In this photo illustration, former US President Donald Trump’s archived Twitter account is shown on a phone screen with the Twitter logo in the background.
Sheldon Cooper | Lightrocket | Getty Images
A decade ago, Twitter’s the future looked bright. The company benefited from a flood of funding into the social networking space, which eventually led to an IPO in 2013 that raised $1.8 billion.
Now the company is back in private hands. And they happen to be the hands of Elon Musk, the richest person in the world and one of the app’s most high-profile provocateurs.
It’s a huge moment. Twitter has become a key place for people to debate, joke and pontificate in their own circles about politics, sports, technology and finance. It has also served as a platform that gives voice to the voiceless, helping protesters organize and express themselves in oppressive regimes around the world.
In recent years, however, Twitter and social media rivals like Facebook has been at the center of controversy over the distribution of fake news and misinformation, sometimes leading to bullying and violence.
Investors had become concerned about Twitter as a business. The company was generally unprofitable, struggling to keep up Google and Facebook, often killing popular products without any real explanation.
What follows is a brief history of Twitter, which – despite its many faults – is one of the most iconic companies to emerge from Silicon Valley in the past 20 years.
In March, Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone and Evan Williams created Twitter, which was originally a side project stemming from the podcasting tool Odeo. That month Dorsey would send the first tweet saying “just setting up my twttr.”
In July, Twitter received a $100,000 Series A funding round led by Union Square Ventures. The app’s popularity began to explode after being heavily promoted by the tech community during the annual South by Southwest conference.
Dorsey stepped down as CEO in October, and was replaced by Williams. According to the book “Hatching Twitter” by journalist Nick Bilton, Twitter’s board of directors fired Dorsey over concerns about the leader’s management style and public boasting.
Twitter’s popularity continued to rise, leading to a high-profile appearance by Williams on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show alongside celebrity Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher would also write about Williams and Stone as part of Time Magazines Time 100 edition. Twitter was now a mainstream phenomenon.
Twitter reached space, with NASA astronaut Timothy Creamer sending the first chirping live from outer orbit. Behind the scenes, however, management’s problems continued with Williams stepping down as chief executive, replaced by chief operating officer Dick Costolo.
Twitter became an important social media tool used during the Arab Spring, the wave of anti-government protests across Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Protesters used the site to post reports and organize. As the Pew Research Center noted, Twitter’s role in “disseminating breaking news” was “not limited to the Arab uprisings—Whitney Houston’s death, for example, was announced on Twitter 55 minutes before the AP confirmed the story.”
Twitter’s reach expanded to 200 million active users. Barack Obama used “the platform to first publicly declare victory in the 2012 US presidential election, with a tweet that was viewed approximately 25 million times on our platform and widely distributed offline in print and broadcast media,” according to company filings.
Twitter went public in November. The combined fortunes of Williams, Dorsey and Costolo reached approximately $4 billion.
“I think we have a tremendous set of thoughts and strategies to increase the slope of the growth curve,” Costolo told CNBC at the time. “I will consider some of them tactics, some of them broader strategies, to do what I referred to as bridging the gap between the massive awareness of Twitter and deep engagement on the platform.”
Declining user growth led to several stock falls and analyst downgrades. Twitter also deemed 2014 the year of the “selfie”.
Compared to rivals like Google, Facebook and even LinkedIn, Twitter began to look like the garbage of the Internet. Twitter remained unprofitable as its advertising business struggled mightily against its larger competitors. Dorsey would also return as CEO of the company, while still retaining the top job at his other company, Square (now Block).
Rumors began to circulate that Twitter was looking to be acquired, with Salesforce as a potential suitor. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook were criticized for their role in allowing prominent users such as Donald Trump, who would win the US presidential election that year, to spread misleading information without consequence.
“Having the president-elect on our service using it as a direct line of communication lets everyone see what’s on his mind in the moment,” Dorsey said at the time. “We’re definitely entering a new world where everything is on the surface and we can all see it in real time and we can have conversations about it.”
For a moment, Twitter seemed to be on the upswing. The stock finally moved higher as the company’s finances improved. Meanwhile, Trump as president continued to use Twitter as his megaphone. According to Twitter’s own data, “Trump was the most tweeted global leader in the world and in the United States” that year, CNBC reported.
Dorsey and Facebook’s then-COO Sheryl Sandberg testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about alleged interference by Russia-linked actors in the 2016 election. Trump and other Republicans became increasingly vocal about alleged political bias from Twitter and other social media.
“In fact, from a simple business perspective and to serve the public conversation, Twitter is encouraged to keep all voices on the platform,” Dorsey said at the time.
Analysts found connections between President Trump’s voracious use of Twitter and various markets, including gold, underscoring the cultural power of Twitter. Trump met with Dorsey – a Twitter spokesperson said that “Jack had a constructive meeting with the President of the United States today at the President’s invitation.”
“They discussed Twitter’s commitment to protecting the health of the public conversation ahead of the 2020 US election and the efforts underway to respond to the opioid crisis,” the spokesperson said.
As Covid-19 spread across the world, the spread of misinformation dominated the online conversation. And Twitter continued to struggle to grow the business. The service was also hacked that year, with crooks gaining access to over a dozen high-profile accounts, including those controlled by Joe Biden, Jeff Bezos and Musk
Twitter permanently banned Trump over inflammatory comments the president made during the US Capitol riots in January which the company said could lead to “further incitement to violence”. Trump will allege that Twitter workers “coordinated with the Democrats and the radical left to remove my account from their platform, to silence me.” Later, Dorsey suddenly resigned as CEO and was replaced by Parag Agrawal, the company’s chief technology officer.
Musk took over Twitter after a lengthy legal battle that would have culminated this week in a trial in Delaware’s Court of Chancery. The Tesla The CEO agreed in April to pay $44 billion for Twitter, but then tried to renege on the deal. He changed course and chose to continue, walking into the company’s San Francisco office Wednesday with what appeared to be a porcelain sink in his hands.
“Walking into Twitter HQ – let it sink in!” he tweetedwith a video of his entrance.
Musk immediately began making changes, firing Agrawal, chief financial officer Ned Segal and head of legal policy Vijaya Gadde.
SEE: Billionaire Elon Musk walks into Twitter headquarters, sink in hand