Originally created in 2006 as a short messaging system for small groups, Twitter has since evolved into a powerful communication tool that has dramatically changed how information is shared and spread online. Twitter functions as a crowd-driven trend barometer, an information hub that is breaking news faster than news agencies.
It is also a tool for people to unite and collaborate, for example to organize the 2011 Arab Spring protests, which were also coined Twitter Revolutions.
If you are interested in the history of Twitter, read on.
The Creation Of Twitter
In 2006 the people who were to become the founders of Twitter were working at Odeo, Inc., a San Francisco-based podcasting company founded a year earlier. The company struggled with major competition and was under pressure to come up with an innovation. In an attempt to re-invent themselves, they held “hackathons” or “day long brainstorming sessions” in smaller groups.
Jack Dorsey was in one of these groups. His initial suggestion was to create an SMS service that would allow small groups to share what they are doing right now. Back in 2006 public WiFi, smartphones, and mobile Internet were far from being a commodity. However, SMS had just had a breakthrough and had become affordable in the US. When on the go, young people primarily communicated using text messages. Hence, Jack’s suggestion was instantly met with enthusiasm.
Subsequently, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Florian Weber were asked to prototype Jack’s idea. Version 0.1, managed by Noah Glass, was created on March 21 2006 and was entirely web-based. For many months the project, codenamed twttr, was in “Top Secret Alpha” to stay below the radar of competition. Eventually, Twttr Beta was launched, more people were invited to join, and on July 15 2006 Twttr.com went public. Soon after, the domain Twitter.com was acquired and the service was re-branded.
The character limit was introduced to control SMS bills and other bugs with messages longer than the 160 character limit of a SMS. The limit was set to 140 characters to have 20 characters for a user name and colon that heads every Twitter message. On February 8 2007 Jack Dorsey wrote: “One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.” Little did the world know how this prediction would prove to be true.
You can find the full story of How Twitter Was Born on 140 Characters, the website of Dom Sagolla, one of Twitter’s co-founders. Another take on The Real History Of Twitter can be found on Business Insider.
The Origin of Jack’s Idea
So where did Jack’s idea come from? As it turns out, it was not a spontaneous product of his imagination, but a concept Jack had been breeding for many years.
Jack had been fascinated by how cities work, how goods and information flow, and how everything is interconnected. He started looking at things that could be traced, such as bicycle messengers or truck couriers delivering packages. He envisioned a software that would track everything that is happening in the city and would also allow you to see what is happening right at this moment.
What Jack found lacking was what regular people are doing. Instant Messaging gave him a clue of how this could work the same way. However, in the early 2000s mobile devices with Internet were a rarity, meaning the stream of updates would be limited to people sitting in front of a stationary computer.
Jack wanted something that could be updated anywhere and anytime. He even created an app for the BlackBerry predecessor RIM 850, a small email device. However, to use the app, you had to have this device, which again meant the reach was limited. It was not until 2005 that SMS became popular in the US and Jack realized that the time for his idea had come.
The Original Design
The sketch below shows the original design for the messaging service Jack envisioned, conceived in 2000 or 2001.
Notice the pair of eyes in the bottom right. The idea was that people could ‘watch’ another user, which was later changed to ‘follow’. Jack explains that on Twitter you are watching what someone produces, rather than watching the person. Hence to Jack, Twitter is not a social network, since it is more about the information, less about the people.
How Twitter Got Its Name
As the sketch above reveals, Twitter’s working name was Status. The story how the service ended up being called Twitter varies.
Jack’s version is that the team really wanted to capture “the physical sensation that you’re buzzing your friend’s pocket.” According to him the first name they came up with was ‘Twitch’, which reflects the vibration a phone makes when a status update is received. Not quite satisfied with the associations that can be made with the term, they went and scanned the dictionary for similar words to ‘Twitch’ and came across Twitter.
Noah Glass claims to have come up with the name Twttr, and Dom Sagolla writes the name or rather its abbreviation was inspired by Flickr.
Jack writes: “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.”
You can read the full story of how Jack came about to co-invent Twitter in his 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Do you have more questions about Twitter? Try Ask for answers and lists of resources.
Find the first 140 users of Twitter in this list - The Listorious 140 Twitterers.
Like many other stories of successful projects, the story of Twitter brings home three major lessons:
- A brilliant idea can take years to find the right environment within which it can flourish. Don’t give up on your ideas, but play with them, until the time is right.
- Even the most brilliant idea needs people to help it come to life. Don’t give up if you realize you cannot do it by yourself, but find people who understand your idea and can help you realize it.
- The initial idea will develop and prototyping can help with this process. Don’t give up if the first prototype doesn’t work, but continue with trial and error.
Or taken together – don’t give up.
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