Twitter was born in California 15 years ago. And in 2007, during the South by Southwest music, film and technology festival in Austin, baby Twitter became known to world for the first time.
The Texas Standard decided to throw Twitter a quinceañera to commemorate the social media platform’s 15-year milestone with a panel of experts who have thought a lot about where Twitter has been, and where it could be going as it reinvents itself in the wake of challenges, from toxic participants to disinformation.
Technology culture reporter Omar Gallaga attended South by Southwest, or SXSW, in 2007, when Twitter was new and exciting.
“I remember the screens – they had screens mounted all over the Austin Convention Center with these things called ‘tweets’ that no one knew what they were yet,” Gallaga said.
Shelly Brisbin is the Standard’s digital editor and a longtime technology journalist. She says Twitter arrived at almost the same moment as the iPhone, a device perfectly suited to the immediacy of the platform.
“People were trying to figure it out, and they were very excited by the live nature of Twitter,” she said. “We’re all so used to social media being so instant now. But in those days, smartphones barely existed.”
Twitter also connected individuals to famous people in a new way, as they used the platform to announce where they were and what they were doing in real time.
As Twitter evolved into a ubiquitous communications medium, especially in the technology and news worlds, Brisbin says she found it essential for meeting people when she began a new phase of her writing career.
“Twitter, for me, evolved from that exciting, who knows what we’re going to do with it thing, to a tool that I used so much in my career when I sort of pivoted to covering technology and accessibility and how they intersected.”
Gallaga says Twitter itself evolved over time, driven by its users who took a very basic tool for delivering status updates and added the features they wanted.
“I think the users sort of took that ball and ran with it, and turned it into more of a communication medium, more of a news medium,” Gallaga said. “Retweeting, as a practice came from users. It wasn’t a feature they introduced.”
Ari Popper, a futurist and the founder and CEO of SciFutures, agrees that the unintended consequences of social networks like Twitter, and how they’re used differently than originally intended, is interesting and worth taking stock of for the future.
“Facebook’s a great example of a company that’s also going into adolescence,” Popper said. “I like to think of it as a company that has a Ferrari, and it’s a 13- or 14-year-old driving a Ferrari. It’s the same thing with Twitter. Who would have thought in 2007 that the president of the United States would be making policy by tweet?”
Popper has been thinking about where Twitter could be in the next 15 years, including anticipating possible unintended consequences of its choices today.
Futurist Lori Schwartz points out that as the social networking landscape has become more crowded, Twitter has gone from following its users’ lead to adopting technologies and ideas other platforms pioneered, and adding them to its offerings. That includes “Twitter Spaces, which is their answer to the audio phenomenon of Clubhouse,” Schwartz said. “We also see Twitter Fleets, which is their answer to Instagram stories.”
Popper says that because of its dominance in the marketplace, Twitter has a responsibility to get beyond some of the toxicity for which it has become known.
“I think what’s important over the next five or 10 years is to figure out how to break down these silos and how to use their technology in a meaningful way that brings us together, doesn’t separate us.”