It’s fair to call 2016 a defining year for Twitter – but until this time next year we won’t know if ‘defining’ amounts to a reaffirmation of the social media network, or the beginning-of-its-end. What is certain, however, is that many assumptions about the site have been resolutely upended over the past 12 months.

Politics provided the clearest example of a zeitgeist shift. Until this year it had been thought that the best way to cultivate a Twitter following was to culture a consistent string of posts around a cause and examples of its values in action – just as Barack Obama did during the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012. His posts were positive, inspirational and cause-related; they created a stream built upon events and shared in tweets that inspired further comment from a growing community. It did not consist of a series of unrelated opinion posts, defensive-aggressive rebuffs or personal attacks. Before 2016, that stuff occasionally happened in celebrity Twitterland, but never in politics.

 Donald Trump was 2016’s disruptor in chief. His self-posted outrages jarred followers so much that they reverberated across a wider media and propelled him to victory, disproving the assumption that shock and abuse is a flawed short term strategy. The same could be said of tweets around Brexit. 2016 will be known as the year when the most relevant and decisive posts on Twitter were aggressive, not reasoned. Looking back, the tweets that traveled farthest read more savage, disturbing, funny and odd than in any previous year.

Political Top Trumps

This year’s top global trends on Twitter included #Trump, #BlackLivesMatter, #Brexit, #election2016 – and of course #RIP, due to 2016’s unprecedented list of celebrity deaths. The preponderance of political hashtags in that list tells us a lot about how Twitter is viewed and used in the present day. Trump’s snipes at Clinton’s deleted emails – ‘How long did it take your staff of 823 people to think that up-and where are your 33,000 emails that you deleted?’ (167,000 retweets and nearly 300,000 likes) – cut through and generated the most column inches. One of his tweets in October became the most discussed on Facebook – ‘Hillary Clinton should have been prosecuted and should be in jail. Instead she is running for president in what looks like a rigged election’ (36,000 retweets/86,000 likes).

At least Hillary Clinton achieved the most retweeted political message of 2016 (nearly 640,000 retweets, over one million likes), which derived from her concession speech: ‘To all the little girls watching…never doubt that you are valuable and powerful & deserving of every chance & opportunity in the world’.

Most Disturbing

These related to the BlackLivesMatter cause and the Syrian conflict. BlackLivesMatter has generated 41 million tweets since 2013 – but 2016 was the year the tag was repurposed as a way past the print and broadcast press, connecting images and stories of racial bias. One consequence is that the tone of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1960s has resurfaced. For instance a December post read ‘Texas Judge suggest black man is Lynched then claims it’s not racist’ [sic] while another,  responding to an anti-BLM post, read, ‘Racist want you dead. Not protesting. Not silent on one knee. DEAD ..They want Black and Brown people gone’ [sic].

During the ongoing Syrian conflict, Twitter touched a compassion-fatigued West by unravelling individual plights played out in real time. As Government troops reclaimed Aleppo, seven-year-old girl Bana Alabed’s increasingly bleak messages from the city made hard reading – ‘My name is Bana, I’m 7 years old. I am talking to the world now live from East #Aleppo. This is my last moment to either live or die. – Bana’ (retweeted 45,000 times), then later – ‘Dear world, there’s intense bombing right now. Why are you silent? Why? Why? Why?’ (26,000 retweets). Alabed and her mother’s 624 posts since September have a core following of 367,000 – enough to make their tweets mainstream news.

For the lols

It’s been a vintage year for funny tweets, especially in relation to sports. The Rio Olympics prompted clips of viewers’ reactions to watching Bolt winning three golds, while swimmer Ryan Lochte’s scandal prompted a series of funnies, including this zinger – ‘Disappointed we chose #LochteGate instead of #LochMess. We had a chance to do something really great there, & we blew it’.

West Ham’s co-owner David Gold proved his grasp of Twitter, if not popular culture, by tweeting a ‘Good Luck at your new school’ message to Will from the TV comedy The Inbetweeners (retweeted 33,000 by non-followers. The post is now removed).  A deluge of Twitter wags linked England’s loss to Iceland at Euro16 to Brexit – ‘On the plus side, last Tuesday I put a £100 bet on England to win tonight, so I’ve only lost the equivalent of £3.80’. Telegraph Sport’s favourite tweet of 2016 came courtesy of Sunderland’s footballer Victor Anichebe, whose post during his team’s October slump exposed his club’s PR: ’Say something like Unbelievable support yesterday and great effort from the lads! Hard result to take! But here we go again!’.

Hall of mirrors: the odd tweets that went viral

The oddest uses of Twitter in 2016 related to entertainment, which, as ever, held up a distorted yet compelling mirror to the world we live in. Harry Styles, who is the UK’s most followed celebrity with 29.5 million, caused what The Sun termed a ‘Frenzy’ in May – 189,000 retweets and two million Instagram likes – when he posted the word ‘whoops’ with a picture of his severed pony tail. It was one of the most retweeted posts of 2016.

So was the (over-)reaction to Leonardo DiCaprio’s first Oscar win in February. Celebrities posted back-slap messages while DiCaprio’s tweet of thanks was shared 357,000 times and liked by 591,000. Another top trending term this year was PokemonGo; some posts even led to flash mobs in Poke-addicted cities. Oddest of all for Twitter’s 2016 statistics: the most retweeted message of 2016 simply said ‘Limonada’ (‘Lemonade’). It was posted by the famous Spanish gamer Elrubius, who offered over 1.3 million people prizes for re-tweeting the innocuous message.

Twitter itself

2016 has been a particularly bizarre – and bad – year for the Twitter company. First its value dropped, with other search and social channels growing in popularity. And then, during the US election, its refusal to implement a politically-loaded #CrookedHillary emoji for Donald Trump led, it is believed, to the site’s conspicuous absence from the President-elect’s first meeting with top tech leaders in December.  However, 2016’s top trending themes included events that showed Twitter at its best. #Rio2016, #Euro2016, #Election2016, #Oscars and #PokemonGo all proved Twitter can bust social bubbles and break global developments, live and in real time. At times in 2016, Twitter made you lean forward and engage in a way that no other social networks or broadcast media can achieve alone. If 2016 was pivotal for Twitter, then 2017 will surely define exactly where its future lands.

Please note that this blog first appeared in the online edition of The Telegraph on 30 December 2016. The author of the article has given Inspire! by EACA permission to publish it on their website.