Life in 140 characters or less: My first eight years on Twitter

Nicole Lee
N. Lee|03.12.14

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Life in 140 characters or less: My first eight years on Twitter

"I am sick of cell phones."

I posted that on Twitter on November 16th, 2006, during a time in my life when I made a living writing phone reviews. It was a one-off rant during a particularly busy week, and I didn't expect anyone to read it. Little did I know that Twitter would grow into the social media titan that it is today, and that particular missive would live on as my first-ever "tweet." I confess, I didn't particularly like the term "tweet," even if it was unofficially adopted by the community early on. Even Twitter itself didn't acknowledge the word until the company trademarked it in 2009.

Twitter officially debuted on March 21, 2006, when Jack Dorsey published the first-ever tweet. It simply stated: "just setting up my twttr." When it first came about, nobody really knew what it was. Even Ev Williams, one of Twitter's co-founders, said in an interview with Inc. that few people were clear about Twitter's purpose. "They called it a social network; they called it microblogging, but it was hard to define, because it didn't replace anything." Twitter left it up to its users to decide. And so we did.

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Not now

The early days of Twitter were like blogging in the heyday of Blogger and LiveJournal. When I joined in 2006, the community just enjoyed talking to each other about their lives. Instead of the rather neutral "Compose new tweet" instruction in the empty update field, Twitter prompted users with a question to help get them started: "What are you doing?" And so we would answer that question. "Eating a grilled cheese sandwich," we would say. Or, "Going to the park." Or maybe, "Heading into the office." It seems horribly boring now, but we were mostly talking amongst friends. We could be as rude or as obscene or as bland as we wanted because it was just us chatting.

Part of Twitter's charm is its constraint. It sounds quaint now, but the 140-character limit comes from the character limit of SMS -- the SMS limit is really 160, but 20 characters were reserved for usernames. Before iPhone and Android apps, people would text updates to 40404 (which, incidentally, is still in use today). I remember using a T-Mobile Sidekick II to send and receive those tweets, and feeling like I could type them up faster than anybody because of that roomy QWERTY keyboard. A few of my friends used Palm Treos and BlackBerrys, but the majority managed to whip up tweets with just a regular number keypad, a feat I thought was rather impressive. And because those tweets counted against our monthly text-message limits, we were careful not to send too many. While this might sound like a limitation, I thought of it as a challenge: How do I convey my thoughts in a short enough missive without resorting to shorthand like using "2" instead of "to," or "4" instead of "for"?

We could be as rude or as obscene or as bland as we wanted, because it was just us chatting.

In March 2007, Twitter exploded at SXSW Interactive. Not only did it spread by word of mouth, but the company was also smart enough to set up television screens in the convention center to display the latest tweets. Many SXSW attendees were early adopters of the web, and found immediate benefit to Twitter's short-form public messaging. It was the perfect venue to find information about panels, meetings, dinners and, of course, parties. Its popularity soon spread to the web at large; there were around 400,000 tweets per quarter in 2007. In 2008, that number grew to nearly 27 million.

There were complaints, even then, about the influx of new people ruining the experience. But the great thing about Twitter is that you curate your own timeline -- you only see tweets from people you follow. So you could live in your own little Twitter universe, and it would be fine. Indeed, the beauty of a small social network like that is that you can create a community of like-minded people. As Twitter grew, I soon found myself forging new friendships based on a similar sense of humor and set of interests. It was like belonging to a special club where people actively tried to out-funny one another. There was even a site called Favrd that actively sought to aggregate the most popular starred tweets on any given day. It encouraged me to be funnier and wittier in my public updates, even if I failed more often than I succeeded.

But somewhere along the way, Twitter became a media darling. Companies used Twitter to market their products. Media outlets used Twitter to post links to articles. Even Twitter itself evolved from a social network to an information network. News broke on Twitter faster than anywhere else; people learned about earthquakes and natural disasters before they showed up on television. In November 2009, Twitter changed the "What are you doing?" question to "What's happening?" -- a clear indication a shift was taking place.

My small, little, insulated Twitterverse was no longer so small and insulated. It began to feel a tiny bit crowded.

It became a powerful tool in social movements such as the 2009 Iranian election protests and the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Twitter adopted tools like hashtags, Trending Topics and retweets to help spread information and in turn gain more followers. Celebrities and politicians started to sign up, which in turn resulted in several thousands of fans getting on board. My small, little, insulated Twitterverse was no longer so small and insulated. It began to feel a tiny bit crowded.

Twitter as a company changed a lot, too. From a small startup in San Francisco's South Park neighborhood, the company moved ever upward to larger and larger offices, eventually landing at its current location in Mid-Market, where it rents out four of the building's 10 floors. From just a handful of employees in 2006, the company now employs nearly 2,000 people. At the end of 2013, seven years after its inception, Twitter filed for an IPO, and ended up with a valuation of $31 billion after its first day of trading.

Such astounding success and publicity made me all too aware that the things I said on Twitter were no longer just for my friends and me. For a period of time, I resented this immensely. I didn't want Twitter to be used for marketing and advertising. I wanted it to remain the way it was, as a place for us to hang out. Eventually, however, I grew to accept the change. I kept my small, curated list of friends, but slowly began following news outlets and information sources as they became increasingly valuable to my line of work. Soon, I began to see Twitter as both a useful tool for news and a place for me to tell horribly unfunny jokes. I could have the best of both worlds.

Still, even if the rest of the world can't see Twitter's value, I absolutely do -- at least as an open mic night that never closes.

For Twitter, however, the story is far from over. As wonderfully successful as Twitter has been, it still faces a number of hurdles. Even with around 240 million users sending nearly 500 million tweets daily, the company has yet to turn a profit after all these years. In fact, its first earnings report after its IPO showed that user growth is actually slowing. Some say that unlike Facebook, Twitter doesn't have the same reach or name recognition. There's also speculation that Twitter's quick rise to prominence is a warning sign of the next dot-com bubble, and is just as overvalued as other newly public companies, like Facebook and LinkedIn. Still, even if the rest of the world can't see Twitter's value, I absolutely do -- at least as an open mic night that never closes.

To celebrate our 10th anniversary, we'll bring you a new story every week in March that explores how the social media landscape has changed. Check out our hub every Wednesday for more from of our 10 Years in Social Media series, and keep your eyes out for more '10 Years In' content in the months to come.
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