X, formerly known as Twitter from 2006 to 2023, was an online social media platform and microblogging service. It played a significant role in shaping politics and culture in the early 21st century by enabling users to distribute short messages of up to 280 characters. Users would compose a message and send it to X’s server, which would then relay it to a list of other users, known as followers, who had chosen to receive messages from the sender. Additionally, users could interact with each other through mentions (using the @ symbol, e.g., @X) and follow specific topics by clicking on hashtags (using the # symbol, e.g., #movies). These features encouraged dialogue and often led to feeds with millions of followers.
The Origin of Twitter Twitter had its roots in Odeo, a podcasting venture founded in 2004 by Evan Williams, Biz Stone, and Noah Glass. Evan Williams and Biz Stone had previously worked at Google, with Williams having created the popular web authoring tool, Blogger. In 2005, Apple announced plans to include podcasts in its iTunes application, which posed a challenge to Odeo. In response, the company sought new directions. Employees were asked about side projects, and engineer Jack Dorsey proposed a short message service (SMS) that allowed users to share brief blog-like updates with friends. The project was initially named Twttr. On March 21, 2006, Dorsey sent the platform’s first message (“just setting up my twttr”), known as a tweet. The completed version of Twitter launched in July 2006. Recognizing its potential, Evan Williams, Biz Stone, and Jack Dorsey purchased Odeo in October 2006 and established Obvious Corp. to further develop the platform. Twitter gained considerable attention after being presented at the South by Southwest music and technology conference in Austin, Texas, in March 2007. In the following month, Twitter, Inc. was formed as a corporate entity with the help of venture capital funding, and Jack Dorsey became the first CEO. In 2008, Evan Williams replaced Dorsey as CEO, and two years later, Dick Costolo took over as CEO.
Twitter’s Evolution and Monetization Twitter started as a free SMS platform with social networking features and initially lacked a clear revenue stream, unlike sites that generated income from banner advertising or membership fees. With a 1,300 percent increase in unique visitors in 2009, it became evident that Twitter had moved beyond being a niche curiosity. However, given that in 2009, Facebook, the social networking giant, achieved profitability for the first time, it was uncertain whether Twitter could achieve financial independence from its venture capital investors. In April 2010, Twitter introduced “Promoted Tweets” as its primary source of revenue. These were advertisements that appeared in search results. Later in the same year, Twitter announced “Promoted Trends,” which placed promoted content alongside other trending topics, and “Promoted Accounts,” which recommended promoted accounts for users to follow. These monetization strategies marked Twitter’s transition toward a sustainable business model.
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From novelty to news source
Twitter’s origins as a social networking platform became evident in April 2009 when actor Ashton Kutcher raced CNN to become the first Twitter user to amass over a million followers. While celebrity engagement continued to attract users, businesses began to utilize Twitter for promotional messages and events. Political campaigns recognized the value of Twitter as a communication tool. In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama significantly outperformed John McCain in the realm of social media, amassing nearly four times as many MySpace friends and over 20 times as many Twitter followers. This development solidified the importance of maintaining a social media presence for future political candidates.
However, the most significant shift in Twitter’s evolution was its growing role as a tool for journalists. Twitter transformed into a real-time news source that transcended national borders. A pivotal moment occurred on January 15, 2009, when a tweet by commuter ferry passenger Janis Krums broke the news of the successful water landing of US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River in New York City. A hastily captured photo of passengers disembarking the partially submerged plane was shared on Twitpic.com, a photo-hosting service for Twitter users. The influx of traffic was so substantial that it caused the site to crash as thousands of Twitter users attempted to view the image simultaneously.
Twitter firmly established itself as an emerging platform for information dissemination during the events surrounding the Iranian presidential election in June 2009. As state media reported an easy victory for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supporters of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi took to the streets in a series of demonstrations. These protests eventually led to a government crackdown, resulting in injuries and casualties among demonstrators. The hashtag #IranElection became one of the most followed topics on Twitter as Mousavi’s supporters organized protests and provided real-time updates on events in Tehran. On June 15, three days after the election, Twitter postponed a 90-minute maintenance period at the request of the U.S. State Department. It was rescheduled for 1:30 AM Tehran time to avoid disrupting the flow of information within and from Iran. The following day, foreign journalists were banned from covering opposition rallies, and Twitter, along with other social networking sites, filled the void left by traditional media. The government attempted to curtail the flow of information by blocking individual Twitter users, while opposition supporters encouraged #IranElection followers to set their profile settings to the Tehran time zone in an effort to overwhelm government filters. Although the protests did not lead to a change in the election results or a new election, the tweets of these de facto journalists highlighted the potential of non-traditional media to circumvent government censorship.
Twitter showcased its adaptability as a high-tech news platform, but it also garnered the attention of those seeking to suppress certain information. In August 2009, a Georgian economics professor, whose tweets recounted the days leading up to the 2008 military conflict between Russia and Georgia, became the target of a massive denial-of-service attack. This attack knocked out the entire site for several hours, causing millions of users to encounter Twitter’s iconic “fail whale” image, signifying a site outage.
In 2009, Twitter introduced a verification badge in the form of a blue check mark for the accounts of notable individuals. This move followed a lawsuit by St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa against Twitter over a parody account. Twitter responded by announcing its intent to verify accounts of government agencies, public figures, and celebrities.
Following the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, Twitter reaffirmed its role as a potent information-sharing tool and a platform for effective fundraising. The Red Cross launched a mobile giving campaign that exceeded expectations. High-profile users lent their voices to support earthquake victims, and their followers, in turn, amplified the message, helping the Red Cross raise over $8 million within 48 hours of the disaster.
In September 2013, Twitter filed to become a publicly traded company, announcing the news through a tweet. Its subsequent initial public offering (IPO) in November raised $1.8 billion, resulting in a market value of $31 billion.
Jack Dorsey returned as CEO in October 2015, and Twitter continued to expand in popularity. In its efforts to increase user interaction and profitability, Twitter introduced features like Moments, Explore, and the expansion of the tweet character limit to 280 characters. While Fleets, a feature similar to Stories on other social platforms, was added in November 2020, it was discontinued in August 2021. Twitter also introduced Spaces, allowing accounts with over 600 followers to host live audio conversations.
One of the most notable changes occurred in March 2016 when Twitter replaced its chronological timeline with an algorithmic timeline. This change prioritized popular tweets and content liked by users’ followers. It aimed to encourage user interaction and tweeting but drew criticism for potentially reinforcing users’ existing biases.
Twitter achieved profitability in the final quarter of 2017, and it transitioned to measuring “monetizable daily active users” early in 2019. As of late 2021, the platform had 217 million monetizable daily active users. In November 2021, Jack Dorsey stepped down as CEO, making way for Parag Agrawal, the chief technology officer.
The Musk era: Twitter becomes X
The Musk era brought a significant shift. In 2022, Twitter announced its acquisition by Elon Musk for approximately $44 billion, with Musk set to become the sole owner. However, he later withdrew his bid, citing concerns over bot accounts and alleged breaches of the purchase agreement. This led to legal disputes and a decline in Twitter’s share price. Eventually, Twitter shareholders accepted Musk’s offer in September 2022.
Musk completed the purchase of Twitter in October 2022, maintaining the initial proposed share price of $54.20 per share. As the new owner, he made several impactful decisions, including staff layoffs, offering blue check-mark verification for a monthly fee, dissolving Twitter’s content moderation body, and reinstating banned accounts. Notably, he reinstated former U.S. President Donald Trump’s account, which had been suspended after the U.S. Capitol attack on January 6, 2021. Advertising revenue on the platform decreased significantly as many companies withdrew their ads. Musk also altered the company’s name, rebranding it as X in July 2023, with tweets now referred to as posts.