Just over six years ago Jack Dorsey sent his first message on what you might, at the time, have wanted to call a “microblog”. It read “just setting up my twttr” and without anyone realising it, the world was already on its way to a new phenomenon in modern social interaction.
Granted, a word like “microblog” would hardly wedge in the mind. But even after Dorsey decided to humanise his new creation by adding a couple of vowels to literally spell out the word “Twitter”, he had already fallen into a trap familiar to many a tech entrepreneur – finishing a great idea with a playful moniker forever wedded to its geeky origins.
I understand the word fits – for all its strengths Twitter is awash with voices twittering on about not very much at all. It is the perfect label for a system of short, random updates among a connected group of sociable tech-savvies, keen to share thoughts on the Olympic Games or photos of a chance dried mango that, hilariously no doubt, resembles a cast member of Glee.
The problem is Twitter no longer lives only in that world. It has become far more valuable than that. I recently rejoined after a three-year absence (ironically using a daft, truncated version of my name) purely because society has now signed up in such large numbers that, if you filter out the inconsequential noise, it works brilliantly as a personalised news feed. On a much grander scale, as part of a mobile-connected network of social media, we’ve heard time and again how Twitter also has the power to unite communities, to overthrow governments and to give voice to those otherwise gagged.
But I haven’t yet summoned the energy to tweet. At best, the now ubiquitous word “tweet” has begun to irritate me. At worst it just seems wrong – do twitterers at the sharp end of, for example, violent conflict, deep suffering or unbearable political tension, really want to shine light on their distress with a chirp? “Tweet” somehow undermines the strength of the medium, especially as that cheerful little baby blue bird is conjured beside it. And I say this even after the brand’s recent gentle redesign, which looks like an attempt to tone down the light-hearted appearance.
It doesn’t matter that Flickr, Whrrrl, Svpply, Tumblr or myriad other web start-ups have daft names, because they do not deliver irresistibly succinct soundbites for the media to vacuum up and spray across its stories like frenzied fire from a machine gun. Reading news reports of “tweets” bringing first-person accounts (and pictures) of massacres in Syria seems awkward – and that is to say nothing of the sorry disease inflicted upon “proper” journalism at the hands of hacks lazily scanning Twitter for quotes instead of picking up the phone.
It’s not really San Francisco’s fault (although a little early branding consultancy for the ambitious tech-obsessed wouldn’t hurt), it’s more to do with the language of the media. And it’s probably not their fault either – when “Hoover” crept into the English vernacular at least we had “vacuum cleaner” to fall back on, we just chose to phase it out. This time we only have Tweet, we only have Twitter – and it’s the price we pay for a small idea so good it went on to reinvent a large slice of the internet. If anyone could have seen that coming, perhaps we’d have another word for microblog after all.