The Rise of Twitter as a Global Conversational Platform: NPR
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Billionaire Elon Musk has owned Twitter for less than a month. But one thing is clear: it will never again be the same social network that the world has known for nearly two decades.
Musk has taken sweeping decisions, seemingly single-handedly, like selling blue verification checkmarks and reinstating accounts that had been banned for breaking Twitter’s rules against violent or offensive speech, including that of former President Donald. Trump and rapper Kanye West. Longtime users and advertisers are leaking.
Whether or not the company survives the current chaos, the story of the tweet shows just how important the platform has been since co-founder Jack Dorsey delivered the very first message on March 21, 2006.
I just set up my twttr
—jack (@jack) March 21, 2006
“There really is no other place where you can be a common individual without political power, without monetary power, and yet you can tell a story using text, images and audio, you can connect and engage with people locally and globally around an issue and then you can upload your story and understand how it all happened,” said Desmond Upton Patton, professor of social policy, communication and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania studying Twitter “It’s really amazing.”
Social movements and political causes
Over the years, Twitter has helped galvanize a wide range of social movements and political causes around the world, from the Arab Spring and the current human rights protests in Iran to #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.
Seattle-based social media influencer Sean Gardner points to this tweet from Twitter co-founder Dorsey as emblematic of using the platform as a tool to spread ideas and inspire people to action:
We could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.
—jack (@jack) February 9, 2007
“Jack Dorsey’s tweet is definitely something that stands out,” Gardner said. “I thought that was just a brilliant tweet because that’s exactly what Twitter did.”
The platform has been very influential overseas, with around 80% of users living outside the United States. Over a decade ago, Twitter became a powerful tool for sharing information and thoughts on the ongoing protests in Egypt and beyond during the Arab Spring.
The people have been ruled for decades in fear of regimes this year fear has been overtaken by hopes and dreams for change. #Arab Spring
—Asiya Othman (@Asiya_Othman) October 20, 2011
“We use Facebook to schedule protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to inform the world.” #Egypt #jan25
—Fawaz Rashed (@FawazRashed) March 18, 2011
And closer to home, tweets have helped galvanize millions in the wake of the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd, with people sharing their anger and anguish using hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeForGeorge. News platforms have used Twitter to report on ongoing events.
A memorial service for George Floyd is held in Minneapolis. Reverend Al Sharpton will deliver a eulogy.
Additional services are planned in the coming days in North Carolina, where Floyd was born, and Houston, where Floyd has lived much of his life.https://t.co/WlMKXgiyhX
—NPR (@NPR) June 4, 2020
Soon after Twitter became a “thing,” some elected officials also began to see the platform as a useful way to reach people.
“Barack Obama was actually the first social media leader,” Gardner said of the former president. “It was thanks to him that countries got on board and people started talking to each other online.”
Four more years. pic.twitter.com/bAJE6Vom
—Barack Obama (@BarackObama) November 7, 2012
But it was Obama’s successor who took the tweet to a whole new level. Gardner said Trump’s grip on Twitter has changed the face of politics.
“Trump is almost like a quarterback, and what he was doing was throwing the ball to his wide receivers, which are basically people who were receptive to his message or his particular position,” Gardner said. “So it’s not really a tweet with Trump. If you think about it, it’s probably thousands.”
Twitter deleted Trump’s account after the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. But a series of his tweets from that date, curated by UC Santa Barbara’s US Presidency Project, illustrate the ex-president’s use of the platform.
Trump has yet to bounce back since Musk reinstated his account on Nov. 19.
The lighter side of Twitter
For Patton of the University of Pennsylvania, Twitter has always been a place to share a joke and a place to start a riot. He points to Black Twitter as a source of joy and resilience, especially during the holiday season.
*Me after preparing my take-out plate, passing in front of the family members I don’t like and applauding my aunt who wants to be in my company: #thanksgivingwithblackfamilys #ThanksgivingClapBacks pic.twitter.com/MAikuHAtrT
— VINCENT FROST 🥶💙🌬 “A Kold MF” (@Vincent_B_Scott) November 18, 2022
“The holidays can be a complicated time to deal with family members,” Patton said. “Black Twitter can take a problematic moment and turn it into a fun meme or a fun joke everyone can resonate with.”
But Patton reacted strongly to Musk’s takeover of Twitter – a sentiment shared by many after the new owner sent out a tweet on Oct. 26 announcing, esoterically, his presence at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco.
Entering Twitter’s headquarters – let him in! pic.twitter.com/D68z4K2wq7
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 26, 2022
“Twitter has issues that need to be addressed, but the tool has more hope and potential than negativity,” Patton said. “It feels like a wasted opportunity for Twitter to really do some good in the world.”