Early on the morning of 30 November 2007, a newly hatched Twitter account posted its first tweet. It was an odd message — simply the letter "a".
— everyword (@everyword) November 30, 2007
A half hour later, it was followed by another word, also beginning with a. Thirty minutes later, another. The only logic to the stream was that the words proceeded in alphabetical order. By 4.30am that morning seven years ago, it had reached one of the best "a" words out there:
— everyword (@everyword) November 30, 2007
The account was @Everyword, and its bio said that it was on a mission: "Twittering every word in the English language." Proceeding in alphabetical order, it promised to deliver a new word every half hour, with mechanical consistency. It wasn't immediately clear how many words it was going to tweet, but by 2011 the account said it would be done sometime in the next two years.
Last Sunday night at 9.30pm, it finally made its way to the Z's:
— everyword (@everyword) June 2, 2014
Adam Parrish, the part-programmer, part-poet, part-game designer who created Everyword, now says that the Twitter bot will tweet its final word some time early in the morning on Saturday, June 7. When that tweet comes, it will have delivered 109,229 words.
Even Parrish doesn't know when exactly that will happen. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he said that he doesn't "spend much time on it at all" anymore. "The original program took barely any time" either, he added.
Perhaps because he started Everyword as a fun little one-off experiment when he was a student at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, the account spent a good part of its seven-year life tweeting in relative obscurity. When Gawker's Adrian Chen first wrote about Everyword back in 2011, he said that the account had gathered 500 followers — that from around 100 in 2010. Since then, the bot's follower count has snowballed to nearly 100,000.
I wish I could say I was one of Everyword's early adopters. But I first joined Twitter in 2011 and only started following the account relatively recently. I don't even remember what it was that clued me in in the first place. Once I started following it, however, it quickly became one of my favourite things I saw pop up in the endless stream of tweets I plunge into most days now.
This is partly because Everyword's odd, poetic presence on the social network has evolved alongside Twitter itself. When the bot first started tweeting in 2007, Twitter was barely a year old. At that year's SXSW festival, it broke a record of 60,000 tweets per day. When the company filed for its initial public offering last October, that number was up to 500 million.
Twitter hasn't just changed by growing in numbers either. The whole service looks and behaves in a profoundly different way than it did when I first joined, let alone back in its earliest moments in 2007. A recent update, for instance, changed the presentation of a user's feed from a uniformly ordered list to one that highlights or deemphasises different tweets by adjusting their relative size. Once again, this casts the unceremonious order of Everyword in a new light:
(I picked this screenshot because I loved that the word "zeitgest" in particular was blown up in this way)
When Parrish first created Everyword, he was trying to poke fun at the eccentricity of the service itself. As he explained to The Guardian:
In late 2007, Twitter was a new thing. It was an exciting time, but I was a Twitter sceptic. The way I saw it, people were posting meaningless things, totally out of context. I wanted to satirize the brevity of Twitter messages would be to make a bot that would post individual words.
Now he sees the service differently, he concluded. "It's kind of a magical writing experiment, and it's amazing that so many people participate."
And that's the beauty of this particular Twitter bot: that for seven years it offered up fresh words as if they were writing prompts for all of us eager students. Sometimes, Everyword's offerings would have a special kind of public resonance, such as when it tweeted the word "niggerhead" in 2011 right as presidential hopeful Rick Perry seemed to be having a hard time understanding why that was an offensive name for his old hunting grounds.
Undoubtedly, however, there were many more moments when one person would see a word that, by some force of serendipity, struck a special chord with them and only them. The fact that it tweeted the word "zoosperm" at 5.30 this morning didn't do much for me. But who knows? Maybe there was some PhD in molecular biology that needed a moment of encouragement after pulling an all-nighter. At the very least, I'm sure someone cracked a smile when they saw that one.
And for Parrish, that's the whole point. As he's noted on his appropriately-titled blog "Decontextualize", the context of the tweets is what makes them meaningful. But it's also the thing that's hardest to predict. Again from his interview with The Guardian:
Words aren't just things that we write and use in our speech. They are also things we think about individually. Like sex, weed, swag — when they're not in a sentence, we can also think about them individually. Everyword raises that question of thinking about a word just from that perspective, as a social object.
On the other hand, because @everyword is inside an individual person's Twitter stream, the words take on the context of whatever else is in the stream at the time. There's the possibility of weird serendipitous interactions between a word in your stream and some other tweets. The word "super" might be tweeted, and then you read a tweet about a school superintendent or Superman movie.
This is the sort peculiar, incalculable beauty that I love about Twitter: the vibrant energy produced when uncontrollably random clusters of words are struck against one another.
Sometimes they produce a message greater than the sum of its parts. Far more often, it's nonsense straight through. But the end result isn't as important as the fact that more and more people are participating in the overall experiment.
It's sad that Everyword won't be one of the bots dipping into this crazy stream anymore. But I'm sure there will be something just as quirky soon enough.