Among users, Twitter didn’t catch on in any sizable way until the South by Southwest Interactive conference in March 2007. That week, it went from publishing 20,000 tweets per day to more than 60,000. Now, it publishes about 500 million. Incidentally, I joined Twitter that month too.
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I like what Chris Hayes tweeted last week: “I feel my generation’s version of ‘this rocker turning X age makes me feel old’ are when apps and websites celebrate birthdays.”
Twitter’s 10th anniversary is eminently amenable to stock-taking, but how should we take stock? After all, there’s been no shortage of chances over the last decade to note How Twitter Has Changed Things. Infinite comparisons can be drawn between Twitter and any other social network. Facebook, two years Twitter’s senior, always had the users and the power, but Twitter’s form dictated the terms of our new media reality. Certainly it created the space for the media micro-observation: In more than the obvious sense, I wouldn’t be quoting an MSNBC anchor’s random musing about Twitter if he hadn’t tweeted it.
It also doesn’t seem worth dwelling on Twitter’s shortcomings. (For that, I can wait for earnings day.) Instead, it’s worth seeing Twitter not just as a 10-year-old social network, but as a product of its time.
The winter of 2006 was, in many ways, a nadir for a kind of American progressivism. Months earlier, Hurricane Katrina, and the Bush administration’s incompetent handling of it, had killed thousands of Americans. March 20, 2006, was the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion, and the country was stumbling into a de facto Sunni-Shi’a civil war. (By some estimates, more Iraqi civilians died that year than in the first two years of the invasion combined.) From a purely partisan standpoint, the Democratic takeover of Congress—and the first glimpse of what an Obama coalition might look like—was eight months away.
But on the Internet, something new seemed to be happening. Teenagers were spending hours on Myspace. Almost out of nowhere, Wikipedia had appeared as a full-fledged encyclopedia, at the top of half the Google searches. And YouTube was exploding: By November 2006, Google acquired it for $1.6 billion.
These sites could only exist because of certain technological advances. In the mid-2000s, enough Americans got broadband-speed Internet that web video was suddenly feasible. Meanwhile, web developers at Google and elsewhere figured out a new way to code a web page, such that it would work like software in a desktop web browser.
But YouTube, Wikipedia, and eventually Twitter represented cultural hypotheses as much as engineering achievements, borne by that old Brandian mix of communitarianism and libertarianism, as well as by a frustrated progressivism. Common wisdom holds that the new tech boom, the whole educated-millennials-moving-to-San-Francisco thing, is a post-Great Recession phenomenon, but 2006 was the year that Time declared ‘you’ the person of the year. Read it today, and their announcement becomes an artifact of the era:
Look at 2006 through a different lens and you’ll see another story, one that isn’t about conflict or great men. It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. Its about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
[…] We’re ready to balance our diet of predigested news with raw feeds from Baghdad and Boston and Beijing. You can learn more about how Americans live just by looking at the backgrounds of YouTube videos—those rumpled bedrooms and toy-strewn basement rec rooms—than you could from 1,000 hours of network television.
[…] Web 2.0 is a massive social experiment, and like any experiment worth trying, it could fail. There’s no road map for how an organism that’s not a bacterium lives and works together on this planet in numbers in excess of 6 billion. But 2006 gave us some ideas. This is an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person.
I remember that essay feeling faddish at the time, but now it’s hard to read it and not think of what was to come. The Obama campaign, the Arab Spring, even the solidarity of the SOPA-PIPA protests—the seeds of those movements, and especially what people wanted to see in those moments, were planted that year.