When @sweden began its grand experiment in 2011, Twitter had never seemed more full of possibilities. In New York, Twitter served as a digital bulletin board to organize protesters at Occupy Wall Street. In the Middle East, tweets served as the roots of the Arab Spring. Companies signed on to engage with customers; celebrities made accounts to grow their fanbases. And in Sweden, the government came up with a crazy idea: "How about we let any Swede—like, literally any of them—use the nation's official Twitter account?"
That experiment is now about to end. On Sunday, after seven years, @sweden will stop posting. And we’ll lose the last good thing on Twitter.
The account leaves behind a repository of 200,000 tweets from 356 curators. Encoded in those tweets are observations about Sweden, about humanity, about the power of social media. But @sweden hasn’t just been a glimpse into the daily life of Swedes—it's also shown the rise and fall of Twitter.
Before @sweden was run by its citizens, it was a fairly run-of-the-mill tourism account. It tweeted about Swedish celebrities, Swedish holidays, tips for visiting Sweden, and the occasional photo of meatballs. It had fewer than 8,000 followers, none of whom seemed particularly eager to fav, reply, or retweet.
“We wanted to find something engaging and authentic and real,” says Anna Rudels, the head of the Department of Digitalization and Communication at the Swedish Institute, a governmental agency responsible for promoting Sweden to the world. “So we came up with the idea to let the people of Sweden tell [other people] about Sweden.”
The plan was simple: Every week, a new Swede would get the keys to @sweden, and the chance to share anything they wanted about Swedish life. (The only rule: nothing illegal.) The Swedish Institute partnered with a Stockholm-based creative agency to recruit some Twitter-literate Swedes, and found Jack Werner, a 22-year-old who had made his way into the Swedish media scene by writing about the internet. Werner agreed to be the account's first "curator."
“I’ve often thought since then that they wanted me to be the first to make a fool out of myself,” Werner says.
Werner’s early tweets disrupted @sweden’s feed of travel tips and tourism information. He was candid, at times extremely personal, with a somewhat crude sense of humor. He tweeted about everything from dubstep to the death of his grandmother. When one follower asked how he coped with Swedish winters, he recommended masturbation. “In the first couple of days, I lost thousands of followers,” he says.
But Werner’s tweets also set the tone for what @sweden would become: real; engaging; not burdened with representing the whole of Sweden. By the time Werner finished his week as @sweden, American tech blogs had written about the experiment and the account had gained almost 10,000 followers. Today, there are 146,000.
As the account grew, the Swedish Institute created a committee to select new curators. The group receives about 20 nominations each month for new curators (you can nominate someone, but can’t put your own name forward, which itself is extremely Swedish). The committee tries to select Swedes from different walks of life, but there are no hard rules about what constitutes a “Swede.” Curators have included people who have never left the country and people who just moved there; Guatemalans, South Africans, and Australians who have taken up residency in Sweden; and people born in Sweden who have moved abroad.
“Having a different person every week, you get these different views and opinions of Sweden and about Sweden,” says Rudels.
One curator, a sheep farmer, mostly tweeted photos of lambs. Another curator, a prison guard, tweeted photos from the inside of a Swedish prison cell, which looks more or less like an Ikea-furnished dorm room. Others have used the account more like a personal diary: A 16-year-old curator introduced followers to the musical stylings of Zara Larsson; an 81-year-old curator introduced followers to her grandkids; a glitter obsessive taught us the Swedish word for “sequin” (it’s paljett).
The account brought to life what Twitter was originally meant to do: connect people. It flattened the distance between here and Sweden, made you feel like you had a new Swedish best friend every week. And over time, a mosaic of Swedish identity made itself clear: Swedes love to talk about the weather, drink way too much coffee, love their cultural traditions. But the rotating voices made it clear that being Swedish means something different to everyone. The account gave Sweden more than a face—it gave the country a fanbase.
Seven years and thousands of followers later, @sweden has introduced many people to the magic of glögg, fika, and midsommar. But now, it's time for the sun to set on the account. “Our mission is, in a broad sense, to communicate Sweden to the world,” says Rudels. “The main reason we’re closing it now is that the geographical reach is mostly followers from the US, the UK, and Sweden. Of course, these followers are important to us—but we want to reach even further.”
Plus, Twitter just isn’t the same as it was when @sweden started tweeting. In 2011, a tweet could pressure a company to change its policies, or topple an entire government. It was where people found each other after a massive tsunami hit Japan, where people shared safety and aftershock information following an earthquake in Turkey. Back then, logging onto Twitter still held the opportunity to meet a stranger, to try out a new joke, to micro-blog your mundane life.
Twitter is not that place anymore—even in Sweden. Last year, the @sweden account blocked over 14,000 Twitter users that it said were involved in “threats against migrants, women, and LGBTQ people.” The move was controversial—but it underscores a tumultuous time at Twitter, which until recently had extremely lax rules for verbal abuse and dehumanizing speech on the platform. The simple, delightful places on Twitter feel ever further away, replaced by feeds full of bot-boosted retweets and callous dismissals.
All of which may force @sweden to find a new home on the internet. Rudels says the Swedish Institute wants to start a new project, riffing on the same intimate, conversational format that let so many @sweden curators share their daily lives with the world. “We think it’s time to say goodbye and we’re looking into doing something new,” says Rudels. “We’re looking into YouTube."
Do you want to tell her, or should I?