Last week, Twitter announced its new advertising system, called promoted tweets. I was at Twitter's Chirp conference as a speaker, so I got an up-close look at the reaction to the big news, along with the (frankly, more interesting to me) announcements for developers and media.
But from the New York Times to CNBC to the dozens of other media channels that covered the story, there was no mention of the essential fact that Twitter's senior executives have all made similar advertising and monetization systems in the past.
Why does it matter? Because looking at the decisions Ev, Dick, Biz and other senior Twitter execs have made in the past could provide valuable insights to anyone trying to understand the roadmap of how the company got to this point, and what they're going to do next. And because innovation happens in the tech business not because of who you know or how much money you have (though those things help, of course) but because, fundamentally, you know your shit. The tech trade press wants to focus on personalities and funding, but for the developers I met at Chirp, or who are making their way to Facebook's F8 conference today, success comes from recognizing industry patterns.
So, some examples:
- PyRads, launched in November 2001, was a self-service text ad system built by Pyra CEO Ev Williams, now Twitter's CEO, to provide an advertising system for users of Pyra's signature application, Blogger. (Trivia: PyRads was named by Jason Shellen, now CEO of Brizzly.) PyRads actually launched between Google's rollout of AdWords and its later introduction of AdSense, alongside similar efforts like Matt Haughey's TextAds and Phil Kaplan's HttpAds.
- SpyOnIt, launched in 1999, was led by its CEO Dick Costolo, now COO of Twitter, as a realtime notification system for changes on websites. In addition to sending instant messages when a site had updated, the SpyOnIt team stayed at 724 solutions after it acquired their company, with one area of focus being the delivery of realtime notifications through partnerships with mobile service providers. Dick and his SpyOnIt cofounders would later go on to create Feedburner. You know, that thing that does realtime delivery of feeds with ads in them?
- A bonus one: Xanga, launched in 1999, was one of the earliest large-scale blogging services, and its initial marketing efforts were led by Biz Stone, now Creative Director of Twitter. While Biz was at Xanga, they launched one of the first pages to aggregate media consumption in a blogging community, creating an Amazon shopping portal of the most popular books, music and movies amongst their users.
There are dozens more examples, but if you are going to compete or succeed in the Twitter ecosystem, shouldn't you know exactly what choices these men made when in nearly identical circumstances a decade ago? Because I'm friends with these guys, I can just ask them. But none of the developers I've talked to at events like Chirp seem to know this legacy, and they don't have the access and privilege that I do to ask questions directly. That's not really a criticism — a lot of them are young or inexperienced or simply arrogant and don't think history matters, so they are disinclined to listen to an old-timer like me rant about ancient times when they were in junior high school.
And while the brashness of youth can be a powerful driver of innovation, a blind devotion to the narratives as presented by today's tech press is incomplete at best. Without the whole story, today's startups are going to be sitting around surprised when industry cycles repeat themselves. It doesn't have to be that way. All you have to do is Know Your Shit.
Don't worry, I'm not 100% Grumpy Old Man yet; Here's video of me improvising a PowerPoint presentation to slides I'd never seen at the close of the first day of the Chirp conference. Caution: The jokes are nerdy.
Update: The video works now.