This past Monday, as many people noted, was the fifth anniversary of the first update being posted to Twitter or, as it was called then, Twittr. A lot of people on that occasion took the opportunity to look back at how the service has evolved in those five years.
What I’m more interested in, though, is how the usage of the service has changed over those years. I joined Twitter a little over four years ago and was initially mostly about (as cliched as it might sound) conversation. Then people started using hashtags to add some level of taxonomy to the conversations and their usage, as well as their recognition by Twitter itself and the subsequent third-party application developers, changed over time. So too with responses, retweets and mentions, with the community figuring out over a period of time what worked best before functionality along those lines began to be built into the experience either on- or off-site.
The sharing of links has also changed. Remember when you have to actually open TinyURL.com in a new tab/window? Now most apps have URL shortening baked in. More than that, the actual act of sharing links has changed, with Twitter first being seen as a great place to promote the works of others to one that was primarily a self-promotion mechanism. Slowly but sure it began to be included in more and more strategies to the point where it’s more often than not (but not always) an integral part of any communication, content distribution and engagement plan.
Just as with any publishing, whether personal or professional, it’s informative to go back and look at what you wrote years ago to get a sense of how usage has changed over that period of time. Try to put yourself in the mindset you had then. Then look at how it’s changed the fundamental nature of how people often communicate with each other. Conversations that previously might have been completely confined to email, IM or even a phone call now unfold over a half-day’s worth of very public @ replies. We all chuckle when someone forgets how to use the Direct Message feature and something very private (which probably still should have been an email) becomes public.
Even with all the additional functionality and super-savviness some people have we’re still making it up as we go along. Twitter may be closing some of the openness of its developer ecosystem but in terms of how people are publishing their micro-blogs (you may remember that term from some of your initial conversations about Twitter) it’s the Wild West. Some use it as a personal branding tool to extend the range of their thought leadership position. Some just try to be funny in under 140 characters. Some are all about the discussions they’re having with friends and connections. Others mix all those things up into one or, like me, aren’t quite sure what to do with it and so make it up anew every other day.
We can debate whether Twitter will still be viable in another five years or not and what changes will either insure its success or seal its eventual doom. And some participants in that debate will be right based on either tremendous foresight or sheer luck. But I think it’s undeniable that its current status is exactly because it has been flexible enough for the end-user, the one creating the profile and publishing their micro-updates, to do with it as they will at any given moment.