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. 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.
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 – and this is only the beginning.