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Times they are a-tweetin’: It is the age of microblogging

The iconic blue Twitter bird chirped into existence nine years ago in July. Here’s a peek into its chequered journey

brunch Updated: Mar 14, 2016 20:39 IST
Narayanan Madhavan
Narayanan Madhavan
Hindustan Times

Think of it as a haiku of the Digital Era: available across the planet, 24x7, with easy access to express and ingest opinions; limited mostly by its 140-character cap, somewhat like the 17-syllable profoundness that defines Japan’s celebrated poetic form.

It’s brevity that gives a tweeter the ease, the reach, the power and the glory.

In the early days of Twitter, the microblogging service born in 2006, it reflected the spirit of its birthplace: San Francisco.

As a child of the Silicon Valley, it spoke the idioms and passions of the tech-driven entrepreneur. In its early years, a popular saying went: "Facebook is the people you went to high school with. Twitter is the people you wish you went to high school with."

Born in 2004, Facebook, with its familiar blue motif, had a friendly air from the beginning, its closed loop distinguishing it from Twitter which, from the start, was about a wider world.

Not for nothing that Twitter’s own evangelists liken it to a town square. Though Facebook played a big role in the Arab Spring that peaked in Cairo, it’s Twitter that seems like a political buzz machine.

Somewhere along the way, Twitter lost its early innocence and morphed from a platform for innocent seekers of intellectual bonding to a more mundane but more powerful plane.

News organisations began breaking news on Twitter. Celebrities and media figures used it to reach larger audiences.

Thus, “handles” found “followers” who “retweeted” or replied to make “mentions” and “hashtags” created “trending topics” – a new Twitter lexicon was born in this cybernetic Tower of Babel. But politics, often cacophonous, seemed to overpower other voices.

In March, 2007, Barack Obama launched his Twitter account. A year later, he was President of the USA.

In 2009, the tiny European Union state of Molodova saw what has come to be called The Twitter Revolution – when a journalist marshalled citizens for spontaneous protests against alleged rigging of elections by the local Communist Party – because demonstrators were alerted by the use of social networking tools including Twitter.

Things took a decisive turn in India when Narendra Modi rode to power in 2014, using and acknowledging the power of Twitter – which has since become a global stage of sorts, where heads of governments and states greet each other, as if it was a common ground for palace balconies.

What soon followed showed the ugly underbelly of Twitter where Right-wing activists have since risen rapidly, especially in India.

A new vocabulary involving “trolls” and “abusers” has since turned the white noise of the timeline and mention lines into a black noise of sorts. In the new scheme of things, abusers get “muted” or “blocked”. Organised criticism/maligning is common, often in orchestrated attacks on public figures and journalists.

Fake handles and sinister-sounding lists of tweeters complete the digital underground. Modi’s own supporters have gained some notoriety in this regard, but the Aam Aadmi Party and the Indian National Congress, a bit late to the party, have caught up.

Meanwhile, some of Twitter’s early satirists and humourists have gone on to become stand-up comedians, spawning a new industry.

They’re among those who’ve shaped a more enterprising side to Twitter. There are chefs bonding over novel cuisines. Social workers use Twitter to raise blood donations on the fly.

Poetry-lovers sit in a corner, exchanging English limericks and Urdu couplets. Fans mark birth anniversaries of RD Burman and MS Dhoni with the religiosity that Indians usually reserve for deities.

Start-ups and offbeat activists use Twitter to crowdsource funds, and environmentalists cry foul on climate change. They all find friends and followers that remind one of the early days of Twitter, when strangers became friends under the chirpy eye of the blue mascot.

Twitter has seen a lot of changes. It went public in a keenly watched share issue, and is busy ramping up its analytical capabilities with fancy software applications, and making acquisitions to help share live videos.

Jerky measures are on to prevent and track abuse. So those who feel that Twitter, like Adam and Eve, have fallen from the Garden of Eden, can yet hope to recreate the idyllic past – with some tech help.There’s hope, we may say, because the game has just begun. India now has close to a billion mobile connections and smartphones are getting cheaper. With under a third of them connected to broadband and only half of that number carrying smartphones – the game is wide open.

As of now, India’s social media users are just around 150 million, and Twitter is only a fraction of that.

More tweeting in Indian languages with their own hashtags and trends may alter the site beyond the scum that scars its surface. In future, we may expect meaningful conversations in various parts of the town square on melodies and maladies alike.

We might see cyber cops bearing down on abusers. We may even dream of Know-Your-Tweeter norms paralleling Know-Your-Customer regulations that have cropped up to check financial offenders so we can crack down on digital guerrillas.

Imagine a future in which intelligent software prevents abuse, aware Tweetizens check hound dogs, and voting tools of the kind Twitter is already championing are used to statistically measure public opinion in a credible way.

There’s also the sobering and endearing thought that people who share knowledge, songs, hopes and aspirations are still bonding in cyberspace’s undefined frontier. In that sense the site is a microcosm of the larger world: it is what you make it out to be.

I, for one, revel in the hope and thought that my own aphorism may yet come good: "Facebook is the new café. Twitter is the new parliament."

Follow @madversity on Twitter

From HT Brunch, July 19
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First Published: Jul 18, 2015 20:20 IST