Twitter is officially a teenager now. Are we raising a monster?

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At lunchtime on March 21, 2006, a 29-year-old programmer named Jack Dorsey sent the world’s first tweet. “Just setting up my twttr,” he wrote, using the preliminary name that he and his co-founders were using for the microblogging service. That day, the message was read by only a handful of people. Twitter was still in beta, several months from launching to the public.

Today, that same (still available) message has been liked 90,000 times, retweeted 108,000 times, and replied to on 3,900 occasions. Its responses, sent in the 13 years since it was first tweeted, give some indication of the love, hate and, more often than not, mixture of the two that accompanies our response to the service which introduced us to the beauty and ugliness of microblogging.

“Rethink this,” writes one user. “Honestly, half of the great things that have happened in my career are because of Twitter,” opines another. “You ruined my life in a way that I enjoy,” notes one more.

Like it or loathe it, Twitter has changed the way that we communicate. It has made the word “hashtag” mainstream, altered how we speak with one another and conduct online conversations, and transformed the way that politics, news, business and science are carried out. In its own way, Dorsey’s first tweet was as significant as the first phone call made by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 or the first email sent in 1971.

Has Twitter made things better? Has it made them clearly worse? One thing’s for sure: It has certainly changed things, and there’s no going back.

Conversation without borders

Twitter is the purest interpretation of the techno-utopian vision of the internet as a tool that could spread conversation beyond borders. While this idea dates back to the earliest days of virtual bulletin boards in the 1980s, Twitter has delivered it in its most fully realized manner yet. On Twitter, conversations can be conducted asynchronously and beyond geographic constraints, but also publicly and in something close to real time. A message sent on Twitter can be written in seconds and immediately seen, and responded to, by millions of other users (261 million currently) around the world.

Unlike Facebook, which is already subject to abuse, there is no rule that says Twitter profiles have to be linked to real names.

This ease of access is both a blessing and a curse. It has democratized speech by making all voices public and, in theory, equally valid. It makes companies more answerable to the public, since not only can we contact them, but others can see publicly how they respond. It opens up new possibilities for “citizen journalism” in which events can be live-tweeted by whoever happens to be on the ground at any one moment. It can amplify voices from groups and individuals who might otherwise be marginalized and unheard. It can provide scientists and engineers with a data-rich stream of information to be examined. Want to research local flooding? Ask people to tweet about their surroundings. Want to track the spread of flu? Mine geo-tagged Twitter data to see when people talk about coughs, sneezes, and the like.

But this ease of access can be problematic, too. Unlike Facebook, which is already subject to abuse, there is no rule that says Twitter profiles have to be linked to real names. Anonymity, combined with the ability to reach anyone at any time, has led to harassment being a persistent problem on the platform.

“I was so naive about the rise of hate groups and bullying on Twitter, and it’s been so sad to see it flourish,” Laura Fitton, co-author of 2010’s Twitter for Dummies, told Digital Trends. “I always talked a lot about a person like Oprah better connecting with and serving her community, and ordinary people changing their repressive governments, but I profoundly did not foresee the cruelty, gaslighting, trolling, and cults of personality that have come to pass.”

While trolling has been an unfortunate part of internet life for years, some of the mechanics of Twitter have given this a uniquely nasty edge. Dogpiling, in which thousands of users can target an individual, is a very different proposition from grappling with just one or two trollish users.

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Jon Ronson’s 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, details the effects of public humiliation in the internet age. For example, in late 2013 corporate communications director Justine Sacco tweeted out an offensive joke and then boarded an airplane. By the time she landed, she had become the no. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter and had her life ruined. Sacco was the case which raised awareness of this kind of mass bullying. Unfortunately, it’s also far from an isolated incident.

Amongst friends… and everyone else

On an interface level, Twitter’s look and feel resembles tools like AOL Messenger, which many readers will have grown up with. The fundamental difference is that those tools, while still enabling text-based conversations, did so only in one-on-one settings or among a small group of people. Twitter encourages this same intimacy of communication, a feeling of chatting with friends from the comfort of your own home, but makes the resulting messages available for the world to see.

Tweets are a strange blend of the “here and now” and the “always and forever.”

In working the way it does, Twitter blurs the public and private. It encourages short, quippy messages with little room for nuance (unless you want to be one of those people who launch long Twitter threads). Its very name evokes a kind of gossipy disposability to communication.

As Jack Dorsey explained in a 2009 interview, “[We] came across the word ‘twitter’, and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ … and that’s exactly what the product was.” This seeming inconsequentiality is where much of the problem arises. A tweet, dashed off in seconds, is the digital equivalent of a note jotted down on the back of an envelope or a piece of scrap paper. Unlike a letter — painstakingly handwritten, sealed and dutifully sent at the post box — Twitter, as a medium, encourages a kind of throwaway ease.

And yet, despite their disposability, tweets don’t vanish when they disappear off our home screen as newer tweets knock them down the timeline. Tweets are a strange blend of the “here and now” and the “always and forever.” You can’t edit them once sent and, while you can delete them, anything that warrants deleting may well have been screenshotted by then.

It’s a hard lesson that’s been learned (or at least experienced) by everyone from Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn to Kevin Hart. In the weird flattened time-space of social media, a tweet represents a snapshot of your thoughts at any given moment — but thoughts which could also be taken as your views years from now.

Changing the world

Tweets have brought the world closer (in some ways, at least) and torn down barriers. On Twitter, a politician can make themselves appear earthy and genuine by using a tool of the common people, rather than a one-way communication technology like print, radio or television. It is, in theory, democracy in action: a President’s tweet is worth no more, or less, than anyone else’s. They will only have their message spread if people voluntarily “follow” and “retweet” them. The first tweet sent by a sitting president was published in early 2010. At time of writing, current U.S. President Donald Trump has sent some 41,000 messages from the microblogging service.

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This tearing down of curtains can give you a glimpse into the daily activities of the rich, famous and powerful in a way that hasn’t been afforded before. It can also make us aware that, sometimes, curtains are there to give the illusion that the world is more organized and less chaotic than it really is. Seeing diplomacy conducted via Twitter, complete with name-calling, reminds us that politicians really are just like us. Or much worse.

“Twitter is a force for amplifying humanity, and humanity is all the things great and terrible.”

Thirteen years after the first tweet was sent, there’s no doubt that Twitter has changed communication. But just like smartphones, whose rise over the same period helped cement Twitter’s rise, we’re not yet sure what the long term ramifications of it are going to be. Things may be changing, but we don’t necessarily know where they’re headed.

“Twitter is a force for amplifying humanity, and humanity is all the things great and terrible,” Fitton said. “We are every single one of us dark, we are bright, we are loving, we are terrified, we are flawed AF even as we convince ourselves that we are incredibly well-intentioned at all times. That belief that we are not only right, but that we also mean well is where the worst of the darkness creeps in.”

Twitter is at once a force for good and the opposite. As Fitton notes, in any given second on Twitter there is an overwhelming amount of love, kindness and community sharing that goes on. But there are also some major challenges that humanity is only just starting to wrap its head around.

Will we collectively figure it out before another decade or so passes? Maybe. But by then there will almost certainly be another, equally unknown new communication tool ready to replace it.


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