As the social media site celebrates its first decade, here’s how it revolutionized newsgathering and reporting, 140 characters at a time.
On March 21, 2006, one simply five-word phrase started a revolution: “Just setting up my twttr.” This first-ever tweet, written by Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey, was the beginning of a social media shift that completely changed the way people communicate online.
Today, Twitter is used by more than 305 million monthly active users, from brands and celebrities, to news organizations and everyday individuals who want to chirp into the conversation.
Over the last decade, Twitter added new features that improve functionality and help users communicate in new ways, including the ability to post GIFs and create videos with the spin-off app Vine. Despite Twitter’s business drama and difficulty enticing new users, the social media platform is relatively unchanged from when it first launched.
With the ability to gain insight using big data analytics, however, Twitter social media strategies have become so important they’re now part of business DNA in 2016. The platform has also become one of the top sources for minute-to-minute updates on breaking news.
“It’s time to stop thinking of Twitter as a social network,” wrote Joanna Stern in a recent Wall Street Journal article. “It’s more of a news network. I spend 75 percent of my time in the app getting news on everything from politics to technology to, yes, the Kardashians.”
By using hashtags, Twitter made staying up-to-date on relevant stories easy. Hashtags became the calling card of everything from technology conferences such as South by Southwest (#SXSW) to global sporting competitions like the Super Bowl (#SB50), encouraging conversations and driving awareness.
Great Power, Great Responsibility
Like the majority of digital disruptors emerging over the last decade, Twitter was a simple idea brought to life thanks to advances in cloud and mobile technology. The site allows users to post bite-sized 140-character updates, follow people and companies (even ones the user may never interact with in the real world) and exchange public messages without requiring an accepted friend request.
By becoming a go-to source for news and information, Twitter became a promotional tool — for everything from Fortune 500 companies to Kanye West — for tweeting everything from timely product launches and album releases to relevant, snarky memes.
A historic early example of Twitter’s growing influence occurred in January 2009, when a US Airways plane crash landed into the Hudson River. Twitter user @jkrums posted a photo of passengers evacuating the plane. This alerted the world to the incident before traditional media arrived at the scene.
In 2011, the Arab Spring unfolded over Twitter. Social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the region, spreading awareness about ongoing events all over the world and driving online conversations that led to mass protests and ultimately the overthrow of dictatorships.
According to Hussein Amin, Professor of Mass Communications at the American University in Cairo, this was the first time Twitter and other social networks “provided activists with an opportunity to quickly disseminate information while bypassing government restrictions.” It was history made in 140 characters.
Starting in 🇦🇺 on 3/21 and moving across the 🌍, we thank you for 10 incredible years.
— Twitter (@twitter) March 20, 2016
Years later, this kind of citizen journalism remains incredibly common. Twitter is the place to learn about the death of a revered cultural icon (#DavidBowie), react to the Oscar nominees’ lack of diversity (#OscarsSoWhite) and gather to mourn tragic terror attacks (#PrayForParis).
Of course, not all tweets carry equal weight. One retweet from a celebrity or public figure can catapult unknown individuals to superstardom. Two high school friends recently became worldwide sensations after their #DamnDaniels video went viral. The #StandwithAhmed hashtag helped a teenager secure an invite to The White House after he was wrongfully arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school.
In honor of Twitter’s 10th anniversary, users can see how influential their first tweet was by going to https://discover.twitter.com/first-tweet.
Original reporting by Ryan Longstaff.