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What we now know as Music Twitter officially started on July 28, 2010, when Kanye West logged on. “Up early in the morning taking meetings in Silicone Valley,” he tweeted. Forty-eight minutes later came the correction: “Lol I spelled Silicon wrong ( I guess I was still thinking about the other type of silicone ITS A PROCESS!! : )”
He was a relatively late adopter—Katy, Kesha, Justin, and Nicki were already on; Erykah Badu had live-tweeted the birth of her son, and John Mayer had already gotten dumped by Jennifer Aniston for his Twitter addiction—but once he did, he reshaped it. Kanye had found a medium better than a blog, a talk show, or a disaster relief telethon for what he does best.
Over the next weeks and months, his follower count swelled with each enthusiastic update about his opulent life—tiny jets! fur pillows! annoying water bottles on planes! He dropped tantalizing hints about his forthcoming album, and his novel use of the short form medium soon spawned the #PredictingKanyeTweets hashtag. He was messy and gaudy, and, best of all, present. The contradiction was rich: While precious few could relate to his extravagant aphorisms, his tweets also made him feel more relatable.
As Twitter itself was rapidly approaching something close to cultural ubiquity—in late 2010, the platform claimed a 200 percent spike in users over 2009—Kanye had unlocked one of its core secrets. Social scientists called it “ambient awareness”: a potent sense of ersatz intimacy with a person that derives from immersion in a stream of their text-based micro-updates. As music writer Jonah Weiner showed in an August 2010 Slate “profile” of Kanye that used his tweets as imaginary interview responses, the rapper was doing something else new, too: bypassing the gatekeepers in lieu of a straight-from-the-source press cycle. “No, I don’t get to ask any questions, but I do get a constantly updating record of West’s thoughts, whereabouts, cravings, jokes, meals, flirtations, bon mots, and on and on,” Weiner wrote.
Kanye’s unavailability to journalists didn’t mean he was silent—he had just moved nearly all communication to his 24/7 personal news channel. In early September 2010, he posted one of his earliest stream-of-consciousness Twitter rants, recapping and repenting for his previous year of unscripted notoriety: “I’m sorry Taylor”; “If you google Asshole my face may very well pop up”; “These tweets have no manager, no publicist , no grammar checking... this is raw.” Music’s Very Online decade was born.
It’s hard to remember musical life online before Twitter knocked down the barriers separating previously isolated social groups—musicians, critics, fans, messageboarders, industry types, bored onlookers—and let their thoughts commingle in a colossal public sphere dominated by a scoreboard of follower counts, likes, and retweets (and, more recently, the dreaded “ratio”).
When Twitter was dreamed up, in fact, it was with music in mind. “This is why we built this thing! For concerts and music shows!” Noah Glass told fellow co-founder Jack Dorsey in 2006, according to Nick Bilton’s book, Hatching Twitter. At that point, when the site had only a handful of users, Glass and Dorsey road-tested Twitter at Coachella and attempted a partnership with the 2007 VMAs. As the site grew in popularity, Bilton recounts, pop stars made pilgrimages to the company’s modest San Francisco headquarters, like when a couple of Twitter engineers “found a member of the band blink-182, half-asleep and half-drunk, pouring a small bottle of gin into a bowl of Fruity Pebbles cereal, then chowing down on breakfast.”
Like a lot of tech types, Dorsey is a huge Radiohead fan. While Twitter was still tiny, he tweeted through his first experiences with the band’s 2007 album In Rainbows, and even installed a “Radiohead Room” in the company’s office, which piped in Radiohead music all day and all night. So yes, while a new breed of yuppies were networking the world anew, they were likely accompanied by the dystopic strains of “Paranoid Android.”
Early in its development, Dorsey and co-founder Ev Williams saw two possible futures for Twitter. Dorsey saw it as a status update machine, on the AIM away message model. Williams, who came to Twitter after selling Blogger to Google, saw it as a communications network where global conversations could happen. The push and pull between these two ideas—Bilton parses the distinction as “what’s happening to me” versus “what’s happening in the world”—defines Twitter in 2019. More than Facebook or Instagram, Twitter eradicates the distinction between personal and global: A stray thought about a surprise-released album or a well-timed joke during the VMAs could go viral, trigger an argument with a fellow traveler convinced of their own correctness, or—like most tweets—languish in relative obscurity, drowned out by the din.
On Twitter, the boundary between epigram and slogan is erased. Everything is a pronouncement, leaving users reflexively crouched in a defensive position waiting for a retaliatory strike—or eagerly appending a shamelessly promotional SoundCloud link below a newly viral missive.
What Twitter’s founders couldn’t have predicted were the user-driven innovations that emerged out of the simple use of the platform. In 2009, technology writer Steven Johnson marveled at the rise of the @-reply and especially the hashtag, two features that early adopters built for themselves. “It’s like inventing a toaster oven and then… seeing that your customers have of their own accord figured out a way to turn it into a microwave,” he wrote.
By the end of 2010, the hashtag had undergone mission creep, serving all kinds of innovative linguistic functions, including its most popular manifestation as the equivalent of a punchline after a semicolon. Because rap music is the arena where technological and cultural changes register first, the hashtag punchline quickly worked its way into the cadences of verses from Drake, Nicki, Big Sean, and Kanye, who coined “hashtag rap” in an interview that November.
To be sure, hashtag rap was not a positive development for rap music, as moments like Ludacris’ “I fill her up; balloons!” and Childish Gambino’s “You can fuckin’ kiss my ass; Human Centipede” amply demonstrate. In 2013, the Lonely Island enlisted Solange for a trend-skewering song called “Semicolon” (sample lyric: “You know we out of control; no brakes/Your birthday party sucked; no cakes”). The following year, in a strangely backwards development, the Chainsmokers’ supremely irritating debut single “#SELFIE” was the first hit with a hashtag in its title. The duo’s follow-up? Ah, right, of course: “Kanye.”
As Twitter matured, other communication patterns and rituals adapted within its boundaries, and it quickly became a necessary tool for artists, if not their second job. Since a personalized presence is much more appealing than the feed-as-generic-promobot, labels and management often leave musicians to deal with social media on their own. In her recent book Playing to the Crowd, communication researcher Nancy Baym describes the oft-numbing work of building quasi-intimate relationships through such an abstracted format as “relational labor.”
Indeed, one of the most defining images of the last decade of music news is artists slamming their accounts shut in disgust or exhaustion. Trent Reznor logged off in a sexist huff in 2009 only to come back four months later when promotional considerations demanded it. Three months after releasing a song named for their Twitter handle, Death Grips gave up the ghost. In 2015, Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste deleted his account after roasting Taylor Swift, and Billy Corgan left to focus on wrestling (but came back two years later). Chris Brown left in 2009 after barking at record stores for not selling enough of his album, and again in 2012 after being an asshole to a woman. Ed Sheeran deleted his account because people are mean. Demi Lovato quit in 2010, 2016, and earlier this year.
For all the work that Twitter requires and stress it facilitates, on occasion a musician masters the format, staking their own plot in the attention economy to extend their persona or, in some cases, create an alternate one. Ariana Grande, Rihanna, and Lana Del Rey have each used Twitter as savvily as anyone, making short missives a part of their world-conquering chill. Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig perfected the art of the dryly comedic aphorism: “kids whose noses are always running grow up to be adults whose phones are always about to die.” Mitski and Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis offer mordant indie rock survival strategies, while singer-songwriter Ryley Walker has spent the last few years creating a serialized novella of dirtbag tour life. Even though he deleted his archives, Vince Staples’ best tweets are, in their own way, as good as his music (same for Lorde).
Judging by the numbers alone, Twitter is more deeply intertwined with music than any other industry. Four of the top five—and half of the top 20—most-followed Twitter accounts are solo musicians. More than movie stars or major athletes, whose work is more obviously collaborative and done according to others’ scripts, the pop star/fan relationship maximizes what Twitter does best, fostering emotional connections rooted in the personal authenticity of a single, spectacular figure. This has led to an environment where millions of Twitter users are there purely to serve as foot soldiers in their idol’s digital army, and where the tantalizing (or mortifying) possibility of direct contact is always present.
When Nicki Minaj lashed out at a young woman last summer for a relatively minor critique, her legion of followers—the Barbz—swarmed the woman’s account, email, and even her phone with insults, death threats, and vaguely threatening personal information about her daughter. In an interview after the incident, one devoted Barb underscored just how far Twitter’s relative anonymity and collective behavior can push pop fandom. “Where do I draw the line? I mean, death is definitely a little bit too far,” the fan said. “However, I also have that devil’s advocates mindset where the line is never too far for the person that is coming at the celebrity.”
It’s much more fun when musicians go after each other. Twitter beefs can range from petty electronic music gripes (Skrillex vs. Deadmau5 or James Blake targeting Hudson Mohawke) to a beardy bro-down between Father John Misty and Strand of Oaks over proper festival behavior, to perennial shit stirrer Azealia Banks calling Iggy Azalea “Igloo Australia.” In late June 2015, while Nicki and Taylor were still patching things up after the former subtweeted the latter over a VMA snub, Nicki’s then-boyfriend Meek Mill unfurled a Tweetstorm for the ages, aimed at Drake’s purported use of a ghostwriter. Topping them all, as is her wont, is Courtney Love, who has survived not one but two libel suits that derived from angrily popping off on Twitter.
Maybe, like the rest of us, these stars are merely caught up in the Twitter Moment. As part of what’s been called The Stream—the non-stop digital flow of information that cascades through social media—Twitter has the capacity to place its users in an infinitely unfolding present, where small flare-ups or memes can spread like a forest fire and drag on for what feels like ages. Sometimes the small dramas are born on Twitter—the recent kerfuffle surrounding Lizzo and Ariana Grande clapping back against critics started as spur-of-the-moment tweets—but other times, Twitter captures them from elsewhere in The Stream and accelerates them. Earlier this year, Natalie Portman denied dating Moby in a Harper’s Bazaar interview, which led to the musician trying in vain to defend himself with a shirtless photo on his Instagram page, which led to him being roasted for what felt like a solid month on Twitter. It doesn’t even matter if you’re not on Twitter; along with Instagram, it’s now the origin point for most music stories that don’t start with a press release.
The Stream has proven to be an incredibly powerful medium to link music with progressive social movements, too. Though #BlackLivesMatter was started by three black women in 2013, the movement was galvanized after Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri a year later, in large part around activist DeRay McKesson, a previously unknown figure whose profile skyrocketed when he tweeted a photo of J. Cole at the site of the protests. One of the most powerful Ferguson protest songs, Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” was announced through her Twitter account. The Stream has become a key part of “a culture that circulates videos of black children dying as easily as it does videos of black children dancing in parking lots,” observed The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix in a reflection on last summer’s most Twitter-debated moment: Childish Gambino’s galvanizing “This Is America” video.
It’s more than a platform for controversy, social justice, or flame wars, though—as part of The Stream, Twitter partakes of the same online attention economy as streaming music. iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal removed distribution middlemen to usher in the rise of the superstar surprise release, but it’s easy to forget that Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 album was equally reliant on Twitter as a home for the free hype cycle of excitement, critical discourse, and memes courtesy of an always-on, always-expectant fanbase.
This is perhaps Music Twitter’s most useful feature: as a virtual space for the near-instant, collective exuberance over something new. And even though Beyoncé finds Twitter “too limiting” and “too crowded,” her mastery of The Stream’s fleeting whims has inspired more activity on the platform than anyone else by several orders of magnitude. Her 2013 Super Bowl performance ignited more Twitter activity than the game’s notorious half-hour blackout, and the surprise release of Beyoncé was so earth-shaking that Twitter became her personal Richter scale. Her halftime performance of “Formation” three years later was the kind of all-encompassing, politically charged spectacle that instantly established Beyoncé as Fed Chairwoman of the Take Economy. Logging on to Twitter during the next week meant being buried in an opinion avalanche about “Formation,” to the extent that, critic Nitsuh Abebe lamented a couple months later, “not having heard it acquired some kind of political dimension.”
But it was Kanye, more than anyone, who used Twitter to fully merge his behind-the-scenes creative process into his public-facing identity. In early 2012, he unfurled (and soon deleted) an epic 86-tweet binge about his fledgling attempts to gain entry into the fashion industry that in some ways updated the stream-of-consciousness spoken-word monologue with which he closed out his debut album, The College Dropout. Then, that October, he deleted everything.
In the lead-up to the release of Kanye’s 2016 LP The Life of Pablo, he turned the album press-cycle into a public performance of his monumentally chaotic creative process. When he wasn’t beefing with Wiz Khalifa or proclaiming Bill Cosby’s innocence, he was publicly and messily doing what is usually a very private activity: naming his album. First it was So Help Me God, then Swish, then Waves. After frantically announcing the album’s release at the end of his SNL performance, Kanye realized that, without a physical version, he could theoretically reimagine it as a pure product of The Stream, with the ever-morphing “Wolves” as Patient Zero.
Then, Kanye found an unfortunate doppelgänger in that other obscenely wealthy person with a deep connection to reality television who was prone to tweeting out stream-of-consciousness, typo-laden missives. By the time the rapper expressed his admiration for President Trump, “canceling” and “muting” had gained popularity as tactics of collective disavowal to help decontaminate the stream of toxic public figures. Those verbs reflect the degree to which online social life is governed by the logic of subscribing to feeds until they coalesce into a noisy public square. But the act of muting isn’t aural, but existential: if widely taken up, that person simply disappears from conversation. Yet in part because of his savvy use of Twitter as a non-stop self-publicity machine, Kanye was far too cemented in popular culture to be muted or canceled. At a time when Twitter has helped make everything seem ephemeral, he had used it to render himself truly unavoidable.
As the decade progressed, Twitter itself become embroiled in debates about what the platform actually stood for. Like social media contemporaries Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, Twitter’s value depends to varying degrees on its constant improvement. To most users, this typically means not messing with a good thing. But, starting in earnest before the company went public in 2013, Twitter began revealing what improvement means to them: acquiring more users, serving them more ads, and keeping them on Twitter by any means necessary.
Twitter introduced embedded photos and videos and GIFs and polls and threads and the reply-with-comment feature; it improved its ad services, and started offering analytics for individual tweets. Instead of linking Twitter users to other sites, tweets now contain screenshots of articles’ key points or THREAD-length responses to them. Increasingly, there are fewer and fewer reasons to click away from Twitter. Meanwhile Jack Dorsey, who rejoined the company as CEO in 2015 after being exiled seven years earlier, tripped and fell right into the libertarian ideology beloved by Silicon Valley-types. In response to hateful messages, lies, and threats proliferating on the platform, Dorsey’s stance remained that all information wants to be free and unburdened of corporate censorship, and it’s up to everyone but Twitter to sort through them.
In early September 2018, Dorsey was brought before Congress to discuss Twitter’s flawed accountability policies, along with questions about the platform’s role in the 2016 election. He also atoned in his own Twitter thread for his company’s myriad failures over the previous several years, lamenting its opaque verification system and broken harassment-reporting procedure. He concluded by asserting a grandiose role for Twitter that he would’ve scoffed at in 2007: “We believe Twitter helps people connect to something bigger than themselves, shows all the amazing things happening in the world, and all the things we need to acknowledge and address.”
On the same day Dorsey posted his apologetic thread, Kanye used his account to exchange negative energy for a sense of inner peace, threading a tweet apology to Drake for his role in the previous summer’s Twitter-fueled Pusha-T beef. “This is all Jedi level,” he promised. “I will be coming to your show within the next seven days to give love and be inspired by the art you have created.”
Kanye’s Twitter account has laid dormant since the first day of 2019, which he opened with a tweet that Dorsey himself could have typed: “Free thought.” Where he started the decade enthusiastically tweeting from a wealthy remove, by the beginning of this year—with popular sentiment having long soured on such ostentatious displays of wealth—he was communicating from an equally detached space, as the host of invitation-only “Sunday Services.” Though the events have recently expanded in scope, for months they were held at various private spaces, with video leaks strategically spilling out to Twitter. On April 7, the service was held in Las Virgenes Canyon, near West’s gilded homebase of Calabasas, California. Jack Dorsey was there.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork