was in August 2007—“giving Twitter a chance”—and then I didn’t send another one until December. We had a few Twitter accounts for the website I’d helped start (Silicon Alley Insider, now Business Insider) so I was using those daily. We were posting “Tweet of the Day” articles for a while, highlighting something interesting or amusing that our readers—mostly tech early adopters—were saying. But it took me a while to start tweeting regularly.
You used to be able to track tweets containing a certain word. You also used to be able to use Twitter from AIM. So I tracked “iPhone” and a few of the worst swear words, and Twitter would IM all the tweets to me with those words. There weren’t enough tweets that it got out of hand, but Twitter quickly shut down both of those features.
Describe the overall vibe and culture of Twitter back then. How did people share and converse? How was it different from today?
Jeff Jarvis: Twitter was at first intended just for status updates: What are you doing now? Indeed, as originally conceived, new updates would have replaced prior updates and so the conversations that Twitter has spawned would not have been possible. At first, Twitter was indeed more about telling your friends what you were doing right now. It took the added conventions created by users rather than Twitter–the @ reply to direct a message to one user’s attention and the # hashtag to group conversation around a topic–to make the platform truly useful for conversations and for news. Ev Williams told me a few years ago that he and the founders did not imagine that Twitter would become a source for news but now that is in great measure how they see it.
Danah Boyd: Like many things during that period, it was filled with geeks who shared the same cultural context and could share things without having to contextualize what was being shared. For example, when Chris Messina posted about #barcamp, we immediately recognized this as a IRC reference. And no one needed to explain why you’d put @ in front of a username to signal that you were referencing them. So, needless to say, it was fun to watch early adopter practices help drive the product. The primary difference between now and then had to do with scale, which drastically changes context and affects norms, both good and bad.
Nick Bilton: As much as there were some celebrities and news folks in the early days, it was still a very nerdy product. You had to understand what an @ symbol was and a hashtag. It wasn’t an intuitive product. I still don’t think it’s that intuitive.
Over time, the product has become a million little worlds within the world of Twitter. And we don’t know about them. [Last year], there was a big debate about VCs and the media. Everyone in my Twitter feed was discussing it. My friend who lives down the street on Twitter would never have seen any of that. That’s not part of his world. You still have the little enclaves and groups you have in the past, but there are millions of them that you don’t actually overlap with. It’s a whole different world that you didn’t know existed before you accidentally stumbled upon it.
Dan Frommer: There wasn’t much conversation going on at first—tweets were largely self-contained reflections on life or, commonly, what you were doing. One of the main reasons I joined Twitter was to find out where my tech/media peers were drinking after work so I could join them in person. Foursquare didn’t exist yet and I wasn’t using Dodgeball.
I wasn’t following too many people, so it was mostly the same people over and over. You’d all end up talking about similar stuff because you were all reading each other’s tweets. In May 2008, I had a few @-reply conversations with friends—more people I met on Twitter than people I was friends with before. We talked about software tools, New York happenings, and food.
It took awhile before I started putting effort into my prose. One of my first tweets was just “chi-town” when I arrived in Chicago. Then, later that night, “ambien RULES!”—thanks, mom! Then I started posting one-liners, slogans, and YouTube links. Then I started posting airport codes when I was flying and even my first delayed-flight tweet. How embarrassing.
Now Twitter—at least among power users, especially those with auto-scrolling clients like Twitter for Mac—is kind of a nonstop chatroom. The majority of tweets I send are @-replies to people. I still tweet out almost all of the stories I write, but I try to put more thought into my other tweets and tweet less overall. Every once in a while I’ll get excited about something and send out a bunch in a row, and hopefully not regret it. And if tweets aren’t getting much of a reaction, often I’ll delete them.
Dennis Crowley: It varied depending on who you were talking to. The early days of Twitter were super conversational. In Nick Bilton’s book, he’s got like two pages of the first few hundred tweets. They were like “Hello!” “Goodnight everyone.” It was that type of stuff early on. For me, it’s still very conversational. I’m very rarely tweeting anything really profound. For me, it’s about amplifying things I think are interesting and keeping up with people I don’t see face to face. Talking to people about Foursquare. Talking to people about soccer. Other random stuff from people I would never meet.
One shift that’s hard to miss is the tone on Twitter. In 2016, the service feels more snarky and self-serious than it once was. We have people calling each other out more. What’s your take on how the overall vibe of Twitter has evolved?
Dennis Crowley: Twitter is a microcosm of the Internet in general. Anything you go looking for, you’ll find it there. You want to find the worst of the Internet? You’ll find it. You want to find the best of the Internet? You’ll find it. People helping people connect with people they’re not in touch with or get something that they need or help in a disaster. You find all of those great things on Twitter. And then yeah, of course you find the snark and the jerks and the haters. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Most of the people I know who actively use it, they actively use it because it’s a positive experience.
Danah Boyd: I don’t think that there’s a single tone on Twitter at all. If you pull from the firehose, the first thing you’ll quickly realize is the diversity of how people approach Twitter. This is only natural given the radically different publics that are operating alongside each other. Sure, many tech geeks are more jaded, snarky, and self-serious, but that’s not because of Twitter.
Dan Frommer: My guess is that this started around 2008 or 2009 when it became clear that being famous on Twitter could be a productive thing for your career, especially if you worked in media or politics. So, if you were in the business of correcting/mansplaining people or trying to make your rivals look dumb, you were building your reputation.
Super-short-form doesn’t leave much room for nuance. I think this is a good thing, as most people are terrible writers who write too long. But it also means tweets can seem harsher than they’re meant to. Twitter also lends itself to one-liners and sarcasm because of its speed and brevity. That abruptness can feed on itself and turn into a mess. Also, people have always loved Internet fights and probably will always.
Jeff Jarvis: This is the tragedy of the open network. To be truly open, to enable anyone to speak to anyone, to be used as a tool even for revolutionaries, the network also has to be open to less high-minded conversation: trolls and their icky ilk. I wonder whether it necessarily follows that an open network must become a breeding ground for incivility. The evidence thus far unfortunately suggests that is the case. But by using the tools Twitter provides–following just the people you want to follow and blocking the bozos–one can at least have a more peaceful existence there, unaware at least of the trolls lurking under the next bridge. That is fine for most people on most days. For women being harassed, that is insufficient and so I was sad to see that, for example, Lena Dunham has abandoned social media. That’s a real loss.
Nick Bilton: One of the realizations I’ve had about startups is that they take on the DNA of their founding fathers or mothers. Caterina Fake told me when they started Flickr that they wanted it to be a pleasant experience and a happy platform. So with the first few thousand photographs that were up there, all the employees at Flickr wrote all these really nice notes. Even if it wasn’t the most beautiful photo, they’d say, This is the most beautiful photo I’ve ever seen. I love the framing. It created, from the beginning, this very happy place.
On Twitter, from the beginning, it was always a place to debate things. And it still is today, but it’s gotten so much worse because there are no repercussions for the things that people say and do on there.
I’ve been through experiences where I’ve tweeted something and it’s kind of taken on a life of its own. Next thing you know, people are saying “I hope you die of cancer” and really nasty stuff that they would never say to your face. Personally, as a result, I don’t use the product that much anymore. I dip in and out, maybe 10 minutes a day and that’s it. Whereas before I’d be on there for hours throughout the day. Once you experience that, it takes away the shine of what Twitter is. I spoke to an employee at Facebook and something like 50% or 60% of the reason that people unfriend somebody on Facebook is because they’ve said something nasty on their feed and they don’t want to see that and experience that. With Twitter, you can’t do that. You can block someone, but can’t block everyone. Unless you’re Marc Andreesen.
You’ve seen these Twitter mobs that have been created. In many respects, they’ve won. They’ve called for someone to be fired for something they’ve tweeted. They’ve called for all these different things. Each time, it’s happened. As a result, the mobs think that they can actually affect change. What they don’t realize is that they’re actually making things worse. I think that’s driven a whole new level of this kind of really negative, mean stuff that people put on Twitter. It’s just a part of the culture that’s not very nice.
Danah Boyd: Back then, my participation was social. I knew everyone who followed me and I followed most of them back. These days, I have 100K followers, including a mix of people I know, people who know my work, outright strangers, and bots. It’s no longer a place to just joke around and be silly. That’s not how the people in my network use Twitter. We’re all lame, posting URLs and commenting on public issues. But, truth be told, I’m a lot more lame today than I was back then in general. So it’s not entirely clear how much of this is Twitter and how much of this is me.
Nick Bilton: If you were to look at a graph of my usage of Twitter over the last eight years, you would see it continue to rise and rise and rise to the point where I’m literally on it all the time. By about a year ago, the experience just wasn’t as fun anymore. I wasn’t gaining anything from it. I just stopped using it as much. I started deleting the app from my phone on weekends. Then I reinstall it on Monday. In its place, I put the Kindle app, so I can read a book.
For me, it went from being a service that I relied on to a service that became more of a hindrance. I haven’t gone back to the way I once used it since. When there was less people on it and it was more personal, it was a more enjoyable experience, not just because I wasn’t on the receiving end of people saying awful stuff. But my friends were on there. It wasn’t so much to delve through. Now it’s this massive platform. These apps all have these algorithms and systems in there to try and entice you to be on the service more. With Twitter, you have the tweet alerts where a popular tweet gets sent to you. Facebook tells you your friend so-and-so posted something on your timeline. It’s a short-sighted way of managing these services. It pulls you in so much that you want to pull away. That’s happen to me with all forms of social media.
Jeff Jarvis: More important for me is how Twitter changed the way I used other tools. Twitter pretty much ruined me for blogging, as I can now get something off my mind and chest in a flash. When I started my blog in 2001, I at first used it as I use Twitter now: quick thoughts, shared links, responses to what I’m reading. My blog morphed into longer posts but then Twitter distracted me like a digital squirrel.
Dennis Crowley: One big change is the size of the audience. I’m in probably the top 1% of people with the most followers, so I have this really privileged view of Twitter. I can ask any questions in the world in 140 characters and no matter how obscure it is, I can get at least one or two replies. Hey, how do I fix my mom’s printer? Does anybody know what time the soccer game is starting? Does anybody know how I get into this museum that’s closed on Sunday in Barcelona? Weird stuff. Not everyone has that. The average person has a couple hundred followers. I think that’s one of the most interesting things about the platform: It’s so many things to so many different people. Twitter is one of my favorite things in the world. In the history of things that have been invented, it’s one of my favorite things.
Dan Frommer: Like any writing, it’s a mixture of amusement or embarrassment to go back and look at old tweets. Half of them, I wonder how I could be so obnoxious and trite. The other half, so brilliant and funny. At first, I was using it to say what I was doing and to look for after-work drinking opportunities. Can you believe people used to call them “tweetups”? Oof. Then, to have conversations with people I met on Twitter or worked with. (Most of my real-life, non-work friends still don’t use it.) Then, to promote my work or talk about the topics I wrote about.
My peak Twitter usage was in August 2011, the year I launched my own website and was working from home. I posted 1,111 tweets. Twitter was my workplace. There was also a hurricane in New York one weekend and I was sending a lot of stress tweets.
I tweet about a third that much now. I probably read Twitter more than ever now (it’s ~40% of my iPhone battery usage and on all day on my Macs.) I follow more than 3,000 accounts and seem to have a good flow of information on tech, food, news, sports, culture, and fashion topics. But I try to limit my tweets to my work and stuff that’s really important to me. I’m fortunate to have a bunch of followers, including many I admire, so I want to respect their time and attention.
One of my favorite uses of Twitter is search. I’ve been doing this forever, starting with Summize, the old Twitter search engine startup that Twitter acquired and turned into its own search engine. I love searching to see what people are saying about topics, from their gadget purchases to new restaurants. A long time ago, maybe in 2008, I mocked up a sort-of “real-time Yelp” website that pulled in tweets about each place.
Over the years, have there been any product changes that you disliked? What’s one feature you still wish Twitter would add?
Dan Frommer: This isn’t a new idea, but it’s time Twitter added an Edit Tweet function. Tweets can spread so quickly and it’s ridiculous that you can’t fix a typo or correct an error.
I initially hated the “native retweet” function because I liked adding commentary when I retweeted. I’m fine with it now, but I almost never use it.
Through a combination of minimalism and ineptitude, Twitter has actually been pretty good about not stuffing too many features into the product. I appreciate that. My favorite Twitter client is still Twitter for Mac, which is just a fast, real-time stream of what’s going on. It took me a long time to get a feed I was happy with, and one of Twitter’s problems is that most people aren’t doing that. But I really hope they don’t ruin that view of Twitter.
Jeff Jarvis: I wish Twitter would bring back its more open API and its more open attitude toward the developers who made it what it is today.
Dennis Crowley: Building products is really hard and I think they’ve done a great job at it. Some of Twitter is powered by Foursquare data. I’d love to see more Twitter geo features. The archive of everything that’s happened on Twitter over the last five or six years is fascinating. I’m really curious as to what they do with the archive. What they do with location services.
I like the stuff they build. I have a bunch of friends that work there. I have a great deal of respect for anyone that can take the craziest idea you’ve ever heard and turn it into the scale that Twitter has. We’re doing that on a smaller scale here at Foursquare and I know how hard it is.
Nick Bilton: There’s always been this debate over the 140 character limit. I don’t think that they should extend the character limit. But the technologies surrounding the premise of this product have changed. There are no longer limitations on text messages. What I do think Twitter should do is stop taxing people for the additional things that you put in your tweets. If I add a link, that should not deduct from my character limit. If I add a photo, it should not deduct from it. Or a link and a photo. It’s silly that you’re silly that you’re still charged against your character limit for the things that you put in your tweets. They should completely do away with that.
I remember the first day that Twitter launched. Jack had tweeted “Just setting up my Twitter,” the famous tweet. That day, they got everyone in the office on Twitter. There’s like 12 people there. Just like the first time that I used Twitter, where I was talking to Mike Young, it was the same thing for the first 12 people on the service. They went home that night and they were like “Goodnight” to each other. It was like a bunch of kids at a sleep-away camp that were saying good night to each other. That was the magic of the service in the beginning, that you were able to have a manageable and meaningful conversation with other people. That is no longer the case. I don’t know how they get back to that or if the service has moved beyond that as a product. But I wish that that still existed. I wish I could have a conversation with people I care about, not just get into an argument with people I don’t know.
Today, if you said “goodnight” on Twitter, people would say “Your Twitter must have gotten hacked” or “You’re an asshole.”
Danah Boyd: The hardest part about Twitter is being everything for everyone. I miss the intimacy of my friends, but that’s just not what Twitter is these days. It’s useless to fantasize about features or lament earlier decisions because evolving a product along an explosive adoption curve is just downright hard. And so I’m just thankful that Twitter hasn’t evolved into a big ball of advertisements and is still publicly accessible.