Twitter: A Biography

Published by NYU Press | April 2020

The sometimes surprising, often humorous story of the forces that came together to shape the central role Twitter now plays in contemporary politics and culture

Is Twitter a place for sociability and conversation, a platform for public broadcasting, or a network for discussion? Digital platforms have become influential in every sphere of communication, from the intimate and everyday to the public, professional, and political. Since the scrappy startup days of social media in the mid-2000s, not only has the worldwide importance of platforms grown exponentially, but also their cultures have shifted dramatically, in a variety of directions. These changes have brought new opportunities for progressive communities to thrive online, as well as widespread problems with commercial exploitation, disinformation, and hate speech.

Twitter’s growth over the past decade, like that of much social media, has far surpassed its creators’ vision. Twitter charts this trajectory in the format of a platform biography: a new, streamlined approach to understanding how platforms change over time. Through the often surprising, fast-moving story of Twitter, it illuminates the multiple forces—from politics and business to digital ideologies—that came together to shape the evolution of this revolutionary platform. Jean Burgess and Nancy K. Baym build a rich narrative of how Twitter has evolved as a technology, a company, and a culture, from its origins as a personal messaging service to its transformation into one of the most globally influential social media platforms, where history and culture is not only recorded but written in real time.

Platform Biography: A framework for analyzing the structures and dynamics of social media

Social media platforms have become influential in every sphere of communication, from the intimate and mundane to the public, professional, and political. It’s tempting to view a platform as a single “technology”—a static object that can be cast as a causal agent of societal change. But a closer look reveals that platform companies, their technologies, and the cultures that form through and around them constantly push against and reshape one another. If platforms are always changing, then how do we theorize, study, and compare them? In this webinar, based on the book Twitter: A Biography, Microsoft Senior Principal Researcher Nancy Baym and Queensland University of Technology Professor Jean Burgess introduce an original approach to this problem: the Platform Biography, a systematic framework for analyzing social media platforms. The framework provides a toolbox of concepts and empirical methods to diagnose patterns of past and emerging change in the cultures, politics, and governance of platforms. The Platform Biography approach can be used and understood by researchers, students, and everyday users without privileged insider access to social media companies. Through its application to Twitter, Burgess and Baym will model how the approach can be used to study other platforms and apps. In this webinar, you’ll learn how to: Develop strategies for observing and understanding how user practices shape a platform’s technologies and business model, even as those forces shape user practices Identify the elements continuously influencing one another to make a platform Collect appropriate materials to conduct a Platform Biography Narrow analytic focus to a platform’s most distinctive features Resource list: Social Media Studies (group page) Twitter: A Biography (book) Twitter and Society (publication) Connect with Your Audience! The Relational Labor of Connection (publication) Playing to the crowd and other social media mandates with Dr. Nancy Baym (Podcast) Nancy Baym (profile page) Jean Burgess (profile page) *This on-demand webinar features a previously recorded Q&A session and open captioning. Explore more Microsoft Research webinars: