Ten years ago today, Twitter came into existence. At first, the weird spinoff of a podcast directory called Odeo, Twitter is now the ur-social network, the service responsible for many social-media practices that we use today. Its users created the hashtag and the @-reply. It was the first major service to encourage third-party use of its API and data. And — as any remotely tech-savvy journalist will tell you — it became essential for news-gathering. (I’m not talking about breaking news situations either, though Twitter has proven to be a net positive in those situations as well.)
Still, Twitter’s staying power seems improbable. Almost since its founding, it’s had a reputation of being either inessential or impenetrable to the masses. Why, a prospective user might ask, would I want to sign up for a social network that gives me real-time updates on what my friends had for lunch? Why would I want to use a social network known for the vigor and vulgarity of its trolls? Why would I want to stare at this scrolling record of inanity and misogyny?
This seeming impenetrability has meant that even as Twitter has grown it’s also struggled with its identity, to the point that it’s even waffled on its defining 140-character limit in recent months. Compared to Facebook, which is also publicly traded, Twitter has been slow to acquire both new users and revenue. In addition to feeling simultaneously unusable and useless to the normal person, Twitter has continually struggled to combat harassment on the service. Suffice it to say: Twitter has many, many problems.
And yet: Media organizations are constantly talking about Twitter. An alien unfamiliar in the ways of Earth social media, given only blog posts and television news reports, would come to the conclusion that Twitter is by far the largest and most popular social network. The alien would be wrong — but how would it know?
The obvious reason for Twitter’s omnipresence — oft unspoken because it makes us look lazy — is that Twitter makes reporting easy. The closest old-media equivalent is the local-news, man-on-the-street interview, in which reporters literally just walk up to strangers and ask for a ten-second sound bite. Twitter is pretty much that, amplified by a magnitude of half a billion: an enormous database of average-Joe reactions that don’t even require the legwork of asking a question.
Here, I’ll demonstrate: Why do people love Twitter so much?
There it is, some really solid reporting from me.
Twitter is unflinchingly public in a way that no other social network is. Facebook is a cacophony of granular privacy settings and its search function sucks, making it difficult to gauge the tone of conversation around the topic. Instagram and Tumblr, by focusing more heavily on multimedia, are cumbersome to sift through, unless you know what you’re looking for. Twitter, partly because of its reliance on text, is easy.
News organizations place a large emphasis on Twitter conversation because, despite its faults, it contains a myriad of opinions on any number of different topics. It might not be where most of the action is happening — Facebook and Instagram are both larger — but it is the most accessible from a technical standpoint. One can log on, query a couple of words, and receive dozens of opinions instantly. It’s all anecdotal evidence, but that’s generally what short, local news stories are — vertical slices, not longitudinal studies.
Social networks often market the perpetual conversation and idea exchange on their service as news value (on Tumblr, this is ironically referred to as the Discourse). Audiences might, as I once did, believe that reporters turn to Twitter because it contains the most substantive dialogue. This might be true, but it is not a foregone conclusion. Its brevity lends itself well to back-and-forth conversation, but I suspect that the unmentioned truth for many bloggers is that Twitter is generally referred to as a source of dialogue because it is the easiest to mine. On Twitter, it is very simple to find an expressed opinion, and then an independently expressed similar opinion confirming that Wow, more than one person thinks this thing. Hell, Twitter makes it easy to find 20 people with the same opinion. In the bygone days of news-gathering, finding 20 people who agreed on something was a lot of work. Now it just takes a few keystrokes.
No matter how terrible Twitter might get, it’s the baseline ease of use that ensures that it’s probably not going away for a while. That’s not meant in the sense of user-base growth but from a more meta perspective: People will continue to talk about what’s being talked about on Twitter.