The Genius Of Twitter: A Paean

It’s the first app I launch in the morning, and the first I install on a new phone, and my most-visited web site. Which is strange, because I don’t much like most social media. I’m on Facebook only reluctantly; 90% of my posts there are automatic reposts from my tweet stream. I want to like Google+, but I keep failing. Twitter, though, is the hub of my online life.

Now that Twitter is officially on track to IPO it’s being lavished with praise, which irks me. The implication is that an IPO is somehow a culmination and a triumph, whereas to me it’s pretty much a meaningless business-space phase change. I don’t really care about the business of technology, except inasmuch as the businesses are vehicles for the promulgation of new and/or cool and/or interesting and/or important technology; and if I’m being honest, I don’t think other people should care either.

Granted, the spectacle of venture capital and business machinations and public offerings can be appealing, and I’m sure it’s extremely interesting indeed to the small number of people in line to receive large sums of money1 or the enormously larger number who aspire to do so themselves some day. But what matters far more than money is how and how much you changed the world.

Now, I think that we can all agree that while Twitter is a pretty big deal it hasn’t changed the world as much as Apple or Facebook or Google, or (less visibly) ARM or Cisco. What I’d like to point out, though, is that Twitter is far weirder, much less inevitable, and way more out-of-left-field than all of the above. For that reason its accomplishment is in many ways more extraordinary than theirs.

Some company was always going to get huge and rich building routers, or smartphones, or the low-power chips inside them, or the world’s primary social network, or the world’s finest search engine and/or distributed computing network. Once the technology reached the point where such things were possible, they became all but inevitable. If Apple had gone bust in the 1990s (as it very nearly did), today’s phones wouldn’t be as near as slick and well-designed, but they would still basically do what they do. Who knows? Maybe BlackBerry would have taken up the torch of design.

But Twitter? Twitter was never inevitable. The world was in no way crying out for the platform that gave us @horse_ebooks, @DRUNKHULK, and @BoredElonMusk (to say nothing of @twentitled.) If Twitter had never existed, Facebook would still have eventually adopted its News Feed; blogs and RSS would probably have expanded; and maybe Google+ would have been a stronger competitor. But we would feel no aching Twitter-shaped void in our world. Twitter was always surprising, always the dark horse, always counterintuitive.

Hell, it’s still counterintuitive. I was talking to friends of mine not so long ago, both of whom are smarter than me (and better writers too) but who still fundamentally don’t get Twitter’s appeal. Of course they don’t. I didn’t either, until my sister somehow talked me into signing up for it five years ago. Thanks, Jen. Now I’d prefer not to imagine life without it.

To an extent Twitter is like the elephant examined by blind men, different things to different people. To me, at least, it’s where I simultaneously bookmark links of interest, keep track of scores of my friends’ lives, converse with those friends without knowing or caring where they are, share pictures and articles with them and with hundreds of people I don’t know, do research (“Dear LazyTwitter…”), and follow a small number of interesting people and/or news filters I’ve never met.

Of course I could do all these things elsewhere; but the whole appeal of Twitter is that I do them all at the same time, in the same place, with terse brevity. For me it’s like being able to dive into a sparkling river of (usually) witty, pithy, gem-laden conversation whenever I want to, engage with it however I like, and leave again at my leisure. People say we live in the attention economy; well, Twitter offers some of the best value-for-attention you can get. Like everybody else at first I thought that famous 140-character limit was a flaw. Now, though, I believe it’s their finest feature.

So here’s to Twitter, and to their real accomplishment: not their IPO, but using today’s technology to give the whole world something that we didn’t know we wanted, and making it so delightful that it now seems very nearly indispensable. All this while trying to be, to their eternal credit, “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.” I hereby call for a long, loud round of applause.

Image credit: Twitter’s fail whale has become something of an endangered species; truth be told, on the rare occasions I do see it nowadays, I find myself feeling more nostalgia than irritation.

1 Disclaimer/disclosure: while I don’t know for sure, I expect this number includes an acquaintance of mine who was/is a very early Twitter employee.