Twitter will become a public company Thursday when millions of shares in the social media company go up for sale and “TWTR” finds a home on the New York Stock Exchange ticker.
And I can’t shake the feeling that our little social media’s all grown up.
I mean, that’s it. The companies that made “social media” a household term; that gave a cohort of geeks a place to hang and a society something to argue about; that steadily crossed that chasm dividing early adopters and the mainstream and changed everything we thought we knew about communication in the process — Facebook and Twitter — they’re big. They’re established. They’ve won.
Social media are no longer, by any means, for any conceivable reason, struggling, misunderstood or new.
Remember, those of you who were on Twitter right at the beginning? The mischief. The mayhem. The sense that we were doing something we knew was awesome but so many people didn’t get.
In 2008 I dressed as Twitter for Halloween. I wore sky blue tights and the Twitter “t” and the Twitter bird. I bar-hopped in Belltown and except for the in-the-know crowd at the since shuttered McCleod Residence — man I miss that place — everyone thought I was some kind of fairy.
“Twitter. I’m Twitter! You haven’t heard of Twitter?” The more drinks I’d had, the more I turned up the incredulity.
Man that was fun.
In the early years, social media sites were the underdogs, and isn’t it great to root for the underdogs? They were young, awkward, lost in their own momentum. Retweets and hashtags were user creations, for goodness sakes. Facebook and Twitter in those early days — they needed us. They needed their users to tell people why it’s not tearing the fabric of society to have hundreds of online “friends” and how constantly answering the question “What are you doing?” results in more meaningful interactions than “posting what you had for breakfast.”
I had talking points to respond to that one, and I was proud of it.
Remember “Twitter in Plain English?” That’s the video Seattle’s own Lee and Sachi LeFever created and Twitter put its home page because Twitter was just that hard to explain. Then came Ashton Kutcher v. CNN. Oprah. The first tweet from space. The Arab Spring. And all along, the rising fever among brands and celebrities to embrace the cool social media revolution before they died a horrible death in the slow boil of traditional marketing.
We knew Mainstream Acceptance was coming, and at some point we stopped sniping like fans of an obscure band that got big. At some point we let go, tolerated the ads and our favorite third-party platforms getting bought up and shut down and just went along for the ride, because the sites had their own momentum. They were “ours,” still, kind of, but other helmsmen were steering the ship.
So we looked around for the Next Big Thing. There was Instagram. Pinterest. More exclusive sites that fed our early adopter egos like App.net. Powerful late-comers like Google Plus. Failures like … well, like a lot of things. We nurtured them and watched them fly, or got our accounts — just in case — and never used them again. But nothing broke new ground like Facebook and Twitter, as tired as we get of hearing that. Nothing climbed as high or took us early adopters for such a wild ride.
We hardly champion the sites the way we used to way back when. Just the opposite, for some of us. With Edward Snowden’s NSA surveillance disclosures complicating what used to feel like a pioneering stand against traditional views of privacy and, I think, growing unease about all those dozens (hundreds?) of Terms of Service we don’t read, all those sponsored ads that know so much about us and show it off in odd new ways, a few of the same people who got on board are getting off, or wondering if they should, or getting more aggressive in their criticisms.
It’s hardly a powerful opposition — how many times has someone predicted a Facebook exodus that never happens? — but there’s something about blockbuster companies that makes them easier to suspect. The size? The profit motive? The dying novelty?
The sense that they just don’t need their users like they used to?
It’s the end of an era, this. Social media came, changed everything, and are well on their way to becoming an unremarkable part of our remarkable world.
All in all, it was a bittersweet blast to help them get there.