by Mark Brill, senior lecturer in Digital Communication and Future Media at Birmingham City University

Twitter is ten years old this month (21 March). At first, only a few people got the point of it, but throughout the decade it has become a place for revelations, revolutions and many indiscretions. It’s easy to see why.

The short-form format makes for instant communication to a global audience. At its best, we have erudite comments from UK personalities, from Stephen Fry to Caitlin Moran or insightful humour from Eddie Izzard and Russell Brand. There is also the more self-deprecating variety from James Blunt. Here are a few of Twitter’s most iconic moments, the good and the not quite so good:

The Highs

Barak Obama’s ‘four more years’ Tweet.

In 2012 it was the most retweeted picture ever, and it demonstrated the power of the channel to help change politics. The most retweets has since been beaten by the famous Oscar selfie and sadly, One Direction.

The Arab Spring.

The micro-blogging channel was credited as the catalyst for change in the Middle East in 2011, in places such as Tunisia and Libya. When the Egyptian Government blocked access to Twitter during the revolution, Google worked with the channel to ensure that citizens could still tweet using SMS.

Real time journalism.

Twitter has changed the way many journalists work, allowing both professionals and citizens to describe events as they happen. One of the first global examples of this was the Hudson air crash: ‘There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.’

We also had the iconic Phoenix Mars tweet: ‘Are you ready to celebrate? Well, get ready: We have ICE!!!!! Yes, ICE, *WATER ICE* on Mars! w00t!!! Best day ever!!’

Making businesses more accountable.

It has, on occasion, made businesses open to questions from consumers. Take this understatement from BP: ‘We regretfully admit that something has happened off of the Gulf Coast. More to come.’ There was also the famous Q&A with the British Gas chair where people asked questions such as: ‘Hi Bert, which items of furniture do you, in your humble opinion, think people should burn first this winter? #askBG’ and in a further example of the wit of Twitter: ‘Will you pass on the cost savings from firing your social media team to customers?’ #askBG

However, the success of Twitter is also its challenge. Many people use social media to seek approval and the ease of sending messages means that people fail to understand the implications of what they say. What might be an ill-advised, smart-arsed comment to a friend becomes a #twitterstorm when there is an audience of nearly 300 million people.

The Lows

Trolls.

While Twitter can give a voice to many, the challenge is that it can also create bullies who feel they can hide behind the anonymity of the internet. A particularly low point was the trolling of activist and feminist Caroline Criado-Perez who was campaigning for more women to be represented on UK bank notes. The historian, Mary Beard was another public figure who suffered abuse, but she turned the tables by naming and shaming her abuser, then befriending him.

The not-so-clever.

One tweet claimed that ‘barraco barner’ was Britain’s President. In less than 140 characters one person brought our entire education system into question. Another unconsidered tweet became known as ‘The Twitter Joke Trial’: ‘Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high! #IAmSpartacus’. It landed the author in court and prison but was finally overturned on appeal. In another example of the viral-ness of the medium, PR executive Justine Sacco, sent a highly inappropriate tweet to just 170 followers, shortly before she boarded a flight to South Africa. By the time she landed, there were thousands of retweets and her name was trending. She had also lost her job.

Ill-considered marketing.

There are numerous examples of brand #fails from the world of Twitter that include body shaming, ‘accidental’ pornographic pictures and many poorly timed tweets. The fashion designer Kenneth Cole has become famed for his inappropriate tweeting. During the Egyptian revolution he tweeted: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online”. While the fashion industry seems to have more than its fair share of fails, no business sector is immune. For example, in the US one pizza company used a campaign against domestic violence to attempt to promote their product.

Politicians.

If there’s one thing that characterises the contemporary Twitter, it’s a very long list of political indiscretions. While it’s a global phenomena, a few notable UK mentions include Ed Balls tweeting his own name, David Cameron tweeting to a spoof Ian Duncan Smith account, and Aiden Burley describing the Olympic opening ceremony as “…leftie multicultural crap.” It’s not just words, Labour front-bencher Emily Thornberry was sacked from her role after tweeting a picture from Rochester, of a white van in front of a house with the flag of St George.

So, after ten years Twitter has informed, entertained and horrified us in equal measure. The next decade for the channel appears less certain. Its user base has flattened off at around 300 million people, and there is growing sense of disillusionment. Stephen Fry recently stepped back from Twitter describing it as “a stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous”.

#RethinkMedia returns to Birmingham on 16 March 2016 and will provide inspiring insights, informed debate and potential solutions to the many challenges facing the fast evolving digital media sector.

Rethink Media is organised by Birmingham City University and aims to support emerging media by showcasing new business models and the tools to improve content creation, maximise distribution and support audience engagement.

Find out more about the Rethink Media 2016 conference and how to book.

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Mark Brill

Mark Brill

Mark Brill is senior lecturer in Future Media at Birmingham City University. He is a leading mobile and innovation strategist and has worked with a diverse range of global brands including Chevrolet, Samsung and Louis Vuitton, as well as leading advertising agencies across the WPP and Aegis groups.