Before Twitter took over our lives, twitter was a verb for the noises (or tweets) birds make, a word sometimes used to describe humans talking “in a quick and informal way about unimportant things.” When the founders of the social network were at the naming stage, they came across the word’s definition and thought, “it was just perfect… that’s exactly what the product was.” They chose a bird logo to match. The first tweet ever, sent in March 2006, was in keeping with this casual attitude: "just setting up my twttr," wrote founder Jack Dorsey.
Every Twitter user has a profile picture. When you set-up your account, you’re encouraged to upload a photo to make your Twitter page better represent you. If you don’t choose to do this, your account will be given the default avatar. Here the avian theme continues: Since September 2010, the default avatar has been a drawing of an egg, a.k.a the Twitter egg. What does it mean to be an egg? As the Washington Post points out, it’s been an insult for centuries before Twitter; the pejorative even appears in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The term suggests fragility, or that a person isn’t fully formed. There are variations on this, too: Richard Nixon famously used the anti-intellectual term egghead to refer to then-Democratic Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. If you tweet from one of these egg accounts, others will instantly know that these are the thoughts of a person unhatched.
Twitter was initially envisioned as a place for mindless chit-chat, but this didn’t last. Early on, skeptics would dismiss the site by saying, “Why would I want to read about what people had for lunch?” This changed as millions of new users flocked to Twitter. Brands, celebrities, and politicians realized that they could use Twitter to “connect” with millions of fans. Twitter became something much more serious. With the Arab Spring in 2011, Twitter was cited not just as a place for news to be reported, but a place where news was made. This trend has continued in recent years; yes, Twitter is still a place for gossip and pop culture, but it’s increasingly part of the political sphere. #BlackLivesMatter emerged on Twitter and became a real-world movement. On-the-ground footage from war zones is shared by reporters and civilians alike. Terrorist groups use the site to recruit new members; the CIA has an account that tries to dissuade people from joining. The 2016 presidential race is even being called “The Twitter Election.”
As Twitter has changed, so has the public’s perception of the egg. Initially, the egg was often seen as indicating that someone was technologically inept. The egg was your dad, who saw a hashtag on CNN and wanted to see what the fuss was about. Their accounts were sparse, maybe a “Hello, world,” some accidental pocket tweets, or a few replies to celebrities who would never notice. Usually these accounts would go inactive after a few months. Other common egg accounts were spambots, the kind of followers you’d get if you put $5 into a sketchy “Buy Twitter Followers—Cheap!” website, but Twitter would usually find and delete these accounts. By 2012, there was a general sense that Twitter eggs weren’t to be taken seriously. Among the earliest articles about the phenomenon are from social media websites warning readers that they should update their profile pictures to appear professional.
Eventually, a new type of Twitter egg emerged: the troll. (The definition of trolling has changed, too; where it once referred to trying to get a reaction by saying something provocative, it’s now more often used to mean “repeatedly hounding someone with hateful, violent comments.”) Some of these trolls were technology inept, but others simply used their egg avatar as an additional form of online anonymity. In both cases, the Twitter egg has come to be synonymous with racism, hate speech, and idiocy. This perception of the egg as troll cannot be separated from the rise of the alt-right in the face of the left’s burgeoning social justice movement. Activists tweeted about #BlackLivesMatter, and eggs responded with vitriol. The Twitter egg became the symbol of people who want to tweet threats at celebrities and journalists they don’t like. In August 2015, a photo of an actual egg with the caption “Well, well, well, if it isn't the guy from Twitter that told me to go fuck myself” went viral; it’s since accumulated 110k retweets. When late-night host Seth Meyers joked that he bets 75 percent of Trump’s sources are Twitter eggs, the connection between real-world politics and online goons was clear.
Twitter has been criticized extensively for their ongoing failure to prevent harassment and hate speech, but seems either unable or unwilling to make the changes needed for users to feel safe. BuzzFeed surveyed 2700 people about their experiences reporting abuse on Twitter; 90 percent said that Twitter didn’t do anything. It should be pointed out that most of the accounts spouting hate aren’t actually eggs but ordinary anonymous users. Despite this, the egg remains shorthand for trolls.
I asked Paul Ford, who's written about the evolution of the internet better than anyone, for his thoughts on the eggs. He told me that, “At first you were like, oh! This is a new user! And they were likely to be anyone, you know? And they kind of stumbled over themselves. But then the last four years or so it just became understood that an egg was going to be pretty racist and probably consciously hiding themselves. Anyone can come to Twitter and just walk right up to the place where you’re having lunch with your friends and poop in your mashed potatoes. And then they laugh and walk away, and everyone is looking at you because you’re sitting there with poopy potatoes and now it’s on you to deal with it. Who doesn’t love Twitter?”
This is the typical reaction from Twitter’s chattering devotees. We know the site is full of rotten eggs. We know that it will continue to make us feel gross. And we know we’ll never be able to stop checking our feed.