Looking back on 14 years of Twitter

Back in July 2008, I joined a relatively new ‘microblogging’ website and set about finding all of my online friends who I’d met through various hobbies like blogging or Lomography. Having moved to London a couple of years before, I’d pretty much run out of time and ideas for writing full blog posts due to the increased amount of commuting and socialising, and so the idea of writing tiny little 140 character updates was immensely appealing. I’d regularly do this from a desktop computer when I was at home or via a WAP* browser on my tiny-screened mobile phone when the Southeastern train I was on inevitably sat for ages outside London Bridge station waiting for a platform. My friends and I would share links to news articles and chat about random nonsense between ourselves before, gradually, our networks expanded.

Early Twitter was a very different animal; like a tiny little Disney sparrow who chirpily and briefly lands on your windowsill every day and makes you smile, rather than the huge ever-looming vulture of doom it has become in recent years. You couldn’t say much in a tweet back then, but there was enough functionality for us to be able to have fun. Using third party sites like TwitPic made it possible to add dreadful quality cameraphone photos to our tweets, and hashtags helped us find like-minded souls to add to our little groups of pocket friends. I slowly got back into blogging and, in 2009, revamped my site and started afresh with a whole new audience of folks to share my writing with. When I became a regular writer for BitchBuzz, I shared links to my articles on Twitter and my following started to grow more steadily.

I’ve made more friends on Twitter over the years than I could possibly count but, especially since smartphones and wifi became ubiquitous, many people I know also met their life partners via the birdsite. Friendships have been forged there, job opportunities secured, millions raised in crowdfunding, book deals offered, and who knows how many marriages wouldn’t have happened without it. It felt like the perfect blend of ‘social’ and ‘media’; helping minoritised communities to find a voice, journalists to find experts to quote or stories to tell and, once photos could be added directly into tweets, Twitter helped artists to find an audience too. It became the ideal way to discover what was going on in the world that the mainstream media were strangely silent about, and to build a little bubble of like-minded folks to uplift and brighten your day.

But, as Bart discovered in s13 ep18 of The Simpsons, bubbles burst. The vicious hate that’s been spewed on Twitter in the last few years was getting worse even before Phoney Stark bought the company and started yelling even louder about ‘free speech’. With the character limit upped and threads of tweets making it possible to share longer form writing from within the app itself came an increase in “you’re wrong and here’s why…” responses, often from men with no specialist knowledge telling women who are experts in the field that they have no idea what they’re talking about. Sadly that was just the tip of the horrendously bigoted iceberg and so Twitter’s block and report functions soon became an important part of everyday online life for many. Our little chirpy friend has been turning into that vulture for longer than we realised.

As many of us try to find alternatives to the Twitter experience that we loved and lost, some are finding that nothing will be able to replicate it because… times have changed, things have moved on, and we’re not the same people we were back in the site’s heyday. Maybe there won’t now be a quick way to reach a broad audience for those of us who aren’t talented video content creators, but our ways of working and connecting will evolve. Looking at what’s available right now there may be a gap in the market for a Twitter replacement, but the likes of Ello and VERO have tried and failed to ensnare us in the past and so perhaps it was a case of Twitter being in the right place at the right time.

Twitter may have lost its sheen lately and an awful lot of users too, but it’s not dead yet. We haven’t lost those old tweets or those connections to people across the globe, we’re just starting to engage with the platform in a different way. Many of us are stopping doom-scrolling and are choosing to back away from the noise instead. Why be on social media every spare second when it shows you nothing but sadness and advertising? Make sure you keep in touch with those wonderful pocket friends though. Maybe someday soon we’ll end up returning to those strange days when admitting that you met someone on Twitter was considered to be ever so peculiar.

*Get your mind out of the gutter! It stood for Wireless Access Protocol back then.

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