For many people, Twitter was the first place they heard about Tuesday’s triple bomb attacks in Brussels. Just like November’s massacre in Paris and the attacks against Charlie Hebdo journalists in the French capital in January last year, the site was on hand to alert its millions of users to unfolding events.
This social-media sensation, which celebrated its 10th birthday earlier this week, may not have been originally designed for breaking news – but after its tentative beginnings in March 2006, it soon became the first port of call for journalists and news-junkies hungry for the world’s latest developments and trends.
Yet during its decade-long existence, Twitter has evolved into something of a Jekyll and Hyde. With 300-plus million users, the social-media platform is, say observers, at its best the moment a global event has just occurred – but at its worst thereafter.
Take Brussels. As news of the bombings circulated on Twitter, The Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, in an attempt to make a political point about Britain's forthcoming in/out EU referendum, took to her account to message the words: "Brussels, de facto capital of the EU, is also the jihadist capital of Europe. And the Remainers dare to say we're safer in the EU! #Brexit". Responses – ranging from "Shame on you" to "you are utterly sick" and worse – were typical of the tit-for-tat that has come to define a part of Twitter that many have come to lament over its short lifetime. Indeed, even the veteran BBC broadcaster Andrew Neil felt moved to publicly respond to a misguided tweet on the Brussels attacks with the words: "People are dying, others in great pain and you make joke about sprouts?! Blocked. Never darken my Twitter line again."
This week, however, was also a cause for much celebration in social-media circles as the globe reflected on Twitter’s significant contribution to shaping our modern world – from democratising the internet and opening up space for debate and real humour to featuring in the likes of the Arab Spring. For an online messaging tool that restricts users to 140 characters per tweet, the fact that it has managed to become a global phenomenon at all is a testament to a business model that has enabled the corporation to employ 3,900 people worldwide from its head office in San Francisco.
When Twitter’s co-founder Jack Dorsey sent his March 21, 2006 tweet – “just setting up my twttr” – little could he predict the social-media revolution that his missive would soon spark. Before Twitter was hatched, Dorsey’s early vision had been centred on a site that people could use to share their current status – everyday things such as where they were and where they were going. This notion quickly took on a more nuanced edge when the idea evolved into a medium for connecting people. Dorsey got together with his fellow technophiles, and thrashed out a plan for how the project might be realised. The site’s name – which was soon vowelled-up to become Twitter, and rolled out to the public four months after its March appearance – wasn’t arrived at immediately, but was agreed upon as a name befitting the expected chatter of a microblogging site.
An apparent power struggle at the heart of Twitter soon saw one of the site's other co-founders, Noah Glass, depart the scene, and Dorsey assume the role of chief executive in 2006. According to a 2013 book by Nick Bilton – Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal – Glass was forced out by Dorsey, who had threatened to quit Twitter if his colleague, seemingly in the midst of a personal crisis because of a failing marriage, wasn't let go. Yet in 2008, Dorsey, who has denied being the catalyst for Glass's departure, lost his position as Twitter's chief executive when a managerial crisis – involving his business decisions – engulfed his leadership. In 2015, however, the self-taught computer coder and university dropout took back the reins of the company, which two years previously had been valued at US$18 billion.
But, what of Twitter itself? During its early years, it flirted with celebrity users, but it wasn’t until the Hollywood A-lister Ashton Kutcher signed up in 2009 that the site’s potential for reaching out to the great and the good really took off.
Today, Twitter has become something of a status symbol for users around the world, not least actors, singers and sports people, many of whose active followers number into the hundreds of thousands, and even the millions. The American pop princess Katy Perry (@katyperry) is currently the most followed individual on Twitter with more than 84 million followers. The American reality TV star Kim Kardashian (@KimKardashian) is no slouch either, with more than 40 million followers. Politicians, while not everybody’s idea of a good time, are also healthily represented on Twitter. Just ask the US president, Barack Obama (@BarackObama), whose account is followed by more than 70 million people. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid (@HHShkMohd), Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has nearly 6 million followers. Even the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis (@Pontifex), has the equivalent of a small country following him, with nearly nine million Twitter devotees. Tweets from these individuals – and others like them – have the ability to be retweeted thousands of times, grab world headlines, and even break Twitter itself. And we can’t forget that Oscars selfie tweet in 2014, from Ellen Degeneres (@TheEllenShow), which featured a slew of A-list celebrities (including Bradley Cooper, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie and Kevin Spacey). At 3.3 million, it became the most retweeted tweet of that year.
Twitter has also evolved to become a serious player in the humour stakes. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the one-time shadow chancellor of the exchequer Ed Balls is now celebrated over the microblogging site on April 28 – also known as Ed Balls Day. It all began on April 28, 2011, when he searched for his own name on Twitter, and accidentally tweeted “Ed Balls”. Next month will mark the fifth anniversary of this quintessentially Twitter-esque (and globally remarked) event – with “Ed Balls” currently nearing an impressive 61,000 retweets.
It has also made cyber waves in other ways. The American Greg Rewis made Twitter history when he became the first individual to propose marriage, to his girlfriend Stephanie in 2008, via the social-media platform. Thankfully for him, she said yes.
Social campaigns have also found wings on Twitter. #BringBackOurGirls – featuring the hashtag sign that has become synonymous with promoting topics on Twitter – was effective in galvanising support for the girls kidnapped by the militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. Twitter even found itself at the centre of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, when an IT consultant living in Abbottabad inadvertently live-tweeted details of the US-led operation. And it has infiltrated outer space, too, when the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield caused a Twitter meltdown after snapping astonishing images of Earth from the International Space Station in 2013.
Yet as the recent events in Brussels have shown, Twitter has also developed a less than salubrious reputation that has often strayed into the outright damaging. Take the fortunes of Justine Sacco who, in 2013, was tweeting small missives about her travels from New York to South Africa. Before the final leg of her journey to Cape Town, the corporate communications director tweeted the fateful lines: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get Aids. Just kidding. I'm white!" Sacco only had 170 Twitter followers – but by the time she touched down in South Africa, she had assumed the role of internet pariah. It didn't matter that her message, however inappropriate, was an attempt to make fun of her own privilege – many Twitter users rounded on Sacco with self-crusading venom. She consequently lost her job – and became the subject of an internet hate-campaign that had a profound effect on her life. Her story was included in a book on the subject by the Welsh author Jon Ronson, entitled So You've Been Publicly Shamed.
So what of Twitter’s future? As it plots its next 10 years, the site will no doubt look to adapt to the ever-changing needs of its millions of users. For many observers of the site, which has yet to reach the popularity of Facebook, Twitter’s future lies as a platform for providing breaking news – a use that, seized upon by the world’s broadcasters, has proven to be an instantly effective method for media engagement. For others, there are doubts about whether the site – which, it appears, is planning to increase its traditional 140-character limit – will still be used (or used with the same gusto) at all in a decade’s time. But while any rumours of its impending demise remain greatly exaggerated, the rise of Twitter has not only laid bare the ups and downs of technological advancement, but the good and bad of humankind itself. #justsaying
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