“just setting up my twttr”.
With that simple message sent at 9:50pm PST on the 21st of March, 2006, Jack Dorsey launched Twitter.
Dorsey was one member of a group of directors of podcasting company Odeo, with the idea for Twitter being a result of a day long brainstorming session. The group made plans to create an online communication tool that replicated the SMS texting experience. Shortened and abbreviated messages with a maximum of 140 characters; communication between two members who both ‘follow’ each other. A soft launch of Twitter was made available for employees of Odeo before it was publicly launched in July, 2006.
Finding it’s Tweet
Although it was replicating the SMS experience, there was no intention for Twitter to be a competitor to texting. And even with direct competition from other social media mediums, at the time Twitter was considered incomparable.
Twitter’s watershed moment came during the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive conference (SXSWi). In the lead up to the event the site was averaging 20,000 ‘tweets’ per day, but this figure tripled to 60,000 after the event due to word of mouth and the clever placement of dual big screen TVs that broadcasted tweets live.
Between 2008 and 2012 Twitter grew at an astounding rate. The advent of the smartphone in 2007 meant that users could access Twitter away from their desktop and notebook computers using applications or the mobile site. In Australia in 2015 there were 12.9 million active mobile phone internet users, with 54% of those users spending an average of 1 hour 9 minutes on social media sites.
Twitter has brought some unique innovations to the social media sphere. The most popular and well known is the ‘hashtag’, a metadata tag. By placing a hashtag message in your tweet (eg. #twitterparty), your tweet can be found easily by searching that hashtag. This tool is used by people having a shared experience such as watching a new episode of a TV show or attending a sports match.
Loosening the boundaries
The 140 character limit for a tweet has always been a terrific selling point for marketing via Twitter. The restrictions have led to creative teams producing content that is sharp, short and direct. But over time tweets have evolved. Now messages can contain images, GIFs, hyperlinks, videos, to name a few. These multimedia options are vital to increase and maintain client interaction with a message and brand. Unfortunately the adding of multimedia takes up valuable character space, with hyperlinks requiring in some cases dozens of characters to be used. Wisely, Twitter identified this issue and decided to loosen these restrictions. From late May, 2016 any multimedia or link contained in a tweet will not count towards the 140 character limit. This opens up the opportunity to add layered content to a tweet, e.g. a series of links to recipes. In a time when the public is demanding more content than ever this is a very important change for Twitter.
Past, present, future?
Founder Jack Dorsey returned to Twitter as CEO in 2015, tasked with providing a fresh vision of innovation for the company. In March, 2016 he reinforced the core values of Twitter, all of which came about as the medium evolved.
First is the power to connect people during a live event, which has never been more obvious than during US presidential election years. Twitter had a huge increase in membership and activity during the 2008 election, and activity spiked in 2012 and again this year. “The election year has always been good to us: 2008 was a massive, massive year for us, and this is a massive year for us,” Dorsey said.
Secondly is the role of Twitter as an accompaniment to the live event. This interaction with others viewers, journalists and vested interests, as well with the resources they provide, creates a form of augmented reality. The Twitter member is no longer a passive observer but an engaged user.
Lastly Dorsey speaks about the importance of speed. That Twitter can provide information at almost real time – a non-negotiable in today’s day and age – is key to its popularity now and in the future.
Bird’s-eye view of Twitter plans
So what next for the text-based social media giant? In January, 2015 Twitter acquired the live video streaming application Periscope. Periscope enables Twitter accounts to broadcast live video to their followers. Dorsey believes the purchase of this application is aligned with Twitter’s value of event based communication.
“[W]hen there’s a lull, the internet creates something,” said Dorsey. “So what colour is this dress? And then that becomes a live event. Even when there’s nothing happening of note, something is created.”
For example, instead of waiting for a sporting event or election to take place, users can create their own live events using the video streaming function.
An example of this was the #DrummondPuddleWatch in January, 2016. A Twitter user in Newcastle, UK, live video-streamed a puddle that had formed on a walkway below their window. This innocuous video of Newcastle residents navigating around the bothersome puddle on a dreary day would eventually gather over 650,00 live viewers.
Twitter’s next challenge is to debunk the theory that the medium is a battleground of constant debates and interactions. Being a passive observer means you can get all your news, facts, jokes, offers by following the accounts you want without the aspects of Twitter that do not appeal. Jack Dorsey believes the ‘Moments’ tool, which sorts through the torrent of information coming from your followed accounts and selects the content best suited to the user, is the right direction and strategy to engage fully with passive new users.