The Real History of Twitter, in Brief

How the micro-messaging wars were won

Imagine a scenario where you're gainfully employed but spending your nights and weekends working on a side project. It's just something you've been mashing together in your free time with a few friends at work.

Now, pretend to visit yourself five years into the future and see that your little side project turned into one of the biggest communications technologies of the last 100 years. This is the history of Twitter.

Early Twitter

Twitter began as an idea that Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey (@Jack) had in 2006. Dorsey had originally imagined Twitter as an SMS-based communications platform. Groups of friends could keep tabs on what each other were doing based on their status updates. Like texting, but not.

During a brainstorming session at the podcasting company Odeo, Dorsey proposed this SMS-based platform to Odeo's co-founder Evan Williams (@Ev). Evan and his co-founder Biz Stone (@Biz) by extension gave Jack the go-ahead to spend more time on the project and develop it further.

In its early days, Twitter was referred to as twttr. At the time, a popular trend, sometimes to gain a domain-name advantage, was to drop vowels in the name of their companies and services. Software developer Noah Glass (@Noah) is credited with coming up with the original name twttr as well as its final incarnation as Twitter.

The First Tweet

Jack sent the first message on Twitter on March 21, 2006, 9:50 p.m. It read, "just setting up my twttr."

During the development of Twitter, team members would often rack up hundreds of dollars in SMS charges to their personal phone bills.

While the initial concept of Twitter was being tested at Odeo, the company was going through a rough patch. Faced with Apple's release of its own podcasting platform — which essentially killed Odeo's business model — the founders decided to buy their company back from the investors.

Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, Evan Williams and other members of Odeo staff facilitated the buyback.

By doing this, they acquired the rights to the Twitter platform. There is some controversy surrounding how this all took place. It's questionable whether Odeo investors knew the full scope of the Twitter platform.

Also, key members of the Twitter development team were not brought on to the new company, most notably, Noah Glass.

As a formality, Obvious Corporation (@obviouscorp) was created after the investor buyback of Odeo in order to house Twitter.

Twitter Achieves Explosive Growth

Twitter was now on the cusp of its biggest growth spurt. The 2007 South By Southwest (@sxsw) Interactive conference saw a huge explosion of Twitter usage. More than 60,000 tweets were sent per day at the event. The Twitter team had a huge presence at the event and took advantage of the viral nature of the conference and its attendees.

Twitter had its fair share of growing pains during its formative years. Twitter's user base grew at astounding rates and quite frequently the service would be over capacity.

When servers overloaded, an illustration by artist Yiying Lu (@YiyingLu) appeared on the screen. The illustration featured a whale being lifted out of the water to safety by eight birds. The Twitter team used this image because they thought it symbolized the acknowledgment of the problem and that they were working on it. This error page went viral within the Twitter community and soon was dubbed the "Fail Whale."

Is It a 140-Character Limit or 280-Character Limit?

The reason Twitter imposes a character limit on tweets is that Twitter was originally designed as an SMS-based platform. In its early days, 140 characters were the limit that mobile carriers imposed with SMS protocol standard so Twitter was simply creatively constrained. As Twitter eventually grew into a web platform, the 140-character limit remained as a matter of branding.

In 2017, however, Twitter decided that the 140-character limit was no longer relevant in the smartphone age and it increased the tweet limit to 280 characters over minor protestations. Most tweets, the company explained, hover around 50 characters; when people needed more characters, they simply sent more tweets. The character increase was designed to help Twitter users spend less time condensing their thoughts and more time talking.

User Innovation on Twitter

As Twitter's user base started growing, a funny thing started to happen: Users created new jargon and different ways to use the service. Think of it as innovation borne of necessity.

Initially, users had no way of replying to one another on Twitter. Some users would include an @ symbol before a username to identify another user within a Tweet. This became such a prevalent way to acknowledge another user that the Twitter team added the functionality natively to the Twitter platform. The same thing happened with hashtags, which are now an integral part of the Twitter ecosystem.

This user-driven functionality is also the source of retweets. Users wanted a way to re-post a message from a Twitter user while including credit to the user who originally tweeted it. Users started to add RT before sending the message, signaling to their followers that the following tweet was a report. In August 2010, this functionality was officially added to the platform.

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