How Twitter Became Twitter

Jack Dorsey
Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Baratunde Thurston
April 21, 2022

For two weeks, we’ve been paying a lot of attention to Elon Musk’s intentions toward Twitter, including his announcement today that he has the $46.5 billion in financing to take it private. But I’m not here to write about Elon so much as I am to write about Twitter. Why is Twitter, which came to prominence for helping to catalyze the Arab Spring and then largely shirked all responsibility for platforming the uncontained id of Donald Trump, being trolled by a bored mega-billionaire? It didn’t have to go this way. But the story of how Twitter lost its way is as much about changes in our culture as it is about a lack of changes in the business.

First, remember that for the majority of its life, Twitter has been text-only. And for the earliest part of its life, that was a good thing. I first got online around 1993 through dial-up bulletin board systems. Text was exciting. Graphics as they existed back then took minutes to load, and we leaned on text to communicate, and then leaned on our imaginations to fill in the blanks. When Twitter launched, in 2006, it leaned into this reality. It’s one of the reasons I began using the platform soon thereafter. 

But several decades into the 21st century, we’ve got some new tools. Our phones are mobile audio production units, cameras, and graphics-rendering supercomputers. Our tastes have evolved beyond simple text, and so has our desire to experience more rich media in our digital social lives. 

But Twitter has failed to adapt to these evolving desires for rich media and the evolving power of our phones. Instagram and Snap have live video and filters and can turn me into a dog or make my crappy photos less crappy. Games bring me into a nearly literal new world where I can talk with my friends while talking trash to them in competition. Yes, Twitter lets me post or consume video clips and images, and the recent introduction of “Spaces,” a Clubhouse copycat audio feature, is trying to shift things. But for the most part, Twitter still looks like a wire service in an age when our media consumption is much more blended, especially for Gen Z, which seems to have little interest in the platform (just as Millennials seem to have lost interest in Facebook). Culturally, we’re also lurching back toward an era of more contextualized conversation, a format of communication that prizes a bit more nuance than hastily-blurted short format SMS-style texting on an endless scroll. (We may also have Gen Z to thank for this.) Twitter is just not a compelling value proposition for ways to spend our time when we have much more compelling choices. 

Now speaking of text, this one is a big deal: Twitter is a breaker of context. Twitter’s ultimate impact was to deconstruct the essay and in the process, decontextualize and atomize our thoughts. Remember essays? Remember blog posts? Remember coherent thoughts? Twitter came along and smashed that to literal bits then let us piece them back together into “threads”—then introduced “quote tweeting” so that those threads could be ripped from their context all over again. The original 140 character limit initially encouraged pithiness and rewarded one-liners and tight jokes. 

I remember this period fondly. As the person at The Onion in charge of our digital presence from 2007 to 2012, I saw how our headlines thrived in Twitter’s marketplace of wit. But there were other consequences. Twitter not only allowed, but encouraged, us to pull single lines out of complete thoughts. It encourages us to think in that way as well. Why bother completing a thought or adding nuance when we can launch the most provocative snippet into the ether and vie for the fleeting and empty reward of virality? Twitter made it easier to offend and to be offended. It became a go-to source for thing-I-don’t-like on demand, and it was endless. 

Early engineering and design decisions encouraged us to Retweet despite our lack of full understanding or because of it. We might hit the “favorite” button out of a desire to like or dislike, but the algorithm didn’t care. All this created an incentive to incite, luring and rewarding trolls who showed up not to really engage in the marketplace of ideas but instead to attack, undermine, mock, and provoke to garner attention. 


“The Troubles”

Twitter is also bad at business. As my Puck partner Bill Cohan has written, Twitter has mostly lost money in its history, and its real profits are paltry with EBITDA of roughly $1 billion. This compares embarrassingly to its social media peers, from those who came earlier, like Facebook, to those who arrived later like Snap and TikTok. Twitter was once a peer to Facebook; now its market capitalization is 1/15th the size. Snap is 40 percent larger by market cap. Unbelievably, the stock trades just slightly above where it I.P.O.’d nearly a decade ago. 

Generally, online and particularly social platforms have effectively monetized through advertising (Facebook), e-commerce (Etsy, Amazon), subscription (LinkedIn), or by taking a cut of business activity on the platform whether by creators or other merchants (Block, Substack). Twitter has failed at all of these. The company isn’t big enough or data-suctioning enough to attract major brand advertising at a large scale. We don’t go to Twitter to shop the way we do on Instagram or TikTok because it’s not a visually browsable medium the way those platforms are. Very few are building storefronts on Twitter real estate, and the subscription product is weak. If anything, advertising on Twitter is akin to the billboard business.

The advertising product might have been more robust if Twitter hadn’t been so slow to reign in abuse. But culture can be hard to change. We see it when two very different companies merge or, more personally, when two different families merge. We know the saying, “It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” and there’s some truth in it. As my friend Nick Bilton noted brilliantly in his classic book Hatching Twitter, the company’s founders were unable to set any particular direction for the culture of the app because of the constant infighting among leadership. In fact, Twitter was created by happy accident while working on what would have otherwise been a very early podcasting operation. Jack Dorsey originally saw it as a status alert system, kind of like a beeper network but for mobile. Ev Williams, who had already achieved significant start-up success, had loftier views. And then there were two other guys, who also had views. Anyway, the emergence of the iPhone changed everything, making its app much more applicable and scalable. And there you had it: born was a company with four disagreeing dads, many self-interested investors, brilliant but rudderless.

Conflicts over vision exist to this day, as evidenced by Dorsey’s recent tweet blaming the Twitter board for the company’s endless headaches. (That’s true, but only part of the story.) Regardless, disagreements about vision-level issues distracted leadership from more pressing problems. For years, I remember friends and colleagues, especially women of color and LGBTQ+ folks, trying to get Twitter to address the vile and violent abuse they faced. But “the free speech wing of the free speech party” was understaffed and under-managed and didn’t prioritize these users’ experience. Indeed, when Disney took a closer look at the company, in 2017, in order to assess the potential for an acquisition, Bob Iger recoiled in disgust. “The troubles were greater than I wanted to take on, greater than I thought it was responsible for us to take on,” he later told the Times. “The nastiness is extraordinary.”

The company has come a long way in making its product safer to use, but this is after years of death threats, targeted harassment, and mob-like pile-ups on a single account—a single person—who probably got the hint the first 10,000 times they were mentioned. If abuse becomes normalized, it’s hard to change that. Now we’ve got folks pining for the days when that abuse and chaos was a given. I asked Nick what he thought about Musk’s play for the company. His response: “Musk is drawn to Twitter because he likes the chaos.” In that regard, the two deserve each other.


Twitter Will Always Be Twitter

There is also a larger irony at work. Yes, Twitter may suffer from all the obvious things that plague a company—slow product evolution, an unevolved business model, management backstabbing. The real tragedy, however, is that Twitter is no longer even decent at the one thing that its founders strove for, and that did make it special in those early days—a concept so primal and rich that it has succumbed to being one of the more hollow buzzwords of our age: community.

Twitter is an unreliable home for real communities. When I think about an online place that I want to spend time in, with people I want to spend time with, Twitter is low on the list. The same lack of context that Twitter brought to the essay by whittling it down to its most provocative passages has impacted the idea of community on the platform, too. I could log into Twitter to talk about my favorite TV show and end up roped into a debate over immigration. I could post a thought intended to address folks interested in a hashtag related to education and find myself the target of a coordinated shaming effort. Or, more simply, I could just wander the chaotic halls of the service never finding anything of sufficient interest to make me want to come back. I’m old enough to remember AOL chat rooms. Today, I hang out in subreddits because I know what I’m gonna get. There are boundaries, literally, to the conversation. There are moderators and administrators. Twitter, however, is just one giant chatroom with everyone talking about everything all the time, and it’s overwhelming, confusing, and frustrating. As our digital lives merge into our own realverses, this dissonance is more jarring than ever. I can’t address or listen to a single conversation because of the cacophony that abounds.

The good news—and we desperately need some good news when it comes to Twitter—is that Twitter has been working on this latter problem. I recently started playing with the new Twitter Communities feature, and it’s a calming contrast to the general chaos of everyday Twitter. I can invite people into a topic and share tweets with them. The general public can observe, from the outside, but only members of the community can engage. It’s like a hashtag with real borders. It’s like… a chatroom. As the line goes in Battlestar Galactica, “all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” 

During the most recent season of my podcast, How To Citizen, I had a conversation with someone who reminded me that we can build online communities better than what many of us have come to expect. Esra’a Al Shafei is a Bahraini human rights activist and founder of Majal.org, a multiplatform organization that amplifies underrepresented voices in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community. Esra’a described the process of joining the platform, and it reminded me a lot of the best I.R.L. communities. To simplify and get to the point, new users have to earn and unlock the ability to fully leverage the platform. You don’t get to address the general public or send direct messages or flood someone’s mentions on day one. You have to observe and learn the norms of the place before trying to dominate it. After months of being more slowly welcomed into the community, you feel a sense of ownership and belonging once you’re a full member. It raises the cost of trolling to months of undercover work as a decent human being. 

So much of social media born in the United States had the opposite premise: give people as much communications power as possible as soon as possible, consequences be damned. We justified this because the venture capitalists who funded our platforms demanded it. They wanted hypergrowth. They wanted engagement. But Twitter is an example of the failure of that mentality. Its growth has stalled, as has its engagement, even though it played everything by the V.C. book. It prioritized wildly free speech and destroyed context, obliterated community and a coherent business model in the process. 

Now Uncle Elon wants to take it back to those bad old days to try again what has already failed. I’m reminded of something that Nick also says whenever things go wrong at the company: Alas, Twitter will always be Twitter.

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