Sales & Marketing

The high and low moments of Twitter's first decade

8 min read

14 March 2016

Twitter is ten years old on 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 – so we took a look at some of the platform's most iconic moments.

The social platform’s 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, ranging form the good to the, well, not quite so good.

Tweets at their best

Barak Obama’s “four more years” Tweet. In 2012 it was the most re-tweeted 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: 

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 300m people.

Read on to find out which poor tweets found themselves the brunt of numerous users.

Meet the dark side of the Twittersphere

Trolls. Whilst 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”: 

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, whereby she said she hoped she didn’t get AIDs. 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”. Whilst the fashion industry seems to have more than its fair share of fails, no business sector is immune. For example, in the US the DiGiorno pizza company used domestic abuse campaign’s #WhyIStayed to promote its pizza.

Politicians. If there’s one thing that characterises the contemporary Twitter, it’s a very long list of political indiscretions. Whilst it’s a global phenomena, a notable UK mention includes Ed Balls tweeting his own name:

There was also the time David Cameron tweeted to a spoof Ian Duncan Smith account and Aiden Burley described 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 300m people and there is growing sense of disillusionment. Stephen Fry recently stepped back from Twitter describing it as:

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Mark Brill is senior lecturer in digital communication and future media at Birmingham City University.