I first signed up for Twitter in March of 2007
, but I'll admit that I barely used it for about nine months. There were two events in early 2008, however, that convinced me of Twitter's power. The first was that I logged in and saw someone who I only knew online, but not in person, mention a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in NY that I really liked, and because of that, we actually arranged to meet up there for lunch a few weeks later when I was in NY. That ability to connect people was really powerful. The second, though, was much bigger, and it was the Iowa caucus in 2008. It was in January in 2008, but I'm thinking about it today, obviously because (in case you haven't heard), today is this year's Iowa caucus that officially kicks off the Presidential silly season, known as the Presidential nominating process.
As the caucuses ramped up in that evening in 2008, something kind of fascinating happened. I saw someone (again, someone I knew via Twitter, but not in real life), retweet an account that someone had set up solely to retweet in person
tweets from within the various caucuses. I quickly followed that account (which I long ago unfollowed, so I don't even remember the account name or even if it still exists). And it kept popping up first person real life reports of what was happening with the various caucus gatherings. And then I started following some of the mainstream news coverage of the caucus as well. To be honest, I didn't really care that much about what happened in Iowa, but the tweets from inside caucus gatherings seemed... unique. It made it more real and more personal.
And here was the real kicker: almost every retweet showed Barack Obama beating Hillary Clinton and John Edwards (the two other "leading" candidates) sometimes by a large margin. And yet every single mainstream news report claimed that based on their "exit polls" or whatever the hell they were doing, all three candidates were stuck in a statistical dead heat 33/33/33. But as the evening wore on, and more and more of the Twitter reports showed Obama winning caucus gather after caucus gathering, the mainstream media reports finally started showing some separating between the candidates, with Obama finally winning with over 37% of the vote (Clinton and Edwards each had about 29+).
Of course, in the eight years since, Twitter has grown and changed and struggled. And I doubt I'll have the same experience tonight. Already (unlike eight years ago), the press is pushing out lists of people to follow on Twitter
to "get the full story" on the Iowa caucuses, and the list is mainly made up of professional journalists. And, at the same time, the company continues to try to reinvent itself to make itself more acceptable to Wall Street investors. The company stupidly shunned the developers and contributors who made the service so powerful in the early years, meaning that it's getting increasingly frustrating to actually use Twitter. It's been adding in "features" that the company thinks will benefit advertisers, but seem to negatively impact its best users. And there are all sorts of questions about how Twitter will survive (though it has a ton of cash on hand).
For a long time I've argued that Twitter made a big mistake in focusing on being a platform instead of a protocol
, and the struggles it's facing today are just some evidence supporting that concern. As a "platform" they're so focused on building the business, rather than being useful. And in scaring off or simply blocking or killing their developer community, the fact that the service has gotten more annoying than useful lately, is a real loss. If there were a thriving developer community there would be ample opportunities for those innovations to make the service better. But instead, it's been left to Twitter alone, and the company is failing (badly) in that role.
Eight years ago I saw the power of Twitter. And today, I'm really missing that unique power. I hope it can return soon.