I fell in love with twitter twice. In the intervening period things were rocky — I wasn’t sure if she was the social network for me. But recently that’s changed again.
The first time I fell in love with twitter was at South By Southwest in March 2007, and is important because it’s (partly) how I got to know Tammy, who is now my wife. The service was a very different beast back then — still very much tied to its SMS roots (the source of the 140 character limit), and most of the few thousand people who were on it (my account ID is in the high 4 digits) were still working out how to use it. I’d dabbled a bit in the months leading up to SXSW but it didn’t seem to have a lot of utility. The enduring dismissal that twitter is “people blathering about what they had for lunch” dates from this period.
But in Austin that March, twitter suddenly found a purpose amongst a core group of web nerds — it became the way we found each other. Sure, Dodgeball existed, but it was already being slowly dismembered by Google, and Foursquare wouldn’t rise from its ashes for another few years. But with twitter, SXSW attendees who knew each other started tweeting which bars and parties they’d gone to, and a spontaneous flocking network effect sprung up. This was all good for me, because I had just met Tammy through a mutual friend (let’s call him “Randy”, since that’s his name) at a party, and wanted to see more of her. Walking the knife-edge between polite interest and outright creepy stalking, I managed to “just happen” to be in the same place as her most nights of the conference, just by knowing where Randy was.
The rest, as they say, is history. It’s also (fittingly) thanks to twitter that I still have one of their first t-shirts which just bears the tagline “wearing my twitter shirt” — some of the Flickr crew were sitting in an underwhelming Dan Rather keynote when the twitter guys got delivery of them and tweeted about it, and we rushed to grab one for ourselves.
So I valued twitter for providing a small network of friends I could effortlessly share useful information with, but over the next few years that love waned as twitter got bigger and unwieldier. The slow accumulation of “follows” rendered my timeline a mess of too-fast-moving information and with no easy way to drop into personal conversations it began to feel a little overwhelming and crowded. For most of 2011 I hardly looked at twitter or tweeted at all.
But at the beginning of this year I decided to give it another whirl. I put some effort into limiting my follow-list to things and people I actually care about and took to the tweets again. One of the first things I noticed was that twitter’s small-but-important refinements to the product have made a world of difference. With the “connect” functionality and proper handling of replies they’ve achieved two things - first, the noise of others’ conversations has been much reduced, and secondly it’s far more possible to strike up limited conversations with a few people, inside the wider general-chatter. They’ve pulled off an impressive feat with this, bringing back the “small, intimate room” feel I loved about early twitter without sacrificing the mass-broadcast “whole world is tweeting” mode they grew into.
And this brings me to the second time I fell in love with twitter, last week. When Flickr’s entire six-person customer care team was laid off a week ago, twitter came to the fore again. It was a place where many of us who are part of Flickr’s alumni could offer commiserations and help to those affected. It was a place where those of us who’ve put years of blood, sweat, tears and love could share our anger, grief and disappointment. It was also a place where we could share the news with the wider world. Only a few days after it happened I already knew that there were interesting job opportunities being offered to all of my fantastic former co-workers from a diverse range of interesting companies.
Twitter helped us all connect, heal, and hopefully offer new beginnings to the victims of corporate idiocy.
The service has been through more than its fair share of growing pains on its way to huge success, for sure. But now they really seem to have found their stride and built something that simultaneously provides intimate conversation and wider broadcast (without the drudgery of affectations like G+ “Circles”). This is how you build something that lasts. I hope it really does.