Twitter turns 15 today, which means that on this day in 2006, the first-ever tweet was posted on the internet, changing the way we interact forever.
The historic first-ever tweet belonged to Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s four founders and its current CEO.
just setting up my twttr
— jack (@jack) March 21, 2006
The realisation that Twitter turns 15 coincides with the confronting news that it’s been fifteen years since I finished high school. I completed my studies in 2006, the same year that Jack Dorsey posted his seemingly innocuous test tweet.
Finishing school is one of those events that seems destined to straddle two timelines: it feels like just yesterday, but it feels like a million years ago. In that same vein, I struggle to remember a pre-Twitter social media world and yet I recall setting up my Twitter page with sparkling clarity.
The fact that Twitter turns 15 today is a reminder of its infancy. Twitter is a teenager. And yet, it has arguably shaped the adult world more significantly than any other of its social media rivals.
In the fifteen years that have passed since Twitter’s inception, the platform has snowballed into a social change tool. From news and current affairs to politics and entertainment, Twitter tells us what’s going in the world, offering an immediate window into history as it unfolds.
To celebrate the milestone that is Twitter turns 15, we’re looking back at the evolution of the platform and remembering some of the moments that have transformed Twitter into what it is today.
Twitter Turns 15: The Hudson River Landing and Twitter as a News Source
In 2009 the world watched on in awe as pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger guided US Airways Flight 1549 onto the Hudson River banks in New York. The incident primarily played out on Twitter after a picture of the crash was snapped by Janis Krums. Krums was riding a ferry to New Jersey when he posted a photo and shared it with his 170 Twitter followers.
— Janis Krums (@jkrums) January 15, 2019
The photo went viral and proved to people that breaking news could break faster on Twitter than anywhere else. For many, this grainy picture of a semi-submerged airline proved a flashpoint in the history of Twitter.
For the first time, people online began to grasp the immediacy and power of what lay in the palm of their hands.
The Hudson River landing was followed closely by the Arab Springs movement in 2010, which saw a series of protests across the Middle East and North Africa. Spread out across Bahrain, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the Arab Springs was a stunning example of Twitter-mobilisation.
Large groups coordinated meetups online, protests were organised and executed via Twitter, and the entire storyline played out across the platform. Long before news cameras were able to catch up with the movement’s speed, images of crowds banding together would be beamed out via Twitter.
Twitter Turns 15: BLM, #MeToo and the Rise of Clicktivism
While political activism may come to life in the streets, these days, it starts in tweets.
Black Lives Matter, arguably the most significant racial movement in history, found much of its early traction online. The hashtag first appeared on Facebook in July 2013, after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin 17 months earlier in February 2012.
The movement then shifted to Twitter and exploded, with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag appearing on Twitter a total of 5,106 times in the second half of 2013, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center analysis.
Alongside BLM, Twitter also helped focus a spotlight on years of unchecked sexual abuse and harassment by thrusting the #MeToo movement into the mainstream. In October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano posted a tweet that encouraged survivors to use the words’ Me Too’ if they had been subject to sexual harassment or assault.
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
Twitter lit up with the #MeToo hashtag, the explosion of survivors coinciding with Harvey Weinstein’s downfall.
The value of social media in activism has often been derided under the term ‘clicktivism’, but with #MeToo and BLM, Twitter users flexed their muscle. Both movements were undoubtedly the sum of all the people involved, but Twitter provided an invaluable mouthpiece for the message to be heard loud and clear worldwide.
Twitter Turns 15: Obama, Trump and the Politicisation of Twitter
It’s no coincidence that the last two sitting presidents of the United States have both mobilised the power of Twitter in vastly different ways.
Barack Obama cruised to victory in 2008 off the back of a targeted Twitter campaign. He recognised the increasingly important role Twitter played in shaping political views amongst young voters, and he harnessed it accordingly.
According to Pew Research, three-quarters (74%) of internet users went online during the 2008 election to take part in or get news and information about the 2008 campaign.
Obama and Twitter remain inseparable during his Presidential terms, and Obama remains the most followed user on Twitter with a whopping 130 million followers.
Obama’s deft use of Twitter caught Donald Trump’s attention, who weaponised the platform in his own style. Trump cottoned on early that Twitter was the perfect vehicle for his ‘tell it like it is’ rhetoric that appealed to his base. Throughout Trump’s presidency, much of his messaging and policy was delivered via Twitter (often in the early hours of the morning).
Trump’s unfiltered Twitter use provided a unique insight into his stream-of-consciousness thinking while also serving up the occasional laugh. Who will ever forget COVFEFE?
Since setting foot in the White House, the rise of Donald Trump has been intrinsically linked to the evolution of Twitter. So it makes sense that the demise of Donald Trump signals a change in Twitter’s direction too.
Following the Capitol Hill riots, Twitter finally made good on its promise to ban Donald Trump. The move caused shockwaves on social media – it’s not often a former President gets booted from anywhere – but to many, it showed that Twitter is determined to clean up its act.
Twitter Turns 15: The Ellen Selfie and the Power of People
One of Twitter’s most enduring strengths is its ability to remove the filter between celebrities and their fans. It’s of little surprise that actors, pop stars and athletes dominate the list of most-followed people on Twitter.
The full might of the celebrity Twitter juggernaut was best displayed in Ellen’s now-iconic tweet from the 2014 Academy Awards. While on hosting duties, Ellen corralled a bunch of A-listers, including Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, Jared Leto and Lupita Nyongo, into a selfie.
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) March 3, 2014
For a short while, the picture became the most retweeted tweet of all time, with more than three million users sharing the star-studded snap. But perhaps to underline that Twitter will always be about the regular people, not the stars, Ellen’s retweet record was promptly usurped by a 16-year-old from Reno, Nevada.
Carter Wilkinson famously asked Wendys how many retweets he’d need to get free nuggets for a year. The fast-food chain replied with 18 million, and the rest is history.
Twitter Turns 15: The Future of Twitter
Twitter turns 15 today, and while reminiscing on the history of this platform allows for a certain kind of social media nostalgia, it’s the future that is truly important.
Donald Trump’s ban drew a line in the sand regarding Twitter’s biggest challenge: hate speech. Recently, CEO Jack Dorsey has alluded to various ways Twitter is looking at giving users more control over their experience while also examining how to push the platform forward.
“We don’t want to be seen as just the thing that shows you what’s happening right now,” he said at Goldman Sachs’ virtual Technology and Internet Conference in February.