Twitter turned ten this week, and, naturally, much has been made of the birth of the social network. But in amid the talk of silly rejected names and the first tweet ever sent, few have mentioned a little-known fact: Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder and now-CEO, is (and was) absolutely obsessed with cities.
Vanity Fair reported in April 2011 that as a child “he papered his walls with maps from magazines, transit maps, maps from gas stations,” and, even as a young boy, was a “passionate proponent of city life”. He was particularly obsessed with maps and trains, and forced his family to go to railyards with him so he could video trains in action.
When the family got its first computer, Dorsey used programming to replicate city streets. He would program dots representing vehicles and public transport to move around on maps, and even tuned into police and ambulance radio frequencies so he could plot the vehicles as they moved in real time.
As he grew older, this obsession focussed on the ways tiny snippets of information are passed around the urban landscape. Taxi drivers exchange short radio messages containing their location, while emergency services keep a network of vehicles and serivices circulating round the streets.
In 2006, in his job at a San Francisco start-up, he suggested an idea that would allow users to send short messages to anyone in the world using a phone’s keypad, and Twitter was born.
As Vanity Fair describes it:
The short text alert, for him, was a way to add a missing human element to the digital picture of a pulsing, populated city.
Today, Twitter may have its problems, but it’s a global phenomenon which has aided the Arab Spring and engaged people as diverse as the Queen and groups like sex workers who may have struggled to be heard in the past. Dorsey, meanwhile, has said he wants to be mayor of New York one day; taking his obsession with the city to its natural conclusion.
And Twitter is, in a way, a giant, worldwide urban space. Its USP – that anyone can say something, and everyone else can see it – calls to mind the young Dorsey, listening in on emergency service communications simply because he wanted to feel plugged into the city’s network of other humans.
This ideal, of course, has its drawbacks, and at times, the crowds on Twitter can feel more like a mob than a network of cooperating individuals. Twitter’s current efforts to clamp down on trolling and bullying on the site are long-overdue.
But overall, Dorsey’s vision runs parallel to the urban vision: put enough people in a small space, let them bicker, joke, connect, fight, and swap ideas, and see what comes out the other end.
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