Twitter 10-year birthday: A short history of Twitter and where is right now at 10

Lynsey Barber
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A plane landing on the Hudson river caught the attention of the world via Twitter (Source: Twitter/Janis Krums)

There have been uprisings (the Arab Spring), numerous faux pas (hello Ed Balls), and global events (World Cup anyone?) experienced together, but it was only 10 years ago when Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder and current chief executive, published the first ever tweet that changed the way we communicate - "Just setting up my Twttr".

Since then, it's gone public, added 305m users, replaced and returned Dorsey as chief and lost almost 80 per cent of its value from all-time highs. Let's say, it's been as bumpy a ride as that emergency landing made on the Hudson river back in 2009 - one of the first big news stories to be broken on the site, way before breaking news on Twitter became a thing.

Yep, pictures didn't even appear in tweets back then. How things have changed.

It wasn't until a year after Dorsey's first tweet that the hashtag concept was created in 2007. The man behind the hashtag, Chris Messina, revealed last year why he never patented the idea. "I had no interest in making money (directly) off hashtags. They are born of the Internet, and should be owned by no one," he said, also saying it would have likely have stopped people from using it..

"The value and satisfaction I derive from seeing my funny little hack used as widely as it is today is valuable enough for me to be relieved that I had the foresight not to try to lock down this stupidly simple but effective idea," said the developer who was Twitter user 1,186.

The same year, it landed its first round of investment, $5m, with another round following on in 2008, including from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos ($15m). Shortly afterwards, Dorsey decided to step down and co-founder Biz Stone stepped into his shoes.

That didn't hold them back. Hot on Bezos's heels came a $35m series C and $100m series D from various Silicon Valley investors wanting a piece of the action in 2008.

Celebrities can easily pick up millions of fans, but it was Ashton Kutcher who was the first to pass that milestone in this landmark year for Twitter. Fast forward and it took Caitlyn Jenner just four hours and three minutes to fly by the mark last year, officially becoming the fastest ever to hit one million.

By 2010, the startup needed to start bringing in money and promoted tweets were introduced, bringing the world of Twitter to a whole new realm of advertisers and brands looking to reach social media savvy millennials. The real-time reach of Twitter would eventually best be displayed by Oreo during the 2013 Super Bowl. The simple "You can still dunk in the dark" tweet, free to tweet out while others spent millions on TV air time, became a textbook Twitter advertising manoeuvre, oft-imitated but never bettered.

Along with promoted tweets came a change in leadership, with Stone making way for chief operating officer Dick Costolo to take over, two years after Dorsey's exit.

A year later, in 2011, came a multi-million dollar funding round that sent it into unicorn territory - of course that word used to describe a startup valued at more than $1bn wouldn't even be coined for another two years.

No wonder investors were starry-eyed about its prospects. The Arab Spring uprising was brought to the attention of the world, not just through news reports, but via smartphone pictures and footage shared on social media - the revolution was first and foremost Tweeted, rather than televised.

"Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom,” said University of Washington professor Philip Howard, who studied the millions of Tweets, YouTube videos and blog posts to find the influence of these networks on these revolutions.

The platform was gaining momentum, with user numbers rocketing 126 per cent at the start of 2011 on the previous year as the Arab Spring rose up, reaching 68m users. A year later that had doubled to 138m users across the world.

By 2012, the platform had gone mainstream among leaders. The pope joined Twitter as @Pontifex, while Barack Obama's "Four more years" tweet upon re-election became the most retweeted tweet of all time at that moment.

It's estimated that for every five world leaders, four are on Twitter.

A string of acquisitions also added to its might as a wannabe tech giant, among them video app Vine and analytics and advertising software. It then fulfilled those wannabe ambitions, in November 2013, when it floated on the New York Stock Exchange.

The IPO at $26 per share valued Twitter at more $30bn and by the start of 2014 stock had hit an all-time high of $69 per share. Just two years later, at the start of the 2016 it had lost nearly 80 per cent of its value from that high, plummeting to under $14 per share for the first time amid serious troubles related to user growth.

The core Twitterati which had helped make it big can be off-putting to those who are new to the platform, as is the concept which is harder to get the hang of than something like Facebook or Instagram.

Dorsey returned to the flock to try and turn things around last autumn with a leadership shake up and a host of new features, among them Moments, Gif integration and a re-jigged timeline.

Twitter's USP, the 140 character limit, will remain in place however, Dorsey confirmed just days before the big one-oh birthday.

It's a touchstone of the foundations of the Twitter of 10 years amid change, but no longer are the moments that happen on Twitter as groundbreaking as they used to be - it's a new normal where world leaders respond to world events, celebrities have spats, brands try to imitate the Oreo moment (quite often getting it horribly wrong) and a picture of a fox trying to take someone's trousers off at a London night bus stop becomes a news story rather than the latest hugely retweeted meme.

The existential hand-wringing of Twitter is well covered. But among all the amazing numbers about Twitter that we'll enjoy reliving - whether as a hardcore user or as a so simple sign of how the last 10 years has changed - there are two stats which stand out, and demonstrate the trouble with Twitter more than anything else. Ellen's Oscars selfie remains the most retweeted tweet in history. It was taken in 2014. The most followed person on Twitter is singer Katy Perry. Her last album was out in 2013.

In 2016, those two markers of popularity should surely be very different.

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