Twitter history

I am watching the realtime destruction of Twitter by Elon Musk with a strange sense of detachment. After all, I knew that one day Twitter would fall, as with any technology company. And I have some thoughts and I’m going to share them…

Because many users of Twitter now have only experienced it as a mature platform, and one in which the banter and collegiality of the early days is largely gone, I thought to jot down some reminiscences of the olden days. Nowadays it is an often combative and toxic environment that is so far away from its origins.

I first came upon Twitter in August 2007, when an acquaintance said “you should really check this out”. I signed up, fooled around a bit and then just left the account there.

The eternal fail whale by Yiying Lu
The eternal fail whale by Yiying Lu

But I kept coming back to Twitter. I don’t know why, because the app was so terribly flaky and we all became familiar with the ‘fail whale’ as its servers groaned under the load of its mere hundreds of users worldwide. In retrospect I think Twitter really appealed to my ADHD brain.

But Twitter was not the only app of its kind back in 2007-2009 – there were others (some technically better) such as Jaiku (later acquired by Google), FriendFeed (later acquired by Facebook), and Plurk (which surprisingly still exists today) – with its quirky horizontal scrolling – but Twitter was not obviously the winner back in those days.

Twitter was a really primitive interface – there was only the web interface. Remember that in the early days of Twitter that iPhones had only just launched and hardly anyone had one, and we were all using feature phones, mostly Nokia or Motorola. There were no hashtags, no retweets, no quote tweets. The system was so flaky that we all used to pile over to FriendFeed whenever Twitter went down.

In those days the community was driving new features on Twitter quite organically. For example, the hashtag was invented by Chris Messina in 2007 as a way to group messages (they were not originally hyperlinked). Until 2009, when Twitter incorporated it as a feature, folks who wanted to retweet something had to manually copy and add “RT”

In those early days there were so few people on the website that, as an Australian, it was obvious when everyone else went to bed. There were a couple of hundred Aussies on the site and we formed a community.

Twitter became a real life social presence here in Australia with real life meetups (aka tweetups) called TUBs – Twitter Underground Brigades – where folks from Twitter met up in real life. I went to many tweetups in Sydney (STUB), Brisbane (BTUB), Melbourne (MTUB), and Perth (PTUB) – we even met up for things like pub trivia or picnics – and many of my IRL friends today date back to those early days of Twitter. The other thing that evolved from the community in Australia in the early days of Twitter were Bar Camps, which were a form of self organising unconference. These were also another way in which the local Twitter community got together and shared knowledge, food and drink.

Update: a friend just reminded me of how we Aussies used to watch TV and live tweet it, before it became commercialised. The ABC’s Q&A and Grand Designs were favourites. Ah those were more innocent days.

I think it is worth understanding how Twitter used to work at a human scale and did not have a lot of the nastiness that it does now. It is sad that we lost that old community zeitgeist there.


Interestingly, I have been on Mastodon for a couple of years but it was never busy enough for my ADHD brain. Things are going off over there and I do commend it to folks. Here are some tips:

  • go easy on the ecosystem the admins probably did not have Musk nuking Twitter on their bingo cards this year
  • think of it as a series of rural hamlets that have been inundated with a huge pile of refugees from a large city
  • if you don’t want to give Musk $8 per month consider supporting your Mastodon server of choice instead