Twitter used to be a sort of surrogate newsroom/barroom where you could organize around ideas with people whose opinions you wanted to assess. Maybe you wouldn't agree with everybody, but that was part of the fun. But at some point Twitter narratives started to look the same. The crowd became predictable, and not in a good way. Too much of Twitter was cruel and petty and fake. Everything we know from experience about social publishing platforms—about any publishing platforms—is that they change. And it can be hard to track the interplay between design changes and behavioral ones. In other words, did Twitter change Twitter, or did we?
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But maybe there's a better question to ask first: Which Twitter did we lose?
Looking back, 2013 Twitter was basically a hangover to 2012 Twitter, when we could imagine leaving the platform some day but not anytime soon. Or maybe we're chasing the ghost of 2011 Twitter. It was a hectic feed then, a staticky mess of affiliate notifications, manual retweets, and Foursquare checkins. Remember 2010 Twitter? The year it seemed everyone had finally caved and signed up. The Arab Spring made people optimistic about the platform as a transformative force. Roger Ebert and Rob Delaney ruled. 2009 Twitter is a blur and the disjointedness of 2008 Twitter is hard to remember at this point. Before that, people weren't even having conversations on the platform. Not really.
It's funny that we delineate Twitter eras by the year, or that we even can, because the platform is so fixated on the "right now." Describing Twitter by year can feel like counting raindrops in the ocean.
Besides, the Twitter worth talking about transcends all those other Twitters. When it was good—when it is good—Twitter created an environment characterized by respect and jokes so funny you wanted to show the person sitting next to you in real life. Not agreeing could be productive, and could happen without devolving into histrionics. The positive feedback loop of faves and interactions didn't hurt, either.
As such, the idea that Twitter's 140-character format precludes it from being a place for depth has always been a red herring. But there are legitimate questions about how the format can scale. Sometimes it helps to picture Twitter as a network of overlapping concentric circles—made bigger by retweets, modified tweets, interactions, faving, hate-faving, subtweeting, snarking, trolling, etc., etc., until they get so big and the network gets so crowded that you can't see the circles themselves anymore.
For a long time, we would’ve told people that if they weren't having a good time on Twitter, they weren't following the right people. This was code for you haven’t found the right network yet. And there are still great accounts on the platform, even great networks, but many of them are becoming more fragmented than ever—even as Twitter has changed functionalities in ways that seem designed to prompt interactions and conversations. Maybe this was inevitable. Fragmentation is a fundamental part of how people interact with information online; it's how we socialize offline, too.