One day, a user of Twitter decided to do something no else had tried before. It was November 2006, eight months after Twitter’s launch. At the time, almost all people on the minimalist “micro-blogging” website were broadcasting their tweets to anybody and everybody. Instead, Robert S Anderson directed his tweet at one person, by using his keyboard’s “at” symbol. He typed: “@buzz you broke your thumb and youre still twittering?”
Hardly profound, but it was a moment of clarity. While Twitter’s founders had created a service that allowed people to type, search and follow other users, it was unclear how it would actually be used. Anderson’s tweet provided the first of several answers. Among other things, Twitter was a messaging service, within which replying to and addressing others was a key feature. It was a vehicle for conversation.
By July 2007, the @ convention had become an official feature. But the pattern of adopting user innovations was just beginning. As Zachary M Seward set out in a recent analysis for Quartz magazine, two further enhancements would soon emerge: hashtags allowing users to focus on a particular #topic (first deployed in August 2007, made official July 2009) and retweets, allowing the easy sharing of others’ links and insights (first seen in April 2007, acknowledged with an official button in November 2009). Piece by piece, an infrastructure catering to rumour, breaking news, celebrity, fandom and instant self-expression had evolved.
Today, seven years on from its launch, Twitter is poised to debut on the stock market. With shares likely to begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange in November, current talk is all about valuations, revenues and losses. More intriguing, though, is a larger question: what does the future hold for a medium that has helped define the digital etiquettes of the last half-decade, and whose evolution has been so driven by user innovations? Assuming it endures, what might Twitter look like a decade from now?
Answering this depends on defining what exactly Twitter is. Is it a social network? Not in the Facebook sense of inciting users to arrange and record every aspect of their lives. Yet it is entirely reliant on user loyalty and content for survival. Is it a kind of blogging? Yes, sometimes — but this hardly captures its novelty, or the ways in which medium and message are entwined within the 140 characters of a tweet.
Twitter’s owners describe it in its IPO filing as “a global platform for public self-expression and conversation in real time”. This statement ticks an impressive number of boxes in the space of a dozen words, and gets us closer to describing the network as we know it — yet it doesn’t quite capture its heady mix of micro- and mass- communications.
For, beyond self-expression and conversation, Twitter has become a new paradigm for watching the ebb and flow of human reactions: a way of listening in to the world think. At any given moment, you can tune into humanity’s thoughts, be it on Middle Eastern revolutions or US celebrity scandals. You can watch the echoes of an event resound and rebound in real time, leaping meme-like from mind to mind.
The story of the next decade will be, in part, the playing out of this logic: the aggregation of public sentiments and rolling reactions on a massive scale. The “Twitterification” of everything from news reporting to sociological research is already well under way, with a perpetual present of rolling updates becoming the default of more and more screens.
Indeed, the pressure of all these thoughts, opinions and experiences — a shifting sea of words — is becoming inescapable. We may seek ways to avoid the babble, but its influence remains, moulding all that is reported and debated. From attending conferences to watching live television, accessing the full story of more and more events means keeping one eye on an audience’s hashtagged updates.
Another area that Twitter will continue to transform in the coming years is language. Historically, writing has trailed behind speech: codifying and recording those evolutionary processes that take place first of all face-to-face. Today, though, we’re awash with coinages and conventions that can’t really be spoken. How else other than onscreen to convey the subtle endorsement of marking someone else’s words a “favourite”, or the layered irony of #WhatImThinkingRightNow hashtags?
We won’t stop introducing such practices to Twitter. Etiquettes will rise and fall, along with subcultures of jargon, reference and interaction. Surprises are guaranteed. Who could have predicted the hashtag would become so embedded in contemporary culture, a taxonomic fragment around which we share and show off our fascinations? Perhaps the only certainty is a tribal impatience with latecomers — and bewilderment among those lagging behind.
Come 2023, after nearly two decades of exposure, our thinking is itself likely to have registered these influences. Have you ever found yourself thinking in tweets? For many frequent users, the answer is already an occasional “yes”, as the moment presents itself in a potted phrase ripe for broadcast. It used to be the case that only politicians and orators communicated using the soundbite. Now we’re all following suit, seduced by the buzz of a dozen retweets — and the prospect of sharing the same grand stage with our leaders, idols, friends and foes.
If Twitter is going to steer not only gossip but some of the most important conversations about how to organise and govern our societies, we need to be prepared. In the words of literary critic Dwight Garner, Tweet wars are like “battling by throwing one frozen pea at a time”, a combat uniquely appropriate to attention-poor times. The downside is that tweeted debates must be conducted only in brief — and the winner is often the pithiest, not the one who is right. At its best, though, what’s on offer is not so much an end in itself as a vast extension of the range of voices we’re able to hear.
Whatever Twitter looks like in ten years, then, the most pertinent question is not about the company at all — but about us. When I plug myself into the effortless, instant realm of tweets, retweets and unfolding trends, I bring my life to meet technology on its terms. I am the algorithm: an endlessly iterated generator of content and connections. I am part of the medium through which the world’s words flow. Which, now that I think about it, is a line that sounds ripe for tweeting…
A version of this piece was first published as one of my fortnightly Life:Connected columns for BBC Future.