Three examples of why Twitter still matters today, more than ever, and where it’s headed

Twitter is dead. Twitter is useless. Twitter is just for celebrities / trolls / prOn. (And walruses too, apparently.) Its signal-to-noise ratio is only slightly better than a nuclear explosion. Its growth has plateaued; nobody knows how to use it; it’s going to be acquired (and shut down); and in any event, it just plain doesn’t matter.

Except that it isn’t useless — not even slightly — and it does matter. It matters a lot. Arguably even more today, in the twilight of 2016, than when it first hatched, an incredible 10 years ago. Because nothing — no medium; no website; no blog; and no, not even Facebook — can rival it for the astonishing speed with which news and information propagates through the ether of the Twitterverse; the dependence of millions for its ability to quickly and easily communicate en masse; and the reliance by news and media agencies around the world to disseminate information to their legions of faithful followers.

Here are just three powerful examples of how Twitter has not only improved the world in which we live, but is in fact a very real and necessary thing in our digital and ever-connected world; a thing upon which we are now more or less dependent — at least for certain things — whether we realize it or not.

Twitter matters for natural disasters

Getting the quick and obvious example out of the way first, if you live in a part of the world not insulated from Mother Nature’s wrath, and find the ground quaking beneath your feet now and then, or the sky splitting open above your head with biblical torrents flooding your cities, chances are you’ve used — nay, relayed upon! — Twitter to inform you on the latest cataclysmic event, to advise you on what (not) to do / where not (to) go / and so on.

Speaking as someone who’s grown up in (both ends) of California, I can assure you that the first thing I do when my wife and I are awakened in the middle of the night is to jump on Twitter and search for some variations of #earthquake#sf #earthquake, or jump straight to @earthquakesSF. Only once we get our bearings straight and understand what’s just happened do we slowly make our way to Facebook to check in with friends.

Twitter matters for social unrest

Iran: The Green Revolution, 2009–2010. While Twitter’s efficacy in actually having catalyzed the revolution is justifiably up for debate, its value in disseminating an unfiltered state of affairs through the western world cannot be disputed. In a world dominated by the likes of CNN, Fox News, and the BBC, Twitter offered an unusually transparent look into the true mechanics and events during Iran’s pivotal presidential election and brought the citizens of Iran together under a common flag — in this case a common hashtag — #iranelection — and the world noticed.

Tunisia: The Tunisian Revolution, 2010. Following the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi whose unlicensed vegetable store was shut down by local police, a mass protest erupted as people cried out against poor political freedoms and living conditions. Again, Twitter was mobilized for its ease of amassing people around a common goal, easily identified in this case by the hashtag #sidibouzid.

Egypt: Tahrir Square, 2011. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 — the “Tahrir Square Revolution” — would arguably have never occurred — or at least never developed the necessary momentum to succeed — without Twitter. Indeed, the Egyptian government swiftly sought to censor coordination through Twitter by blocking the service altogether. It was only thanks to the availability of virtual private networks (VPNs) like AnchorFree HotSpot Shieldthat nearly 1 million people (here, and here) in Cairo were able to coordinate and flood the streets with some 80,000 people.

USA: Boston Marathon Bombing, 2013. The horrific scene that ripped along Boston’s major thoroughfare, Boylston Street, tore through not only the concrete of the surrounding buildings and flesh of all nearby people, it shattered the heart and soul of our nation. In the immediate aftermath, Twitter became a central assembly point to help track the suspects, not to mention offer compassion, solidarity, and of course, a window through which the rest of the world could witness the horrors unfold.

Ukraine: Euromaiden, 2013. Following rejection of the EU-Ukraine agreement by the Ukrainian president, Kiev exploded into mass protests, the organization of which was catalyzed almost entirely through Twitter via the hashtags #euromaiden and its cyrillic analog #євромайдан. Twitter use in Ukraine spiked overnight, with 240,000 tweets sent during the evening of February 20, 2014, up from a relatively paltry 90,000. Meanwhile, the number of new subscribers in Ukraine shot to 55,000 in January 2014, up from just 6,000 two months earlier.

Western Europe, 2015–2016. Paris. Brussels. Nice. Icons not only of Western Europe but of Western democracy, these three cities soon found themselves in veritable war zones, the likes of which had not been experienced since World War II. While Twitter erupted nearly instantly during these tragic, heartbreaking events, something new happened this time: Periscope. For the first time ever, the world was able to come together in tearful, agonizing solidarity, eyes plastered helplessly — hopelessly? — to their phones, watching the gruesome events unfold in all their grisly, unedited, livestreaming horror; all of this thanks to the magic of Periscope, Twitter’s recently acquired livestreaming video app that predated Facebook Live. Never before in the history of the world have so many people been able to witness first hand the horrors and atrocities we humans bestow upon ourselves.

Twitter matters for social good

Fortunately, Twitter matters not only for cataclysmic acts of god or man’s hateful acts of violence. On the contrary, a shining beacon of forward-thinking hope and happiness are the myriad social good programs that have been pivotal in helping to reduce world poverty, hunger, and disease.

Matt Damon’s The United Nations’ World Food ProgrammeCharity Water. All these social good programs rely on Twitter to get their messages across, to garner support for their causes, and to spread the word about new and exciting endeavors. They make transparent the otherwise opaque; they imbue emotion into seemingly mundane, mechanical needs; they bring close to home that which might as well be on another world.

So then — Twitter’s future?

Not much. Not if it stays its present, untempered, unsanitized course. Not if it continues the anachronistic game of follower count oneupmanship, a modern day 140-character remix of MySpace and its users with 47 million “friends.” Not if it continues to tolerate bullying, trolling, and otherwise unsavory acts. Not if it continues to allow gaming of its platform with automated likes, retweets, and follow/unfollow functionality. Not if it continues to flood users’ inboxes with notifications that @ladiesman217 has just followed you, rather than helping you to discover legitimately useful people with whom you should, and would actually want, to connect.

No. Twitter will not have much of a future left if it continues to be the Twitter we know and loathe. Not if it continues to be the Twitter that we hate precisely because we love it so much. Because after all, as most of us have surely learned by the time we’ve had our hearts broken the first few times, true hatred is born only from true love; indeed, it has been said that the two emotions share a common border.

But for all the foregoing reasons — not least of which its invaluable place in the role of media, entertainment, sports, and news, not to mention earthquakes, revolutions, and social good — Twitter as a thing, as a service, as a realtime notification platform, no, it’s not going anywhere.

Yes it may implode a bit and continue to shuffle members about its upper ranks; yes it may well be acquired (Facebook? Google? Salesforce? AT&T? Disney? I desperately hope it goes to Disney or some other media company); and, to be fair, if acquired, it may well change form quite markedly from its present cacophonous state. But then, that would be a good thing.

Twitter is the fastest, quickest, easiest way to communicate with masses of people; a veritable virtual megaphone reverberating its 140 character tweets through the bits and bytes of sinuous strands and sinews of the internet.

To argue that Twitter has somehow lost its significance — that immediate, realtime 140-character soundbites, images, and videos from around the world suddenly don’t matter — to argue that it should one day vanish; that its utility is only slightly greater than a bed made from daggers and hot tar, that’s like arguing that our world has little need for music just because the Backstreet Boys aren’t topping charts anymore, or that people should stop eating food because stale bread is boring.

But joking aside, stale bread still has an astonishing amount of utilitarian value left in it: repurpose it for the classic French soup à l’oignon; drench it with eggs and fry it on a pan; or simply wrap it in a moist paper towel and pop it in the microwave: voilà, the previously inedible rock of bread is now a delicious gourmet soup; a sumptuous breakfast alternative to hopelessly pedestrian pancakes — French toast; or just a simple piece of baguette to enjoy with a savory slice of ham, cheese, and a spread of butter.

The point is, Twitter doesn’t just matter; it matters a lot. Indeed, it is a veritable need for some subset of the population, many of whom may not even have that stale pice of bread to eat tomorrow morning.

Thankfully though, they’ll always have Twitter to coordinate and fight for their cause, to help them get more bread.


Marc Hoag