After describing the slightly more esoteric topics of Snapchat and Twitch.tv, I thought I'd try to explain something slightly more fundamental to the modern internet landscape: Twitter.

It's not really a brag, but I'm the sort of nerd who remembers when Twitter caught on. For those who have forgotten, Twitter exploded at Austin's SXSW festival in 2007, virtually defining the startup scene there ever since. You go to SXSW to blow up like Twitter did, but no one has really replicated Twitter's lasting success.

Twitter is one of those things where you don't get it at all... until you do. SXSW is the perfect breeding ground for the spread of a good idea that takes a little bit of explaining.

Of course, now that half of all celebrity gossip and breaking news is derived from Twitter; now that "Black Twitter" is accepted as a noun; now that Twitter has formalized the parlance of early adopters (RT, @ replies) and begun to curate the broadly digestible content on its service... it's pretty easy to get into Twitter. Three drinks at an Austin dive bar are no longer required.

Without the help of alcohol and indie bands, or all of Twitter's modern convenience, it took me a while to understand what Twitter was when I signed up in early 2007. I was already cocky enough to criticize the hype, though:


Twitter being hard to figure out was partly Twitter's fault. In its original incarnation, the prompt for your 140 character tweets was oddly personal: "What are you doing?"

Well, what am I doing? Probably something dumb that nobody wants to know about.

I remember, early on, wondering if any given moment was worth tweeting about. Bowling. Is bowling worth tweeting about? I'm seeing a Batman movie. Should I tweet about a Batman movie?

Conversation is what Twitter is for.

But the larger problem about asking "what are you doing?" is that it doesn't breed conversation. Conversation is what Twitter is for. Anybody can start a blogspot and share their thoughts. Everybody has Facebook and a family that's well informed of their child's every step. Any asshole can comment on a YouTube video. But Twitter became the place to really, you know, talk.

Finally, Twitter realized what it had. In 2009, co-founder Biz Stone announced that Twitter would change its original prompt to the more vague, more inviting, "What's happening?" which remains today.

Twitter is really and truly about "What's happening." One tweet in a million is newsworthy, almost every other tweet is about the news. What you're doing (if you're not, say, disembarking from a plane in the middle of the Hudson) is unimportant, but what you think about what you're doing, or about what anyone is doing, is what kicks off the conversation.

The best way to approach Twitter, in my opinion, is as a chatroom. Twitter is like a chatroom where you choose the participants. Who do you want to hear talking, and who do you want to talk to? Follow those people. Now listen and talk.

Chatrooms, an age-old internet institution, have an etiquette. Make private conversations private. Harassers will be kicked and banned. Please don't act like a 13 year old. And there's one rule above them all: stay on topic.

Twitter works best when you join in on the current micro-trend. I'm not talking hashtags, necessarily. Twitter is a chatroom where you pick the participants — you're not following everybody in the world, you're following your friend Greg and a half-dozen journalists who don't seem terrible, and Taylor Swift, and Elon Musk because Greg just won't shut up about Elon. So talk about whatever the people you follow are talking about.

"But wait just one minute, Mr." you @ reply me. "Not everybody I follow, or everybody who follows me, is on the same topic! How do I choose?"

Well, see, that's the beauty of Twitter. It makes groups collide. I follow journalists, game developers, Taylor Swift, a Jenner, programmers, current and former co-workers, some family friends, and my mom. Twitter doesn't force any of these people to talk to each other, or even acknowledge each other, but it sure does something.

Twitter is a crockpot, toaster oven, and microwave all-in-one for ideas.

Twitter is a crockpot, toaster oven, and microwave all-in-one for ideas. The best information, the worst misinformation, the oldest wisdom, and the newest buzzwords.

And when it everything seems terrible? When all is lost? Change your chatroom. Unfollow the downers. Or follow more downers. Block haters. Engage with the engage-worthy. What's happening in your timeline is as much a reflection of your personality as of the current zeitgeist.

Of course, this is the real problem with Twitter. It's only as cool as you are.

Hurts, doesn't it?


Header image courtesy of The Next Web.


About Paul Miller

That guy who left the internet for a year