A few years ago I joined Twitter just to see what all the fuss was about. Over about a month I wrote 24 Tweets, had 24 followers and followed 24 people. I liked the neatness of those numbers. There was the sense that I knew my place, that my output had some relationship appropriate to the number of people who were interested in what I had to say. I recall noting the narcissism or delusion that must have present in the person who had 59 followers but who had posted somewhere in the vicinity of 13,000 tweets.
My only memorable tweet followed my sighting of the then-CEO of Air New Zealand on a crowded trans-Tasman flight. He was seated in row one which was not my particular grumble. To be guaranteed front row status on the airline you are boss of seems like a reasonable perk.
What was noteworthy was the fact he also enjoyed the luxury of sitting beside the only unoccupied seat in the whole (large) business class cabin of a 767 aircraft. Insulating himself from his company's own customers did not strike me as behaviour consistent with a leader known as being a down-to-earth man of the people - especially when those very customers were all sitting in relentlessly close proximity to each other. And so I tweeted about it.
But Twitter, as a medium, just didn't grab me. Apart from allowing me to expose the foibles of Mr 1A, I didn't see the point of it. So I closed my account and never looked back. Goodness knows how those 24 followers must have felt. Bereft? Abandoned? I hope they're okay.
Then along came Hatching Twitter, a book by Nick Bilton, about "[h]ow a fledgling start-up became a multibillion-dollar business & accidentally changed the world" and I decided to see if somewhere in the story of Twitter's genesis and power struggles lay clues as to its intended purpose.
There was early dissent among its co-founders. One saw "Twitter as a way to talk about what was happening to him". Another saw "it as a view into what was happening in the world". If Twitter's inner-circle had opposing opinions, there was little chance of discovering consensus among outsiders.
Indeed, there was wild confusion about how to define this nascent platform: "Everyone had a different answer: 'It's a social network.' 'It replaces text messages.' 'It's the new e-mail.' 'It's microblogging.' 'It's to update your status.'" Some potential investors confessed to not being able to "see a business model in 140-character updates about people's lunches".
Mainstream media outlets were also struggling with the concept. "[N]o one in the press really seemed to understand what Twitter was. Some in the media had taken to calling it 'hipster narcissism', 'self-absorption', 'self-obsession', 'egotistical,' and more than a few people who had tried Twitter called it a 'complete and utter fucking waste of time'."
In 2008 the CEO of Twitter said: "People hear about Twitter a lot but don't know what it is or why they'd want to use it." But gradually its core purpose began to emerge. Its key attraction lay in its ability to convey simple messages widely and instantaneously. Twitter "made it possible to disseminate information in seconds".
Actor Ashton Kutcher, an early adopter who beat CNN in the race to amass one-million followers and now has over 15-million, spoke of the democratisation of the media: "[O]ne person's voice can be as powerful as a media network", he said while Time magazine referred mysteriously to Twitter as "a stage for humanity and connection".
The notion of citizen journalism continued to take hold: "The press pass and the title of 'journalist' had been replaced by a smart phone and a Twitter account." And, Twitter brings "transparency to opaque places". Before long it was "being used in the streets of Tehran to try to overthrow a government". Twitter was described as a "tool that could be used by corporate titans and teens, by celebrities and nobodies, by government officials and revolutionaries".
While some people use Twitter as an up-to-the-minute news service or to fuel revolutions and fight oppressive regimes, others use it for more trivial purposes - such as gossiping, trading sarcastic comments with cronies and sharing photographs of cocktails at sunset. With such polarised approaches there's really only one conclusion to be reliably made about the purpose of Twitter - and, that is: it's whatever you want it to be.
Do you use Twitter? What do you mainly use it for?