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March 21, 2017, 10:11 a.m.
Audience & Social

Word up! This is the story behind The New York Times’ most famous tweet (which is 10 years old today)

“Once a month or so, that damn tweet would resurface.”

In March 2007, New York Times developer Jacob Harris had some spare time and decided to create a Times account on a fledgling service that is today the preferred communication platform for the president of the United States.

Harris set up @nytimes and wrote the code that powered it in an afternoon. “Using twitter’s APIs, I was able to get headlines from the New York Times feeds to my cell phone with only an idle afternoon and a few lines of Ruby,” he wrote later.

The account ran off an RSS feed of the Times’ top stories, tweeting out just the headlines. By the middle of March, it had accrued all of 72 followers, most of whom were either Harris’s friends or other developers.

Harris decided to add additional feeds for other sections of the Times. And on March 21, 2007, he announced the changes:

Harris said he was imagining what The New York Times would say if it were trying to be cool.

“It was very important to me when I was writing that tweet that even though the metaphorical Gray Lady would try to use slang, it was still very proper grammar,” he said. “‘It is I’ versus ‘It’s me.’ It’s like the Queen trying to use slang. It had to be that combination of fusty and fashionable.”

Harris didn’t launch @nytimes as part of any institutional social media strategy. “At some point, I was included in an email train among various developers asking if we should take action against this New York Times Twitter account for using the brand in an unauthorized way,” Harris recalled. “I had to say, ‘Well, actually that’s me.'”

Over the last decade, the tweet has become a recurring joke, popping up on users’ timelines every now and then as people discover or rediscover it.

“Once a month or so, that damn tweet would resurface,” said Times reporter Daniel Victor, who was a social media staff editor from 2012 to 2014. “Most people, I think, were in on the joke, but some people thought it was new and that we currently thought it was a good idea to tweet that. For the most part, it didn’t matter, and we had a sense of humor about it. But if there were situations where people legitimately thought that The New York Times was this out of touch, I would respond to them [from my own account] and say that it had been around for awhile.”

A follow-up (less funny) tweet that Harris sent has, as of this writing, been retweeted just once.

“Oh, I guess this is a product”

The New York Times continued to experiment with Twitter. By September 2007, @nytimes had 625 followers and had been featured on Twitter’s front page. In a September 2007 post on the Times’ Open blog, Harris wrote:

I added other specific New York Times feeds…The most popular of them has only 40 or so subscribers however, so it’s clear that the general mix of stories the front page feed has is the most appealing to readers. More interesting still, the official New York Times twitter feed is not the only New York Times account on Twitter. RSS and Blogging Guru Dave Winer set up his own independent NYT River of News account [it still exists] a week or so after my first one that aggregates all of our major public feeds into one place. Far from being displeased, we here at Open are openly thrilled at these sort of third-party projects, especially since we still have only begun to scratch the surface of the public feeds we have here at the New York Times.

The Times hit 1,000 Twitter followers in October, and Harris marked the occasion with a post on the blog:

[T]he Twitter feed for The New York Times officially passed 1,000 subscribers — 1,000 smart, incredibly attractive, and digitally hip subscribers of course — this morning, making it far more successful and persistent than I ever imagined. Thanks to all our readers! Although on the downside, I suppose this means I might need to turn it into an officially-supported product now. Ooops.

The code powering the Times’ Twitter account ran on a server underneath Harris’ desk. When the Times moved into its new building in April 2007, the account went down while Harris’s computer moved as well.

Another weekend, a custodian accidentally unplugged a cord on the server, prompting the Times’ main Twitter account to stop tweeting for a weekend.

“I wasn’t at work, so I was like, ‘Whatever, it’s just a side project,'” Harris recalled. “But I came into work and there were several different emails asking who did support for this product, what the contingency plan was. That’s sort of the time when I realized: Oh, I guess this is a product.”

“A eureka moment”

In 2009, the paper named Jennifer Preston — today the vice president of journalism at the Knight Foundation — as its first social media editor. Preston pointed to Times staffers Soraya Darabi, Cynthia Collins, and Stacy Martinet as being critical to developing the Times’ voice on Twitter. Journalists Nicholas Kristof, Jennifer 8. Lee, Brian Stelter, and the late David Carr were early evangelists for Twitter in the newsroom and helped explain why the platform was useful for their reporting.

Preston emphasized to staffers that Twitter was more than just a distribution channel: It could be used for reporting and soliciting user-generated content. When Twitter rolled out lists to all its users, for instance, she went from desk to desk explaining how it was useful. “I went and got every corner of the newsroom to create Twitter lists for their department.”

Harris moved into the newsroom as part of the Times’ Interactive News team and built a product called The Twitter Dashboard, which had similar functionality to the original script but with more administrative capabilities. The paper eventually gave editors more control over the main Times Twitter account and moved away from the automated system that Harris had developed. Today, it uses tools like SocialFlow to manage its Twitter accounts.

The Times had to develop an institutional voice for its Twitter presence. At first, its Twitter account was controlled by the newsroom while its main Facebook presence was controlled by its marketing department. (This was cited as an issue in the 2014 Innovation Report.)

The Times’ voice on Twitter has matured and evolved over the years. Victor recalled how social staffers worked to make the Times account sound more human. He called one tweet a “eureka moment”:

“I was really nervous to send it,” Victor said. “I thought, ‘What if I’m going too far?’ I ran it up the chain and my editors said, do it, do it, do it, do it. Looking back now, it seems like a simple thing, but at the time it seemed like a big leap for us.”

@nytimes has come a long way since “Word up!” But Harris — who left the Times in 2015 for a position at 18F — said he’s glad the tweet remains as a reminder of what Twitter was like in its earliest days.

“I thought about deleting it at one point many years ago when I was handing the stuff over for it to be more of an official thing and not just my code running here,” he said. “But I felt like it should stay. In the same way I wouldn’t go into the library archives and destroy an old section of the newspaper, it feels like it’s part of the record of the Times.”

POSTED     March 21, 2017, 10:11 a.m.
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