A decade on Twitter

I wrote my first tweet ten years ago.

That’s the tweetiest of tweets, isn’t it? (and just look at the status ID — only five digits!)

Of course, back then we didn’t call them tweets. We didn’t know what to call them. We didn’t know what to make of this thing at all.

I say “we”, but when I signed up, there weren’t that many people on Twitter that I knew. Because of that, I didn’t treat it as a chat or communication tool. It was more like speaking into the void, like blogging is now. The word “microblogging” was one of the terms floating around, grasped by those of trying to get to grips with what this odd little service was all about.

Twenty days after I started posting to Twitter, I wrote about how more and more people that I knew were joining :

The usage of Twitter is, um, let’s call it… emergent. Whenever I tell anyone about it, their first question is “what’s it for?”
Fair question. But their isn’t really an answer. You send messages either from the website, your mobile phone, or chat. What you post and why you’d want to do it is entirely up to you.

I was quite the cheerleader for Twitter:

Overall, Twitter is full of trivial little messages that sometimes merge into a coherent conversation before disintegrating again. I like it. Instant messaging is too intrusive. Email takes too much effort. Twittering feels just right for the little things: where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m thinking.

“Twittering.” Don’t laugh. “Tweeting” sounded really silly at first too.

Now at this point, I could start reminiscing about how much better things were back then. I won’t, but it’s interesting to note just how different it was.

  • The user base was small enough that there was a public timeline of all activity.
  • The characters in your username counted towards your 140 characters. That’s why Tantek changed his handle to be simply “t”. I tried it for a day. I think I changed my handle to “jk”. But it was too confusing so I changed it back.
  • We weren’t always sure how to write our updates either — your username would appear at the start of the message, so lots of us wrote our updates in the third person present (Brian still does). I’m partial to using the present continuous. That was how I wrote my reaction to Chris’s weird idea for tagging updates.

I think about that whenever I see a hashtag on a billboard or a poster or a TV screen …which is pretty much every day.

At some point, Twitter updated their onboarding process to include suggestions of people to follow, subdivided into different categories. I ended up in the list of designers to follow. Anil Dash wrote about the results of being listed and it reflects my experience too. I got a lot of followers — it’s up to around 160,000 now — but I’m pretty sure most of them are bots.

There have been a lot of changes to Twitter over the years. In the early days, those changes were driven by how people used the service. That’s where the @-reply convention (and hashtags) came from.

Then something changed. The most obvious sign of change was the way that Twitter started treating third-party developers. Where they previously used to encourage and even promote third-party apps, the company began to crack down on anything that didn’t originate from Twitter itself. That change reflected the results of an internal struggle between the people at Twitter who wanted it to become an open protocol (like email), and those who wanted it to become a media company (like Yahoo). The media camp won.

Of course Twitter couldn’t possibly stay the same given its incredible growth (and I really mean incredible — when it started to appear in the mainstream, in films and on TV, it felt so weird: this funny little service that nerds were using was getting popular with everyone). Change isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different. Your favourite band changed when they got bigger. South by Southwest changed when it got bigger — it’s not worse now, it’s just very different.

Frank described the changing the nature of Twitter perfectly in his post From the Porch to the Street:

Christopher Alexander made a great diagram, a spectrum of privacy: street to sidewalk to porch to living room to bedroom. I think for many of us Twitter started as the porch — our space, our friends, with the occasional neighborhood passer-by. As the service grew and we gained followers, we slid across the spectrum of privacy into the street.

I stopped posting directly to Twitter in May, 2014. Instead I now write posts on my site and then send a copy to Twitter. And thanks to the brilliant Brid.gy, I get replies, favourites and retweets sent back to my own site — all thanks to Webmention, which just become a W3C proposed recommendation.

It’s hard to put into words how good this feels. There’s a psychological comfort blanket that comes with owning your own data. I see my friends getting frustrated and angry as they put up with an increasingly alienating experience on Twitter, and I wish I could explain how much better it feels to treat Twitter as nothing more than a syndication service.

When Twitter rolls out changes these days, they certainly don’t feel like they’re driven by user behaviour. Quite the opposite. I’m currently in the bucket of users being treated to new @-reply behaviour. Tressie McMillan Cottom has written about just how terrible the new changes are. You don’t get to see any usernames when you’re writing a reply, so you don’t know exactly how many people are going to be included. And if you mention a URL, the username associated with that website may get added to the tweet. The end result is that you write something, you publish it, and then you think “that’s not what I wrote.” It feels wrong. It robs you of agency. Twitter have made lots of changes over the years, but this feels like the first time that they’re going to actively edit what you write, without your permission.

Maybe this is the final straw. Maybe this is the change that will result in long-time Twitter users abandoning the service. Maybe.

Me? Well, Twitter could disappear tomorrow and I wouldn’t mind that much. I’d miss seeing updates from friends who don’t have their own websites, but I’d carry on posting my short notes here on adactio.com. When I started posting to Twitter ten years ago, I was speaking (or microblogging) into the void. I’m still doing that ten years on, but under my terms. It feels good.

I’m not sure if my Twitter account will still exist ten years from now. But I’m pretty certain that my website will still be around.

And now, if you don’t mind…

I’m off to grab some lunch.

This was originally posted on my own site.