Twitter at 10: So what next for the social media platform?

In mainstream media sneers about ‘twits’ and ‘twittering’ are a thing of the past

Highlights of some key moments from 10 years of the social media platform. Video: Twitter

 

“God, what an uninspiring interview by Taoiseach this morning. He sounded half way between drunk and hungover and totally disinterested.” When Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney pressed the “post” button on that commenton the morning of September 14th, 2010, he wasn’t the first tweeter that day to criticise the then taoiseach’s performance on Morning Ireland.

But having a senior Opposition spokesman joining the conversation allowed journalists to raise a subject that would hitherto have been seen as off-bounds.

The story snowballed and within hours was being reported by news agencies across the world. For the first time, Twitter, previously scorned as a place where narcissists told you what they’d had for breakfast, was now the source of a major Irish news story.

Old rules were being discarded. Public figures could self-publish instantaneously without needing to talk to journalists; anyone else could join in the conversation for free. Nothing would ever be the same. Or would it?

Twitter announced on Monday it was officially celebrating its 10th birthday (some may quibble it didn’t actually become a publicly available service until some months later, butthe first tweet was posted by company co-founder Jack Dorsey on March 21st).

The idea for a web-based SMS-style short messaging service had first arisen during a brainstorming session at San Francisco-based podcasting company Odeo.

In the years that followed, Twitter would grow to become a globally recognised brand and service with 320 million active users posting 500 million tweets per day. From the popular revolts of the Arab Spring to the insurgent presidential campaign of Donald Trump, from Katy Perry to Gerry Adams, Twitter – in theory – put everyone on the same playing field.

In mainstream media, the sneers about “twits” and “twittering” disappeared pretty quickly. Journalists and broadcasters took to Twitter with gusto once they realised what a fantastic way it was to get news and gossip faster than anywhere else.

In their enthusiasm, though, they often ended up overestimating the significance of Twitter in comparison with its larger and more powerful rival, Facebook. And their eagerness to plug into the real-time digital zeitgeist led to missteps such as RTÉ’s broadcast of an unverified “Sinn Féin” tweet during the 2011 presidential debate.

Twitter also lends itself to the creation of self-reinforcing bubbles, and Irish political Twitter bears only a passing resemblance to the political views of the wider population as revealed in the recent election.

Will Twitter thrive or even survive over the next 10 years? The prospects are not necessarily rosy. As a business proposition, the service has always had fundamental problems. Back in early 2009, when I was tapping out my own first tweet (“Will Rupert Murdoch save newspapers? Er... no”), The Irish Times was reporting that “despite having raised $55 million (€49m) in venture capital funding, Twitter not only hasn’t turned a profit but doesn’t generate revenues”.

That conundrum persists to this day. Twitter doesn’t know as much about its users as Facebook does, therefore it can’t monetise its relationship with them as effectively or as ruthlessly.

Meanwhile, the reality, as revealed in the list of Ireland’s 10 most popular tweeters, is that for many people Twitter is primarily a branch of the entertainment industry, with sportspeople and pop stars dominating.

Add in its established role as a second-screen experience for people watching TV (#RoseofTralee and #6Nations generate big figures every year) and you have a a revolutionary product which is surprisingly deeply entwined with the traditional media industry. It now finds itself in competition with younger services – Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and more – which are rapidly growing market share in the same subject areas.

So what is Twitter now, and what might it become, if it survives? “Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility,” said co-founder Evan Williams in 2013. “It is that, in part, but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network.”

In other words, it’s closer in many ways to the traditional media function of bringing you information you want as soon as you need it, but turbo-charges that with the networked power of hundreds of millions of eyewitnesses and protagonists on the social web. Anyone who has followed major breaking news stories on Twitter will know how effective it can be at carrying out that function – although verification and contextualisation remain vital.

The danger is that Twitter will go too far down the road of trying to copy the Facebook experience. Innovations such as Moments, which seek to curate content, are viewed with distrust by long-term users who value the fact that Twitter allows you to control exactly what shows up in your feed.

With its huge global audience, it seems absurd to imagine Twitter disappearing, but it may well be that its moment of peak influence has passed. That doesn’t necessarily mean extinction, but it may mean a more modest profile on the media and tech landscape when it comes to celebrate its 20th birthday.

Top 10 followed in Ireland

1. Niall Horan (@NiallOfficial) member of boyband One Direction (24.8 million followers)

2. Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory), Professional golfer (2.8m followers)

3. Dara O’Briain (@daraobriain),Comedian and presenter of BBC’s Mock the Week and Robot Wars (2.3m followers)

4. The Script (@thescript), Irish pop rock band (2.1m followers)

5. Sheamus (@WWESheamus), WWE wrester Stephen Farrelly (1.99m folloers)

6. Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) Mixed Martial Arts UFC featherweight champion (1.4m followers)

7. Danny O’Donoghue (@TheScript_Danny)Danny O’Donoghue, lead singer of The Script (1.1m followers)

8. Siva Kaneswaran (@SivaKaneswaran) Model and singer with boyband, The Wanted (1.1m followers)

9. Paul Higgins (@paulyhiggins)Security specialist who worked with One Direction (946,000 followea)

10. Daithi De Nogla (@DaithiDeNogla) Youtuber (875,000 followers)

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