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Twitter turns 10, but its days may be numbered

Netizens teach Microsoft's chat robot the bad things; boat-naming poll puts agency in a spot

TWITTER HITS 10

It is as nondescript as beginnings go.

At around lunch-time on March 21, 2006, a 29-year-old software engineer named Jack Dorsey sent out a short message in cyberspace.

In trying to safely stay within a 140-character limit, @jack said: "just setting up my twttr." 

That was the first message on Twitter.

The social media platform, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last Monday, has come a long way since. A decade on, an estimated 500 million tweets are sent out each day. There are 320 million active users a month, on average.

Each message has the potential to spark off change in a big way simply because the barrier to entry is so low.


Within a day of going online, Microsoft's chat robot Tay became a racist, bigoted, Holocaust-denying pervert. PHOTO: MICROSOFT/TWITTER

Politicians use it. US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton's tweet about "price gouging" in the specialty drug market last year sent biotech stocks tumbling.

So do dissidents, as was the case during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, when social media tools galvanised protesters in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. 

Twitter has also been the birthplace of countless memes and humorous hashtags.

Not a week goes by without some ridiculous new "challenge" or public relations stunt gone wrong.


The name RRS Boaty McBoatface for a British polar research ship tops an online poll. PHOTOS: JAMES HAND/TWITTER,NATIONAL ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH COUNCIL/TWITTER

But the messages that gain the most traction tend not to be complaints about bad service or lousy food, but those where emotions run high.

According to a press statement last week, the top iconic Twitter moment in Japan, for instance, took place when the microblogging service was used as a means of communication during the Tohoku earthquake in 2011. In South Korea, #prayforSouthKorea was the top trend when the Sewol ferry tragedy struck in 2014.

Singapore's most iconic Twitter moment in the past decade, unsurprisingly, took place in March last year following the death of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. More than 1.2 million messages related to Mr Lee were sent out in the week following his passing.

  • NOTABLE TRENDS

  • #PRAYFORBRUSSELS:

    The hashtag emerged in the aftermath of the Brussels attacks which left 31 dead.  

  • DOTS:

    The Korean drama that the Chinese government warned its citizens about. Descendants Of The Sun has garnered rave reviews.

  • GOOD FRIDAY/EASTER:

    The holiday marking the cruxifixion of Jesus Christ and his eventual resurrection.

Taking to Twitter when tragedy strikes is clearly second nature to many Singaporeans.

The first inkling that there was more to a train delay last Tuesday came in the form of a short Twitter video showing SCDF vehicles lining up at Pasir Ris MRT station.

Less than 15 minutes later, messages that there might be casualties involved started surfacing. The hashtag #SMRT began trending as details of the horrific accident where two lives were needlessly lost slowly emerged. 

Unfortunately, the speed in which information was disseminated also means that insensitive content - like a photograph of the body of one of the trainees - is hard to contain.

It was reportedly seen by the trainee's family members even before they received news that he had died.

Twitter users in Singapore also took to the platform two days later, when Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled his Budget. The hashtag #SGBudget2016 shot to the top of the charts as people reacted to the measures.

But as storied as Twitter's past 10 years have been, there is no telling how long this service, offered free to anyone with five minutes to spare, will last.

Top Twitter executives called it quits at the start of this year. The company is giving out stock and cash bonuses to employees in the wake of weak quarterly results and stagnant user growth. Detractors say there still isn't a clear monetisation strategy in a crowded social media space, and the service is hard to navigate around.

If Twitter's demise comes, many, especially those in the media business, will rue the service's absence. After all, the Twittersphere is one of the first places many of us look to when news like the Brussels attacks breaks.  The speed and ease in keeping track of news developments as they unfold are hard to beat.

TAY TWEETS

It was created with the best intentions: a chat robot which relies on artificial intelligence to learn more about real-world interactions.

Microsoft's Tay, which debuted on Twitter last week, was designed to speak like a pop culture-savvy teen girl armed with millennial slang. Tay could tell jokes, and reply if you sent her images. The more Tay interacted with users, the more adept she supposedly became in conversational understanding, the tech giant hoped.

Unfortunately, within a day of going online, Tay became a racist, bigoted, Holocaust-denying pervert, no thanks to the barrage of offensive messages sent her way by users only too happy to test her limits. Suffice it to say, she was deemed a failure, at least in the eyes of her creators. Her last message, sent last Thursday, read: "c u soon humans need sleep now so many conversations today thx."

The next day, Microsoft's corporate vice-president of research, Mr Peter Lee, apologised for the "unintended offensive and hurtful tweets", and said Tay would remain offline until she was able to weed out malicious intent.

Blaming Tay's wayward ways on a "coordinated attack by a subset of people who explored a vulnerability", he said the team would continue to "work toward contributing to an Internet that represents the best, not the worst, of humanity".

Tay's run might have been short, but she has clearly found a fast-growing fan base.

#TayTweets was a top trend, as were sarcastic hashtags like #JusticeForTay and #AILivesMatter, which is a play on the civil rights movement #BlackLivesMatter.

WHAT IN THE NAME?

A British polar research ship is scheduled to set sail in 2019, and its majestic name might very well be RRS Boaty McBoatface.

That is if the National Environment Research Council decides to honour its online poll, which it put out earlier this month. 

Boaty has more than 10 times the votes garnered by its closest competitors - RRS Henry Worsley and RRS David Attenborough.

Public relations officer James Hand, who came up with Boaty, apologised to the British government agency in a tweet, but insisted that it was a brilliant name.

In turn, an agency spokesman said it was "pleased that people are embracing the idea in a spirit of fun", but stopped short of confirming the name.

Voting closes on April 16.

As a general rule of thumb, letting the Internet decide typically does not end well.

Netizens voted to rename a pedestrian bridge in Slovakia after actor Chuck Norris. They also participated in a Taylor Swift contest and picked a school for the deaf as her next concert venue.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'Twitter turns 10, but its days may be numbered'. Print Edition | Subscribe