Twitter is one of the titans of social media networks, rivaling the likes of Facebook and Instagram. Not only is it one of the biggest, but it is also one of the oldest. It can be strange, discovering how a multi-billion dollar company can have such simple beginnings, such as Facebook’s origins as a student directory for Harvard. Twitter’s start was not quite so humble, but it is arguably a lot weirder — you probably would not have expected such a universally recognized social network service to have once been a side project that was mainlined out of desperation.
For all the tech fans, social media junkies, or just people looking for a neat story, here’s a summary of Twitter history:
The Original Team
Facebook’s origin is fascinating in part because it is abnormal — most successful software does not start with a lone-wolf programmer like Mark Zuckerberg. Twitter, like most of the tech companies out there, was started by a team of people. Evan Williams, Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey, and Noah Glass are all responsible for creating Twitter, and helping it become the phenomenon it is today. Most of Twitter’s co-founders already had a background in tech before working on the project, and a few of them went on to make other successful products, such as Dorsey who is the founder and CEO of Square. Williams was at one point the CEO of Twitter, but that responsibility now rests with Dorsey.
A Think Tank Miracle
Like many tech giants, Twitter can trace its origins back to a California tech startup. Twitter’s current headquarters resides in San Francisco, though it did not start there. In fact, Twitter was a by-product of a completely different project.
The team of four co-founders originally worked for the podcasting company Odeo. Odeo was already under a bit of stress around the time of Twitter’s conceptualization, and things went from bad to worse when Apple announced the iTunes platform, which was a music streaming service as well as a podcasting platform. Allegedly, the board members at Odeo held a day-long brainstorming session in the hopes of figuring out a new project that could keep them from going completely under.
Luckily for them, Dorsey, who was then only an undergraduate in New York City, was already working on the prototype for Twitter. The initial plan was for it to serve as a sort of in-house communication tool for Odeo employees, but the board team decided to develop it for use by the public. In hindsight, that was probably the best decision they could have possibly made.
Younger people might not be aware there was a time when you mainly posted to Twitter by sending a text message to the “40404” phone number. From the start, Twitter’s base idea involved using SMS to communicate quickly and to a central hub where people could view the messages. Text messaging and SMS served as a major point of inspiration for Twitter’s initial design space. For example, Tweets used to be restricted to 140 characters, which was the common limitation for messaging services — though the limit currently is 280 characters.
Twitter’s original name was supposed to be “twttr.” The inspiration came in part from Flickr, as well as from the fact that American SMS services use five-digit numbers as a sort of code to shortcut people to their service. Also, allegedly, the domain twitter.com was already owned by someone else, so the team had to make do with the vowel-free name for a little while.
The name “Twitter” itself also owes its origins to the nature of SMS services. Before it became the name of a social media giant, “twitter” meant “a short burst of inconsequential information — also a collective chirping of birds, hence the bird-inspired logo for the company. Since Twitter was initially going to be a way for people to send short messages into the nebulous and fleeting space of the internet, the co-founders thought there was no better word to describe what they were going for than “Twitter,” and from there, “tweet” seemed all too obvious.
There isn’t a deep explanation for it, but the original SMS code for Twitter was going to be 10958. The co-founders instead chose to use 40404 only because they thought it would be easier for people to remember.
The first tweet was sent out by Dorsey in the early stages of the project in March 2006. It read, simply, “just setting up my twttr“
Going Rogue and Taking Over
Twitter launched to the public around 2006, and it was received fairly well. The idea did not take off immediately, but it was clear that it was a better long-term investment than podcasting services. The heads of Odeo seemed to disagree and kept insisting that Twitter play a supporting role to their other projects.
The team that developed Twitter realized they had something special, and weren’t going to let some stubborn board members get in their way. Stone, Williams, and Dorsey got together with a few other Odeo employees to form the Obvious Corporation. Obvious Corp even received some of its initial funding from some of Odeo’s investors.
With their new team assembled and a fair bit of capital, Obvious Corp immediately bought out the struggling Odeo and claimed all of its assets, including Twitter. The crazy thing is that Obvious Corp had no asset or patent to its name upon creation, and no plan to develop any. The entire plan from the beginning was to just make a new company to seize everything Odeo owned to create a new chain of leadership.
What adds to all of this silly corporate in-fighting is that Twitter would become its own company less than a year after all this hostile takeover nonsense. Obvious Corp also killed the Odeo podcasting service almost day-one of owning it. Hindsight being 20-20, there was a ton of fuss and legal action taken only for Twitter to become its own business and all of the projects around it to dissolve completely.
Some Side Drama
You may have noticed a name missing from the original four co-founders in the formation of Obvious Corp. That’s because Noah Glass, despite having a substantial hand in the conceptual development of Twitter, did not feel strongly enough about the project to abandon and turn against Odeo. When Obvious Corp acquired Odeo, then-CEO Evan Williams fired Noah Glass.
The exact details from this dramatic fallout of Twitter’s co-founders are not known to the public. The main reason for this is because it took Glass nearly five years to ever publicly discuss that he was a part of the founding team for Twitter, and even then he did no talk extensively about the experience. Perhaps, despite Williams’ actions being spiteful, Glass did not find himself outraged by them — or at least he made peace with them by the time he discussed it with the public.
Williams himself would later admit that Twitter might never have taken off if it were not for some of Glass’s ideas. Glass, allegedly, was even the one to propose the name Twitter as well as the shortcode version, twttr.
Hitting the Big Time
Twitter, under new management, received moderate success over the first few months of being available to the public. It did not spend long in the small-scale, however. The scale reached a tipping point in a big way when Obvious Corp presented Twitter at the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive conference.
On top of the panel that revealed Twitter to one of the biggest annual gatherings in emerging media, the Twitter team had the genius idea to have two 60-inch TVs in the main hallways for the entire conference that streamed nothing but live Tweet updates. All of the conference-goers were able to keep tabs on each other in real-time and send out updates from their phones. It was a bit of a forecast of Twitter’s ability to live-report on breaking news, but more on that later.
Everyone, including other panelists and presenters, was raving about how Twitter was “owning” SXSWi that year. Journalists and bloggers that attended that conference were particularly excited about the potential that Twitter offered.
In the early stages of finding its identity, many people came to consider Twitter a microblogging service. Realistically, this was an apt comparison — people would subscribe to Twitter accounts who would post about whatever they were interested in, much like a blog. Only, each of the “blog posts” was restricted to being 140 characters at the time. Part of the reason Twitter might have been labeled as a microblogging tool was that one of the co-founders, Even Williams, who created one of the most successful blog hosting platforms — Blogger — before working on Twitter.
This was before terms like “social network” and “social media” became popularized, which is how Twitter is most often referred to as in contemporary times. Though, you’ll still sometimes hear people refer to it as a microblogging service. Twitter is fundamentally such a service at its core, so it’s not exactly wrong to call it that, and it is possibly just a habit from the past. Regardless of what someone calls Twitter or why they call it something, the platform is wildly popular with influencers, journalists, and bloggers for how quick and easy it is to share information on the platform.
Almost Too Close To The Sun
Following its awesome first showing at the SXSWi conference, Twitter’s user base started to grow out of control. Based on their published metrics, they were averaging about 400,000 tweets per quarter in 2007. In 2008, that number of tweets per quarter had sky-rocketed to nearly 100 million. Around 2009, Ashton Kutcher narrowly beat out CNN for the first account to obtain one million followers. By 2010, it was estimated that Twitter users were sending out about 50 million tweets every single day.
The company found itself in a bit of a weird spot. Clearly, everyone the whole world over was interested in their platform and wanted to use it, so they had no problem proving to investors that the basic product was something worth investing in. The issue was Twitter was a huge money sink that was only getting deeper the bigger it got.
Initially, the Twitter team didn’t really have a plan for how their service was going to make money. Part of the problem was how alien the format was, so it wasn’t like they could just slot in a bunch of the traditional advertising means. They eventually revealed their plan to have their main source of income be Sponsored Tweets. The idea was that someone could pay Twitter to have any tweet be prominently featured in other people’s feeds, as long as they fit certain guidelines. These were not technically ads, but realistically, the only Twitter accounts that could regularly afford to use them are brands, companies, or people with a ton of assets.
The company continued to make huge moves and grow like a wildfire, acquiring a ton of other tech startups, including Atebit, which helped design the award winner Twitter app client for iOS and Mac. The company started opening up satellite branches in other prominent United States cities and even placed an international office in Dublin, Ireland. Tweeting records were getting smashed on a routine basis with major events, such as the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the death of Michael Jackson. The current record for tweets-per-second rests at 143,199, set during 2013 in Japan during a television airing of The Castle in the Sky.
Even though the Twitter team had finally figured out its monetization plan, it quickly became clear that the company could not continue to sustain itself based on privatized funding. Following in the footsteps of other social media giants at the time, Twitter decided the best course of action was to file to become a public stock interest.
Supposedly, Twitter’s IPO was an unexpectedly tense venture. The company opened up with an 800-page filing, where they based a great deal of its prospectus on the digital traffic alone, citing things like the average tweets per day. The company also defied expectations and appeared on the New York Stock Exchange, rather than the NASDAQ. There is no clear motivation for this, but it is suspected that Twitter did not want to follow directly in the footsteps of Facebook.
Despite many concerns, the first day of stock sales was a huge success, landing Twitter with roughly thirty-times the amount of money they expected — and needed — to raise. Twitter’s meteoric but unstable rise to the top was finally starting to settle down.
The New Age of Digital Information
Like Facebook, as Twitter continued to grow to a global scale, it became increasingly clear how it had become much more than a social networking service. Twitter has now become a regular place to find news updates in real-time and has become a battleground for legitimate news and misinformation.
After its initial explosive growth, Twitter began to slow down its increase in new users. There was a recent upswing in first-time users around the 2016 United States Presidential election, with one of the primary candidates, Donald Trump being a prominent Twitter personality. He would often tweet updates about his campaign and, after winning the election, some of his policy ideas and updates surrounding the presidency.
This was not the first time Twitter had been used as a tool for politicians. A previous President, Barack Obama used his vastly superior Twitter following as a way to gain traction and drum up energy in his base. Twitter was also, at the time, populated primarily by a younger audience, which proved to be a huge boon in Obama’s ability to win successive Presidential elections. To this day, Barack Obama is the most followed person on all of Twitter, with over 120 million followers and counting.
Twitter also began flexing its muscles as one of the fastest ways to distribute breaking information on major events. The first known documentation of the plane that crash-landed in the Hudson River was a Twitter post. The ability to sort by hashtags and instantly retweet makes it easy to find and expand the reach of important topics in a matter of seconds.
There have even been cases where Twitter was used as a form of guerilla journalism. One such example is during the protest that happened in response to the 2009 Iran election. The protests were met with incredible violence, some being outright killed in the streets, and the government cracked down on official media coverage to try and keep things secret. People used Twitter as a way to inform the world of the terrible things that were going on, getting #IranElection to trend almost globally. When the Iran government tried to attack the Twitter accounts of people leaking information, people started messing with their bio information and time zones to make it harder to decipher who was leaking the info and who was just retweeting things.
Not bad for a side-project that a podcasting company didn’t believe in, huh?