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How Twitter became one of the world's preferred platforms for sharing ideas

A photo illustration shows the reactivated Twitter profile of former US President Donald Trump. Elon Musk reinstated him on the social media platform on November 19, 2022.
Stanislav Kogiku
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SOPA Images/Lightrocket via Getty Images
A photo illustration shows the reactivated Twitter profile of former US President Donald Trump. Elon Musk reinstated him on the social media platform on November 19, 2022.

Billionaire Elon Musk has owned Twitter for less than a month. But one thing is clear: It will never be the same social network that the world has come to know over nearly two decades.

Musk has made radical decisions, seemingly single-handedly, such as selling blue verification checkmarks and reinstating accounts that had been banned for breaking Twitter's rules against violent or offensive speech, including that of former President Donald Trump. Long-time users and advertisers are fleeing.

Whether the company survives the present chaos or not, the history of tweeting shows just how important the platform has been since co-founder Jack Dorsey transmitted the very first message on March 21, 2006.

"There really is no other place where you can be any common individual with no political power, no monetary power, and yet you can story-tell using text, image and audio, you can link up and engage with people locally and globally around an issue, and then you can download your history and understand how all of this happened," said Desmond Upton Patton, a professor of social policy, communications and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who studies Twitter. "That is truly amazing."

Social Movements and Political Causes

Over the years, Twitter has helped to galvanize a wide array of social movements and political causes across the world from the Arab Spring and the present human-rights protests in Iran to #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

Seattle-based social media influencer Sean Gardner points to this tweet by Twitter co-founder Dorsey as being emblematic of the platform's use as a tool to spread ideas and incite people to action:

"Jack Dorsey's tweet is definitely something that sticks out," said Gardner. "I thought that was just a brilliant tweet because that's exactly what Twitter has done."

The platform has been very influential abroad, with around 80 percent of users living outside of the U.S. More than a decade ago, Twitter became a powerful tool for sharing information and reflections about the protests going on in Egypt and beyond during the Arab Spring.

And closer to home, tweeting helped galvanize millions of people in the wake of George Floyd's murder on May 25, 2020, with people sharing their anger and anguish using hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeForGeorge. News platforms used Twitter to report on the unfolding events.

Presidential Megaphone

Soon after Twitter became a "thing," some elected officials also started to see the platform as a useful way to reach people.

"Barack Obama was actually the first social media head of state," said Gardner of the former President. "It was because of him that countries got on board, and people started talking with each other online."

But it was Obama's successor who took tweeting to a whole new level. Gardner said Trump's hold on Twitter changed the face of politics.

"Trump is almost like a quarterback, and what he was doing was throwing the ball over to his wide receivers, which is basically people who were receptive to his particular message or stance," Gardner said. "So it's not really one tweet with Trump. If you look back at it, it's probably thousands."

Twitter removed Trump's account following the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. But a string of his tweets from that date, preserved by U.C. Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project, illustrate the ex-president's use of the platform.

A tweet sent out by Donald Trump on January 6, captured by UC Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project.
/ UC Santa Barbara American Presidency Project
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UC Santa Barbara American Presidency Project
A tweet sent out by Donald Trump on January 6, captured by UC Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project.

Trump has not yet jumped back on since Musk reinstated his account on Nov. 19.

Twitter's Lighter Side

For the University of Pennsylvania's Patton, Twitter has always been a place to share a joke and a place to start a riot. He points to Black Twitter as a source of joy and resilience, especially during the holiday season.

"The holidays can make for a complicated time for dealing with family members," said Patton. "Black Twitter can take a problematic moment and turn it into a fun meme or a fun joke with which everyone can resonate."

But Patton reacted strongly to Musk's takeover of Twitter — a feeling shared by many after the new owner sent out a tweet on Oct. 26 announcing, in esoteric fashion, his presence at the company's San Francisco headquarters.

"Twitter has problems that need to be fixed, but the tool has more hope and potential than negativity," Patton said. "It just feels like a wasted opportunity for Twitter to really do some good in the world."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.