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BLOG: Twitter's transformation: Ugly duckling is now Internet swan

Robert X. Cringely | Nov. 7, 2013
On eve of its IPO, it's easy to forget how far Twitter has come -- and how much it's changed our dialog

Look honey, our little microblog is all growed up.

Tomorrow Twitter launches its IPO, the digital equivalent of a bar mitzvah for Internet startups. From this day forward, it will be seen an adult in the eyes of the world.

If Facebook is the Big Man on the Social Media Campus -- flashy and popular, with equal parts extreme arrogance and raging insecurity -- Twitter is the nerdy little brother in the horn-rimmed glasses with his face buried in a book, oblivious to the world around him. Invariably, though, those are the ones who turn into the more interesting grownups.

A skeptical start
Honestly, I never thought it would get this far. Back when Twitter launched in 2007 I was as skeptical as the next guy (assuming the next guy was H. L. Mencken). A blog where you get only 140 characters to say what's on your mind -- who the frak thought that was a good idea? It was a feature in search of a product, a status update with delusions of grandeur. I expected Twitter to either die out in a year or get swallowed by Facebook or Microsoft or Google or Yahoo ... then die out in a year.

Boy, was I wrong. Not only did Twitter thrive, it has become one of the information services I rely on most.

I think the turning point for me came in April 2008, when Berkeley grad student James Karl Buck was detained by state authorities while traveling through Egypt. A single tweet with the word "ARRESTED!" was enough to alert his Twitter posse to call for the cavalry -- in this case, the U.S. State Department -- and get him released.

It seemed suddenly that Twitter had a purpose after all. Its use by dissidents in IranEgypt,PakistanTurkey, and elsewhere solidified its status. When repressive governments take the trouble to censor you, you're clearly doing something right.

Now when there's a major public occasion -- a political debate, a sporting event, some national catastrophe -- I find myself glued to Twitter, following the news (including reports that turn out to be wrong) and enjoying the snarky commentary. I check it more often than I check my email. I mostly follow other journalists, wits, and people who seem to have something to say or pick interesting things to read.

Beware the Twitter traps
Yes, Twitter can be annoying. I learned over time to unfollow anyone who used the term "social media guru" in a non-ironic fashion, as well as those obsessing about their pets, food choices, or appearance. For a time, the Fail Whale made regular appearances on my desktop, though I can't recall the last time one swam by. Though my tweetstream was at one time overrun with fake accounts, spammers and frauds are now quickly dispatched, thanks largely to Twitter's extremely efficient reporting tools. (Facebook could learn a few lessons here.)


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