A brief history of microblogging

Microblogging—the term given to short status messages reporting on the details of one’s life—arrived on the scene as a major communication channel in March 2007 when Twitter became the hit of the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas. The young company set up large screens to display content provided by conference attendees, who signed up for the service in droves. Site creator Evan Williams didn’t invent communication through text, but his company did construct a scaffolding that gave new power to short messages.

Robert Crumb's Zap Comix
Cartoonist Robert Crumb predicted Twitter in the 1960’s. (source: Christopher Herot)

The seeds of tweets
The roots of microblogging owe to three main influences: Instant Relay Chat (IRC), chat status messages, and mobile phones.

IRC was invented by Jarkko Oikarinen back in 1988 after a couple decades of computer scientists toying with the idea of distributed chat. It is the forerunner to the instant messaging tools, like Yahoo! Messenger and GChat, which taught a generation of young Internet users how to synchronously chat with friends in real time. IRC also provided a rich language of protocols that used special characters to provide instruction from authors to readers. Two such examples are the namespace channel (#namespace) and the directed message (@username). Both conventions have propagated into current microblogging norms and are sometimes even hard-coded into the service.

The popularity of instant messaging evolved from merely instant communication with others who appear ready for a chat into a sub culture of creativity in the form of status messages. In most IM clients, a user can select a custom away message that will be displayed when a user goes idle or explicitly selects a dormant state. These messages became more and more creative, quickly moving from a standard “Not at my desk” to “Weeping softly in stairwell A. Back in 10.” This form of cultural communication also impacted social networking sites, most notably with the Facebook status message. In these ways, it became cultural behavior to express yourself and inquire about those you care about through short messages.

Finally, there is the mobile phone revolution, which was far more pronounced outside of the U.S. due to late adoption of technology and a less developed reliance on land-line phones. Texting became a legitimate use of a phone, as much or more than simply talking into the mouthpiece. The mobility meant that spontaneous urges to communicate could be met, and texting meant broadcast was possible to people who didn’t have phones (but did have computers). Texting—or, Short Message Service (SMS)—is celebrating its 15th birthday this year. In 1992, Neil Papworth sent the first message, “MERRY CHRISTMAS,” on December 3. It would be 1999, however, before SMS was able to communicate between providers, prompting an explosion of use. For 8-bit data messages, the maximum length is a familiar 140 characters.

In Twitter, we see strong evidence of all three of these cultures converging at an opportune moment. People are used to composing short messages on demand. They seek out such messages to gain awareness about what people in their social networks are doing. And the conventions they use when texting are persistent enough to provide some established community norms. This is the world into which Evan Williams hatched his idea.

Introducing … Twitter
Twitter is a thriving community of both members and, thanks to an early decision to open the API, developers. The company engineered several ways for members to post and receive tweets, the short 140-character messages published into the information stream. Text can be published through the Twitter web site, an instant messaging client, or by texting from a cell phone.

According to TwitDir—a third-party search tool keeping track of the big nodes in the network—Twitter currently boasts 593,645 public accounts and is growing by over 1000 new members daily. This, just over one year after the service officially launched. One has to have some 12,000 tweets and one-tenth that number in followers to make the top 100 in either category. I’ve had 1731 tweets myself with a reasonable following of 112 people. Intended use has a lot to do with that, as my primary interest is in keeping tabs on local Twitter members. The most active members are more about broadcast than mutual connection.

That’s not the story of Twitter. Twitter, after all, is about community.

Two key design strategies are instrumental to the success of the service. First, there is its simplicity. Unlike other microblogging entries, like Pownce, Twitter doesn’t try to be more than it is. Members compose short messages, and Twitter makes sure they are distributed in a self-organizing network. In fact, the added constraints that prevent things like file sharing and longer messages are part of the attraction. There is a very low barrier of entry, made even lower by the numerous ways you can now interact with the information streams.

The second key decision is an enterprise one: making access to the membership and content mechanisms available to developers. Most of the cool innovations with Twitter—such as the popular Macintosh desktop client, Twitterrific—have not been applications built by Obvious. They have been built by members so enamored with the service that they want to make it better. This creates a personal investment in Twitter for many people with influence to promote its use to a wider audience. The easier it becomes to access Twitter, the more new professions find ways to leverage the rapidly growing community and adopt tweeting as practice.

An invested community also means influence. So many people were using the IRC convention for individual replies that the service added support for the @ command, attaching those tweets to specific user content. There has been a lot of talk about supporting richer namespaces, or channels, that would allow members to follow topical discussions around a cause or convention. Jaiku, the European microblogging system recently acquired by Google, does support channels. Demand for blocking, search and term tracking led to improvements in the Twitter programming, although the community still demands tweaks. As more people look to social graph unification efforts, like OpenID and OpenSocial, conversation inevitably suggests future mashups.

The microblogging philosophy
In November, Twitter has been getting more and more play in both the blogosphere and the traditional media. One of the first attempts at a twitter guide for new users was probably Ed Dale’s Tao of Twitter movie. Two other major guides have been published, by Caroline Middlebrook and Dave Taylor, and several others have published overviews as well. All of them see a phenomenon in development.

Microblogging has been described in many ways. The most loving called it ambient intimacy. This is what Leisa Reichelt of Disambiguity had to say about Twitter back in early March:

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.

There are other apt descriptions. Clive Thompson’s analysis for Wired back in June likened the Twitter effect to a sixth sense, the kind that is incredibly useful in understanding when to interact with co-workers. It is a low-expectation IRC, the equivalent of saying “what’s up?” as you pass someone in the hall when you have no intention of finding out what is actually up, a phatic function.

Since Twitter’s splash at SxSW, several other microblogging services have tried to catch that same lighting in a bottle. Jaiku and Pownce are considered the biggest rivals of Twitter, but other entries into the new domain include Tumblr, MySay, Hictu, MoodMill, Frazr, IRateMyDay, Emotionr, Wamadu, Zannel, Soup, and PlaceShout. Some are blatant rip-offs of the idea, even going so far as to swipe markup code and terminology. Whenever new startup companies involve an information stream, the reviews inevitably compare them to Twitter. What separates Twitter from the crowd is its combination of timing, transparency and simplicity. And now, a community that is over a half million strong.

16 thoughts on “A brief history of microblogging

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  8. It depends on which character set is used, actually. 7-bit = 160 character limit. 8-bit = 140 character limits.

    At the time this was written, that lower threshold was the way people were describing the reason for the Twitter constraint. Since that time, the history of Twitter has been clarified a bit more:

    Back then, we had no character limit on our system. Messages longer than 160 characters (the common SMS carrier limit) were split into multiple texts and delivered (somewhat) sequentially. There were other bugs, and a mounting SMS bill. The team decided to place a limit on the number of characters that would go out via SMS for each post. They settled on 140, in order to leave room for the username and the colon in front of the message. In February of 2007 @Jack wrote something which inspired me to get started on this project: “One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.”
    (from @dom’s great account of the early history)

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