Eight years on Twitter: Becoming the story

Eight years on Twitter: Becoming the story
Twitter marked its eighth birthday with the release of a tool that lets users check their - or anybody's - first tweet. Predictably, much like Facebook's 10-year "Look Back" video, the first tweets are being enthusiastically shared by users, but in these eight years, Twitter has really gone through a lot of change.

Unlike Facebook, whose every change gets endlessly scrutinised because of the huge number of users, Twitter has always felt more like a niche community, and the changes haven't been discussed as much. The big exception would be late last year, when the company changed the Block functionality - vociferous community response got them to backtrack quickly.

Since 2006 though, when Twitter got its start with founder Jack Dorsey first posted "Just setting up my twttr", the company has been adding functionality and making changes, and continues to do so. Late last year, Twitter held its IPO. Community practices like RTs and hashtags have been adopted steadily by the company.

But this also make Twitter more confusing for people joining late - a jumble of terms such as RT, FF and other keywords that popped up at the beginning of tweets was simply confusing. Over time, much of this has already disappeared into the background, though some parts remain.

A BuzzFeed report suggests that Twitter could be doing away with arcane conventions such as the @reply next, and bringing the scaffolding of the company in the background to focus on content.

Along the way, Twitter has also been an invaluable tool for journalists. Twitter, more than any other social network, qualifies as social media. It's been the first point of information for things such a the Osama Bin Laden raid and the Boston Bombings. More recently, Twitter is also where most of us have been following news on the hunt for MH370.

Medium or message
News organisations, brands and individuals are all using Twitter today, often at cross purposes. And in this process, Twitter is both a broadcast platform, and a source of news. When a company head tweets about a product, it's treated as an official confirmation; while a poorly thought out joke by a public figure can turn into a major story.

Yet, while all this is happening, it is also developing as a powerful medium by itself. The Arab Spring supporters used Twitter to organise; here in India, political parties are seeding grassroots influence to build support online.

Thanks to this, Twitter isn't just a source, but also a story in and of itself. When a "selfie" at the Oscars becomes the most re-tweeted tweet, readers want to know about it. When Katy Perry overtook Justin Beiber as the most followed celebrity on Twitter, that was news too.

The question of whether Twitter conversations are fair game for reportage are quite complicated. The stance that most take is that "Twitter is public". But when most people have a following in double digits and their tweets usually stay within a circle of friends, is it correct to assume that the whole community actually sees Twitter in those terms?

That Twitter is an important medium and one that deserves the focus that it is drawing right now is clear from the simple fact that many people in power want to ban it. Most recently, there have been widespread Twitter outages in Turkey after Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told supporters "we will wipe out all of these," while referring to social media.

China blocks Twitter, and Twitter was inaccessible in Egypt in 2011, during the Egyptian protests. In India, many Twitter accounts were blocked after violence in Assam in 2012, while UK Prime Minister David Cameron had threatened to block Twitter during the 2011 England riots.

As Twitter continues to grow and change, its identity will go through more shifts, but for now at least, in its eight years, Twitter has already had a major impact on our lives, in ways both trivial and serious.

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