How Twitter Users Defied Twitter's Creators -- and Saved Twitter From Itself

Twittersphere Took Upper Hand in Product Development, Turning Micro-Blogging Site Into What It Is Today

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Simon Dumenco
Simon Dumenco
New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg recently offered some delightfully cranky thoughts on his local radio show, later quoted in the New York Daily News, about his general allergy to social-media nonsense. He had this to say about Twitter -- and what people tweet about -- in particular:

"'I'm going to the bank right now,' you know, 'I think I'll have coffee.' And you wonder, No. 1 ... why does anybody care? Why do people, why would you look at it?"

New York Magazine Daily Intel blogger Dan Amira linked to the Daily News piece and slapped this hed on his post: "Mayor Bloomberg Talks About Twitter in the Way That People Who Have Never Seen Twitter Talk About Twitter." Take that, Old Man Bloomberg!

Except, of course, the mayor is partially right -- there are still a lot of people who tweet about inconsequential personal minutia. (I just now typed "going to the bank" in Twitter's search box and turned up a bunch of tweets including this one from a guy in Brazil with the Twitter handle @mikegoulart "i'm going to the bank! see ya." He later also decided to inform the world: "going to bed ... low battery." Duly noted!)

Or maybe it's more like Mayor Bloomberg was mostly right -- about Twitter when it first launched. But Twitter circa 2010 is generally very different than Twitter 2006 (Mike from Brazil notwithstanding).

Part of the reason why Twitter can't quite shake its reputation for being a forum for "randomly bragging about your unexceptional life" -- as a Current TV SuperNews parody video once put it -- is because Twitter's creators almost demanded banality from users. It seems like a distant memory now, but for the first three years of Twitter's existence, the tweet-entry box was preceded by a question: "What are you doing?" A lot of people sure took that seriously (and @mikegoulart apparently still does).

Banal self-absorption was baked right into Twitter. As Twitter's Jack Dorsey told the Los Angeles Times last year in recounting the genesis of the micro-blogging service, he and his cofounders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, after discarding the name "Twitch" ("it doesn't bring up the right imagery") "looked in the dictionary for words around it, and we came across the word 'twitter,' and it was just perfect. The definition was 'a short burst of inconsequential information,' and 'chirps from birds.' And that's exactly what the product was."

So there you have it: Stupidity was a part of Twitter's DNA. (OK, to be fair, Dorsey did go on to elaborate: "The whole bird thing: Bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds. The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it's entirely dependent on the recipient.")

Arguably, banal self-absorption is baked right into our times -- and Twitter, being one of the signature products of our times, merely reflects that. And of course Twitter is not alone in being an enabler. (Comedian Ben Stiller got more than half a million views on YouTube last year for his "Ben Stiller is online" video in which he updated his Facebook feed to read "Ben is updating his status." A very meta joke, but a resonant one.) Still, for all the people on Twitter still tweeting about running to the bank and drinking coffee, chances are they constitute an exceedingly minor part of your tweet stream (or an entirely nonexistent part if you've made a point of unfollowing such nudnicks).

And it's worth noting that late last year Twitter changed "What are you doing?" to "What's happening?" which is more like it. Today, Twitter's tagline is "The best way to discover what's new in your world" -- which, really, is what the marketplace turned Twitter into.

Essentially, Twitter users -- including third-party app developers -- informally took over product development while Twitter's managers busied themselves with other stuff (like trying to keep the damn thing even up and running, which of course they still struggle with).

It's Twitter users who decided they wanted to tweet about current events by sharing (for the most part) mainstream-media links -- turning Twitter into a headline-news service. Others decided they wanted to use it for #hashtag-based witticisms -- turning Twitter into a word-centric gaming platform. Still others wanted to use it as, basically, a fan forum for TV and movies and music -- turning it into a pop-cultural barometer. And a critical mass saw Twitter as a political platform and organizing tool (e.g., the Twitter-enabled protests surrounding the Iranian presidential election of 2009). And so on...

Twitter's management didn't exactly encourage, via interface design, a smarter Twitter -- but they didn't exactly stand in the way of one, either. (Now, finally, with New Twitter, it's doing a better job of showing off its smarts, not its lameness.)

Twitter's creators, to their credit, let users reinvent their product. They allowed Twitter users to de-stupidify Twitter. Smart move, fellas.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
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