Friday, 8 March 2013

The Early Days of Twitter

According to its rival as a repository of all the world's knowledge, Twitter was created in 2006. For the modern, fully-functional version web-based version of the interface, this is probably true. However that's forgetting that Twitter, being a text-based service, had actually been in existence since 1959.

It was based on mainframe computers, then. And that's the reason for the character limit, of course - 132 being the width of a traditional computer report, and  8 being the number of characters available for the left-hand numbering column, making a total of 140 characters. The first eight characters became available for use after the advent of COBOL 2.

In the early days of Twitter, there were no networks as we know them today. The punched cards containing the "tweets" would be posted to the "@" recipients. If you wanted to send a message to all your followers, it could cost a fortune in stamps.
"have u seen this picture of u lol xxx" - An early victim of a spam DM regrets his "never had it so good" tweet. 

You couldn't put in hyperlinks to your blogs or interesting news items before the invention of the World Wide Web, of course. Instead you'd put your post code and house number in, and people would come round to see what you wanted to show them. If they were lucky, they'd get there before you'd thrown away the newspaper article you wanted to share.

It quickly became obvious that starting tweets with "To whom it may concern", and finishing them with "Yours Faithfully", was wasting a lot of the available characters. Likewise, after a while it was no longer necessary for gentlemen to wear morning suits when sending tweets. However they still sent their punched cards to a chaperone first, if wanting to address a lady, until 1974.

John F. Kennedy was an early adopter. "Ich bin ein Berliner" was famous as the first time a celebrity shortened a speech to fewer than 140 characters, in order to fit it into a tweet.
Ich Bin Ein Berliner
Retweets were a real problem at that time. They could be so much work - re-punching the whole card with the characters for "RT " at the front. And the danger of mis-typing somebody else's tweet was very high - a problem said to have caused the "Bay of Pigs" crisis, when Khrushchev accidentally broadcast a mis-typed tweet from Fidel Castro. Castro, not having received any letters from Krushchev for a few weeks, and instead only receiving a blizzard of 140-character messages, asked if he could write him proper letters more often. The response, substituting a crucial "l" for a "v", caused worldwide panic. It should have read "RT @Real_Fidel @Nikita1894 Please can you send me more missives?"

Eventually, some bright spark came up with the idea of selling very short punched cards, containing only the letters "RT ". In those practical days, it was then just a matter of Sellotaping the prefix onto the original card, and sending it on to all your followers.

@Houston  One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
 With these slow methods of transmission, if some celebrity caused mass upset, it could take days for a "Twitterstorm" to take off. When the Profumo scandal broke, whole forests in Norway were cut down to retweet Mandy Rice Davies's famous remark over a six-month period.

RT @Mandy_RD well he would say that, wouldn't he? #statesecrets
In those early days, the tradition of watching TV while posting satirical comments on Twitter was already established. However, sitting on your couch with an IBM System/360 mainframe computer on your lap was always impractical. After a few people were crushed to death, it fell into abeyance until the invention of the Sinclair ZX-81. Then in the 1970s, punched cards need no longer be posted. After the initial data entry, tweets could be transmitted via the newly-forming academic networks such as Janet, which caused a ballooning of popularity through into the 80s. At this time, Twitter was mostly popular with molecular biophysics researchers, using the relatively-empty bandwidth of these new networks late at night. Being the sort of sad, single males that frequented labs in the middle of the night, they were attracted by those odd, spam user-bots that use attractive avatars to lure in the unwary. Being biophysicists, however, the avatars were more likely to be of this kind:
@H3N5 I'm a fun-loving glyoprotein looking for single  males xxx
It was in the 80s, however, that Twitter made its big mistake. With the option to use more colours online, and improved bandwidth, it chose a new logo. That logo had to be "now", it had to be "trendy", it had to be avian, it had to be cutesy.

They missed "trendy" by quite a way.

It was 2006 before Twitter got over the public relations disaster, and could start again. And the rest is history.


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