Mar 21, 2016
Remember the first day at school? You made all those new friends? You didn’t really have to do anything after that, for 5 or 7 years or whatever. They were just there. Your relationships with your peers changed, you got older, then you all left, and that was largely that in terms of it being “a community”.
When I hear the cry “Twitter’s changed – it’s not what it was!” – this is very much what it reminds me of: a natural lifespan, an inevitable decay.
I used to think, optimistically, of Twitter as “the chatroom of the world”. We’ve all been in forums with boundaries set by topic, or demographic, or real-life membership of something else. Not this one.
For the first time, somebody had been bold enough to try and run a global, real-time, searchable messaging infrastructure (flaky, but it ran), a name-allocating system that mostly managed the disputes (though I’d still LOVE to know how some people really got their id…) and some protections against the worst of human behaviour (let’s call that work in progress, hey?). (Those three things are all you need to do to create one, really. Good luck!)
And what did you do, as a user? You had a big initial phase of making connections; following people. Then you pretty much tailed off – either sticking around a fixed number, or sporadically following back interesting souls who popped up, or occasionally reaching into a new network.
Largely, relationship formation in a social network seems to be characterised by lots of early activity, then not a lot. (If anyone knows of any stats available that map this pattern with actual data, shout. I’ve looked in vain for years now.)
I’ve often thought of the xkcd 10,000. Always be aware of the vast numbers of people who haven’t found the things you have. Their experience today may reflect precisely what yours was many years ago.
And yet because of its scale and uptake, Twitter was different. It was so pervasive in some communities (media, government, tech, comedy…) that there simply weren’t another 10,000 out there in many cases. Very few fresh ingredients to fall into the soup and keep it all tasting nice. Of course it was never going to grow like the investors demanded it did. Dur.
So if you wanted to keep Twitter fresh for you, you needed to work at it. And we didn’t.
Maybe we expected the same energy and adventure you find in week 2 of a relationship to be there in year 7. Uh-uh. Maybe we forgot that we’ve all got older? Maybe the new people who came later felt, inevitably, that they were outsiders – more keen on throwing rocks or picking fights than in anything particularly social. Lots of dynamics at play, and it’s impossible to account for everything in a few lines here.
But when I think of the concept, now, of organising a tweet-up? Or even a #ff? They aged, not because Twitter aged, but because our connections did.
And yet, connections become friendships (or habits); less easily discarded than acquired.
So “the changes” we perceive over 10 years become an inevitability: less of a consequence of “Twitter changing”, and more of us…not.
Happy 10th, you marvellous bastard. There’s no chance of you seeing a 20th.