How Twitter Was Born

Originally created in 2006 as a short messaging system for small groups, Twitter has since evolved into a powerful social media platform. Not only has it dramatically changed how we share information online, Twitter also functions as a crowd-driven trend barometer.

While it remains an information hub that’s often breaking news faster than news agencies, recent developments meant that Twitter has been breaking faster than the team behind it can handle. Meanwhile, let’s look back 15 years and find out how Twitter came to be.

The Creation of Twitter

Twitter user holding phone with Twitter login page in hand

Twitter is now owned by Elon Musk, but its origins date back to long before the billionaire set his sights on the platform. In 2006 the people who were to become the founders of Twitter were working at Odeo, Inc., a San Francisco-based podcasting company founded a year earlier.

The company struggled with major competition and was under pressure to come up with an innovation. In an attempt to re-invent themselves, they held “hackathons” or “day long brainstorming sessions” in smaller groups.

Jack Dorsey was in one of these groups. His initial suggestion was to create an SMS service that would allow small groups to share what they are doing right now. Back in 2006, public Wi-Fi, smartphones, and mobile internet were far from being a commodity.

However, SMS had just had a breakthrough and had become affordable in the US. When on the go, young people primarily communicated using text messages. Hence, Dorsey’s suggestion was instantly met with enthusiasm.

Subsequently, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Florian Weber were asked to prototype this idea. Version 0.1, managed by Noah Glass, was created on March 21, 2006, and it was entirely web-based. For many months, the project, code-named twttr, was in “Top Secret Alpha” to stay below the radar of competition.

Eventually, Twttr Beta was launched, more people were invited to join. On July 15, 2006 went public. Soon after, the domain was acquired, and the service was re-branded.

On February 8, 2007, Jack Dorsey wrote his first tweet:

Why were tweets limited to 140 characters? The original character limit was introduced to control SMS bills and other bugs with messages longer than the 160-character limit of an SMS.

The limit was set to 140 characters, to have 20 characters for a username and colon. Twitter has since increased its character limit to 280, but you can write even longer tweets.

The Origin of the Idea Behind Twitter

Tweet Tweet Neon Sign

So what was Jack Dorsey’s inspiration? As it turns out, it was not a spontaneous product of his imagination, but a concept Dorsey had been mulling for many years.

He had been fascinated by how cities work, how goods and information flow, and how everything is interconnected. He started looking at things that could be traced, such as bicycle messengers or truck couriers delivering packages. He envisioned software that would track everything that is happening in the city and would also allow you to see what is happening right at this moment.

What Dorsey found lacking was what regular people are doing. Instant messaging gave him a clue of how this could work the same way.

However, in the early 2000s, mobile devices with internet connectivity were a rarity, meaning the stream of updates would be limited to people sitting in front of a stationary computer.

Dorsey wanted something that could be updated anywhere and anytime. He even created an app for the BlackBerry predecessor RIM 850, a small email device. However, to use the app, you had to have this device, which again meant the reach was limited.

It was not until 2005 that SMS (aka text messaging) became popular in the US, and Jack realized that the time for his idea had come.

The Original Design of Twitter

The sketch below shows the original design for the messaging service Dorsey envisioned, conceived in 2000 or 2001.

Notice the pair of eyes in the bottom right. The idea was that people could “watch” another user, which was later changed to “follow”. Dorsey explained that on Twitter you are watching what someone produces, rather than watching the person.

Hence, to him, Twitter was not a social network, since it was more about the information and less about the people.

How Twitter Got Its Name

As the sketch above reveals, Twitter’s working name was Status. The story about how the service ended up being called Twitter varies.

Dorsey’s version is that the team really wanted to capture “the physical sensation that you’re buzzing your friend’s pocket.” According to him, the first name they came up with was Twitch, which reflects the vibration a phone makes when a status update is received. Not quite satisfied with the associations that come with the term, they went and scanned the dictionary for similar words to Twitch and came across Twitter.

Noah Glass claims to have come up with the name Twttr, and Dom Sagolla writes the name or rather its abbreviation was inspired by Flickr.

In a 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Dorsey said:

The whole bird thing: bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds. The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it’s entirely dependent on the recipient.

What You Can Learn From Twitter’s History

Like many other stories of successful projects, the story of Twitter brings home some major lessons. A brilliant idea can take years to find the right environment within which it can flourish. Don’t give up on your ideas, but play with them, until the time is right.

The initial idea will develop, and prototyping can help with this process. Don’t give up if the first prototype doesn’t work, but continue with trial and error. The motto is to keep going. And that couldn’t be truer today.

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