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It’s 15 years since Twitter launched – but we’re still not ready for it

Twitter’s status as a tool for the powerful to change the world has no tangible way to be reckoned with

Adam Smith
Sunday 21 March 2021 13:26 GMT
<p>‘Just setting up my twttr,’ Jack Dorsey posted 15 years ago</p>

‘Just setting up my twttr,’ Jack Dorsey posted 15 years ago

One day in July, for a brief moment, Twitter lost control of an unfathomable amount of power when the accounts of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Kanye West, Michael Bloomberg, and Apple were hacked by three young men.

The hackers, thankfully, only used the accounts to try and pull off a bitcoin scam. The alternatives could have been far worse. The accounts of a former president and vice president (now president) could easily have sparked an international crisis, while a few tweets from the accounts of Bill Gates or Apple could have contorted the stock market in the hackers’ image.

The individuals’ charges of wire fraud and conspiracy come, aptly, as Twitter is celebrating its 15th birthday. Looking back at the history of the platform, we actually have some idea of how poorly such a situation could have gone – and how much power Twitter actually has.

The world was forced to endure the warmongering tweets of then president Donald Trump as Twitter refused to remove him until the 11th hour of his reign, and Elon Musk has repeatedly been criticised for his manipulation of the stock market in 280 or so characters. It feels like it is only by luck, rather than judgement, that Twitter never had to suffer the consequences of its inaction.

“Give me a lever and a fulcrum and I shall move the Earth,” Aristotle once said; every day, that lever looks more like a little blue bird.

From its humble origins as a social space for random thoughts and innocuous images, Twitter and its potency is now impossible to ignore. In spite of the apparent ease of the “digital detox”, or paradoxical understanding from Twitter’s most prolific posters that the best thing to do is never tweet, you can walk away from the machine but not its machinations.

The history of Twitter is the history of culture moving. In 2011, the notion of using social media for revolutionary purposes was all but unheard of until the waves of the Arab Spring rippled across the world, with one activist tweeting: “‎We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world”.

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Since then, movements such as #MeToo or Black Lives Matter have built up on social media, where individual stories come together to reveal systemic injustice. Twitter, time and again, has been a translation tool – a way for small communities to come together and make their voices heard by institutions that fail to represent them.

But if there is one message that we should take away from the significant impact Twitter has had on society in 15 years, it is this: we were not ready for it. And we are still not ready for it now, nor are we ready for what is to come.

Twitter has accumulated 315 million users worldwide, significantly fewer than the near 700 million users on TikTok and a pittance to the two billion and three billion users for YouTube and Facebook respectively. In the last few months, it has become the latest app to take the innovative decision of cloning Snapchat Stories, announced its pivot into a subscription service, and launched voice-based chatrooms to take on Clubhouse. Twitter has the potential to grow, especially as the company rolls out new features that feel familiar to existing users.

But with great power comes great responsibility, and Twitter’s power as the primary source for news, politics, and culture could become further corrupted with personalised algorithms and the failures of peer-to-peer fact checking, two other features Twitter is hoping to introduce.

It’s not only that disinformation spreads on Twitter far faster than the truth, it’s that Twitter’s status as a tool for the powerful to change the world has no tangible way to be reckoned with – and as it gets bigger, the point at which it is too late to be dealt with comes closer and closer.

“Just setting up my twttr,” Jack Dorsey once said, breaking fresh ground on his social media app. Fifteen years later, the tweet remains evergreen; Twitter is still setting up.

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