What kind of gift does one give Twitter on its 10th birthday? And what kind of gift does Twitter give itself?
Hashtags of course. On Monday, the social networking site turned a decade old, and Twitter kicked off the celebration with #LoveTwitter. When used, a heart and a bird appeared next to the words. And for a while, liking a tweet meant that the little heart indicator would jump up into an explosion of love.
Lots of people took to resharing their first tweets, full of banal accounts of daily life, or general confusion over Twitter, or comments about food.
It was cute: Twitter — for a little while, at least — pretending to be a nice place. It hearkened back to Twitter’s earliest days, when everyone was still nice in 140 characters, and spent most of their time talking about what they were eating.
The nostalgia, it seemed, was a bit disingenuous; in many ways that’s the exact opposite of what Twitter is today.
As the week ended, the Twitter conversation moved from tweet nostalgia to a raging tussle between two presidential candidates — Ted Cruz and Donald Trump — seemingly over whose wife is prettier.
This is Twitter 10 years in: Not quite great, not quite awful, but something in between. And for us, the question is a simple one: Ten years in, what has Twitter done for our politics?
In some regards, the answer is simple: One need only look at social movements like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and — most recently — Black Lives Matter to see the effects of Twitter on political activism.
But with each of these movements, there are questions. Did Twitter really start the Arab Spring, or would it have happened without the social network? Did Occupy Wall Street actually accomplish anything? Who’s in charge of the Black Lives Matter movement, what do they want, and are they willing to play politics to get it?
Besides activism, Twitter has clearly affected politicians as well. Barack Obama has become perhaps America’s first Twitter president, with that now iconic image of Michelle holding him after his reelection win. And it seems entire plotlines during this presidential campaign are playing out on Twitter, with Donald Trump — a man who may speak the language of Twitter better than anyone else — leading the charge.
Twitter has opened up our national political conversation to anyone willing to write 140 characters. But as we’ve previously reported, that isn’t always a good thing, especially when there’s pressure to respond to everything as quickly as possible, and only in 140 characters.
The thing with Twitter, 10 years in, is that it’s very hard to really answer any of these questions. There is no one Twitter. My Twitter is different than yours. And for every troll it’s empowered, there’s an activist, or a social movement, or a new and needed political voice.
One researcher has attempted to quantify it all: Last year, Shelley Boulianne looked at all the research on social media use, civic engagement and electoral participation — and the results weren’t great. She found that “the relationship between social media use and participation in election campaigns seems weak.” She said the following of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns:
“While these campaigns may have revolutionized aspects of election campaigning online, such as gathering donations, the metadata provide little evidence that the social media aspects of the campaigns were successful in changing people’s levels of participation. In other words, the greater use of social media did not affect people’s likelihood of voting or participating in the campaign.”
Perhaps that sums it up. One decade in, Twitter has changed things — that’s obvious — but it’s sometimes hard to tell if has made our politics better, or worse, or if it’s had some other effect we still don’t know how to explain.