15 years of Twitter: Between visions and the mills of politics


On its 15th birthday, Twitter is like a big construction site. Co-founder and boss Jack Dorsey has an evolution in mind that will bring Twitter far beyond the usual short message format. These include tweets with the name “Fleets” that disappear on their own, the “Spaces” talks based on the model of the popular start-up Clubhouse, and in the future even the option of having tweets sorted by your own algorithms. In addition, Twitter is testing the possibility of making exclusive content or offers available to paying subscribers.

Dorsey’s vision: Twitter should be the place to find out what’s happening – and to talk about it. The way there is rocky. How does everyone find the tweets that are important to them in the flood of millions of messages? How do you as the operator ensure that the sound remains civilized? And that the platform is not used to manipulate public opinion – as in the large-scale Russian campaign for the US presidential election in 2016?

To prevent the latter, Dorsey dared a radical cut: Since the end of 2019, Twitter has not allowed tweets on political topics to be distributed more than advertisements. Nevertheless, the past year was a trial by fire for dealing with controversial content. Twitter decided to take action against tweets containing false or misleading information about the coronavirus and the US presidential election. That drove the conflict between Twitter and its most powerful user for a long time – the now former US President Donald Trump – to an extreme.

For Trump, the Twitter profile was by far the most important communication channel with more than 80 million subscribers. With reference to the historical significance of his tweets, Twitter let him go through insults for a long time, for which ordinary users could quickly get into trouble. But in spring 2020 Trump crossed the red lines so far that the fragile agreement crumbled.

Trump claimed in tweets that the postal vote in the Corona crisis increased the risk of fraud – and thus prepared the ground for his later attempts to overturn the legitimate election result. Twitter provided warning notices to one Trump tweet after the other. The Republicans quoted Dorsey several times before congressional committees and tried to narrow the scope of online platforms in action against users and content.

“Mr. Dorsey, who the hell chose you and charged you with deciding what the media can report and what the American people can learn?” Yelled Republican Senator Ted Cruz at the Twitter boss shortly before the US election . After the attack by Trump supporters on the Capitol, Twitter banned the then-incumbent president – and emphasized that there was no way back for him on the platform.

This conflict could be a headache for Twitter if Republicans were to regain control of the US Congress. Twitter is also under pressure elsewhere: Russia recently throttled the service and threatens a blockade.

Trump vs. Twitter – Attack on Freedom of Expression? #heiseshow from June 4th, 2020

The beginnings of the service were nowhere near as controversial. A tweet on January 15, 2009 made the whole world aware of the potential of the platform, where everyone can share news. “There’s a plane in the Hudson,” tweeted the software entrepreneur Janis Krums, his photo of a passenger plane that he had just thrown into the New York River on a ferry in the Hudson. During the “Arab Spring” – the protests that transformed Egypt, Libya and Tunisia – Twitter helped the movement and became an important tool for the demonstrators.

The quick Twitter reaction of the biscuit brand Oreo in the event of a power failure during the Superbowl 2013 – “You can also dip in the dark” – showed companies how to get into conversation quickly.

Twitter makes its money with advertising. In essence, you pay for getting tweets into users’ timelines. After a long dry spell, Twitter is now firmly in the black with the model. It is not known exactly how many users the service has. For some time now, Twitter has only cited the number of daily users who can be reached with advertising via the in-house app or the web. Most recently it was 192 million.