Results tagged “evwilliams”
July 11, 2015
Everybody’s got advice on what Twitter needs to do at its current crossroads. The answer might lie in revisiting the moment they first broke geeks’ hearts.
I took it as a bad sign that Will.I.Am was hanging around backstage at a conference for software developers.
It was hard to understand why nobody’s favorite rapper was in the building, since he had expressed no particular interest in software engineering prior to that moment. To be fair, Will.I.Am’s interest in technology has become clearer in recent years; he recently put out a smartwatch called PULS, which is a good alternative to the Apple Watch for people who prefer a smartwatch that doesn’t work. But back in 2010, Am’s inexplicable presence at a technology conference was a good indicator that things were changing in a way that didn’t necessarily favor the folks who were there to hear stories about Apple apps, not apl.de.ap.
We were at Twitter’s first developer conference, an event called Chirp. And indeed, Will.I.Am’s armchair interview was just one of a few clear indications that Twitter really wasn’t just for geeks anymore. Instead, Twitter had suddenly blossomed into a company that aspired to be a player in media and entertainment and advertising, with its eye focused on becoming the giant, publicly-traded company it is today. Twitter began to take its first tentative steps away from its geeky roots, which set the stage for a nerd backlash that still hasn’t fully abated.
But the business types whom Twitter had been courting as its new BFFs turned out to be just as mercurial as the early geeks once the company finally did go public. Investors and pundits have taken issue with everything from the company’s CEO to its often-desultory product direction to its lackluster growth in the number of active users logging into the service each month. This led to a precipitous recent drop in its share price, the delivery of a 360-tweet-long diagnosis of the company’s ailments from shareholder/cheerleader Chris Sacca, and culminated in today’s announcement that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is stepping down from his position.
While the Internet has never shied away from offering unsolicited advice to Twitter’s leadership, it has perhaps never faced such impassioned arguments about how the company can get its mojo back from some of its closest supporters. While many businesses would envy the fact that Twitter has pretty huge revenues and a user base that is enormous in comparison to almost anything except Facebook, it’s become conventional wisdom that the company needs to work to find its bearings again.
And oddly, getting Twitter back on track may mean taking another look at one small bit of news that got overshadowed by a Black Eyed Pea on that day five years ago.
Let’s Get It Started
In the spring of 2010, Twitter was just graduating from being the hottest startup in tech to being a genuine cultural phenomenon. Chirp was the company’s first big conference, a glitzy coming-out for the company and its leaders. Advertised as its “first annual” event (there have been none since), Chirp showed that Twitter was a big enough institution to be able to command the attention of a theater full of geeks and press. I found myself there as a sort of legacy admission, thanks to the fact that I’d been working on building some apps on top of Twitter’s platform, and had known the founders of the company back when they were just ordinary geeks.
Twitter’s spate of announcements at Chirp included big news like Dick Costolo announcing the company’s first real foray into offering advertising. But within the tech industry, the real headlines started the night before with a low-key announcement that Twitter would be buying or making its own Twitter-branded apps for smartphones. (As absurd as it seems now, until that point, searching for “Twitter” on most devices wouldn’t yield a Twitter app that you could just use to read or post tweets. Instead, a confusing array of Twitter “clients” offered a selection of blue bird icons and terrible portmanteau names beginning with “tw-”.) At Chirp, Twitter made clear it would be offering its own, official app, just like Facebook and all the other popular services.
Then-CEO of Twitter Evan Williams at Chirp, explaining the biggest challenge facing Twitter as a company. (Photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid)
The announcement of Twitter’s first-party mobile apps, coming just on the eve of Chirp’s start, rankled some of the most influential developers in the crowd, despite the obvious logic of the company’s rationale. These developers were independent coders who now faced the challenge of competing with the very company whose service made their products possible. From the standpoint of the market, or of regular users, Twitter was right to dismiss the complaints of these developers at the time. Twitter’s decision to make its own client apps did yield a significant simplification of the experience for normal users, and set the stage for the company to be able to display ads on the service, which might have been impossible through third-party client apps.
But unfortunately, this dismissal of developer concerns, however legitimate, would leave a lasting mark on the company’s relationship with the geeks who had first embraced the service. Even though the vast majority of programmers who built tools on top of Twitter weren’t making client apps, the mood of the entire developer community was led by those who were. And once the developers got upset, their disgruntlement informed the attitudes of the entire early-adopter tech community. Later announcements to these same geek audiences would be plagued by vague messages, unclear goals, or accurate communication of actual bad decisions on the company’s part. All of this merely confirmed the suspicion of many developers that Twitter didn’t love them anymore. For nerds, Chirp could be seen in retrospect as marking the official end of Twitter’s Good Old Days.
Where is the love?
Twitter’s struggle to win over investors is mostly due to the fact that most folks on Wall Street don’t really have a nuanced view of how social networking and social media platforms work. The market wants metrics, but picks and chooses which metrics they care about pretty arbitrarily, based on the whims of not-exactly-Zuckerberg pundits like Jim Cramer, or by looking at the numbers of other services like Facebook’s much-vaunted Monthly Active User (MAU) count — the number of people who log in to use the service each month.
The thing is, MAU numbers are a pretty arbitrary measure of the utility of a media-based service like Twitter. Google’s investor briefings almost never ask about how many YouTube users are logged in each month — they care about how many videos are watched, and how many ads are seen, and maybe they care a little about the fact that YouTube is the second most popular search engine on the Internet after Google itself.
By contrast, relatively few users go to Facebook to do a search on a news story or to find a particular video. And being measured against Facebook really only makes sense if there’s a zero-sum game where people are replacing one service with another. For example, in the photo-sharing realm, Flickr’s lead a decade ago has been almost completely supplanted by Instagram’s dominance today. In that context, a user-for-user comparison makes sense.
But when Anita Baker and Cheryl Lynn have beef on Twitter, it’s only on Twitter. And a ton of people are going to read about it by seeing their tweets embedded on a blog or news site, just like they discover YouTube videos that are embedded on those same sites. Whether they’re logged in to the service or not is irrelevant. (The fact that no ads are displayed along with those embedded tweets certainly is relevant.)
So what about some non-MAU metrics? Would that appease? What about shifting the conversation entirely? Other companies have been able to broaden focus from their ad-based businesses by getting into nascent markets that hold a lot of promise. This is where we encounter things like wearable 3D goggles and smartwatches, but R&D-intensive hardware folly is generally the domain of much bigger (and richer) tech titans like Apple and Microsoft and Google. And, uh, Will.I.Am.
When Will.I.Am DJed the afterparty for Twitter’s Chirp conference, he literally followed Don’t Stop Believin’ with Sweet Child o’ Mine, which is hard to read as anything but contempt for the conference’s attendees.
I Gotta Feeling
The funny thing about many developers being convinced that Twitter doesn’t care about them is that it’s pretty clear that Twitter is better to its developers than almost any other social networking or social media company. I was at Chirp because I’d helped built a tool that relied on Twitter’s data, not as a client app but for analyzing and understanding a user’s activity on the service.
Lots of other companies went that route, too—with a number of them selling for hundreds of millions of dollars as “enterprise analytics services”, and many more getting lots of funding for the apps they’d built on top of Twitter. That’s a striking contrast to the ecosystem around, say, Instagram or Pinterest, which have almost no similar success stories. In fact, if we look at the landscape of major social networks or messaging applications that developers could have relied upon in the years since Chirp, a striking pattern emerges:
- Google: They launched Google Buzz (hey, remember that one?) and then mercy killed it a few years later. They’re about to do the same thing with Google+. There has never been a meaningful client app for Google+ from any developers outside of Google.
- Instagram: There are a few third-party tools that do specific tasks like regramming images or making collages, and some reading apps for platforms like iPad where Instagram was late. Still, Instagram hasn’t really spawned many successful full-featured client apps. A handful of analytics apps exist, but none of them have gotten that huge.
- Tumblr: The few attempts at building client apps or services have generally been stymied by the company. Almost none of the analytics services built for Tumblr have been very successful.
- LinkedIn: There used to be a few ways to build apps and services around LinkedIn, but almost all of them were shut down over the past year.
- Pinterest: The company promised an interface for developers for years, but has only shipped a limited release of some tools for brands to be able to interact with the service. There are no Pinterest client apps.
- Snapchat: Pretty much nothing.
- WhatsApp: Same deal, you take what they give you.
- Facebook: They’re not too bad, providing access to a lot of useful data, but recent privacy improvements for users have meant fewer features for developers that were relying on previously-accessible data.
The truth of it is, when compared to other social networking companies, Twitter ends up looking like one of the most developer-friendly big platforms.
As a developer trying to build on top of all of these services, most of the ones that were of the same vintage as Twitter screwed us. The newer ones don’t care about third-party developers at all. None of these companies have ever cared about enabling developers to make a client app. Yet none of them has earned the same scorn or derision from developers as Twitter has.
This may be changing a bit, as we see a generational split amongst developers, with newer coders unaware of Twitter’s polarizing past. Indeed, Twitter’s recently made available a whole new suite of developer tools to simplify everything from displaying ads to keeping track of what’s making a mobile application crash on your phone. It’s still early, but every indication is that these new developer tools are already becoming popular, and that the developer services that Twitter acquired haven’t lost any credibility by becoming part of the company’s portfolio.
Twitter's Fabric is already the No. 2 mobile analytics SDK for iOS. http://t.co/HrrmQmBdJh (select itunes and analytics)— dick costolo (@dickc) May 14, 2015
Enough years have passed that some of the older disgruntled developers may either have mellowed over time, or simply may not be relevant in shaping community opinion anymore. It’s actually possible that Twitter has another chance to make its core platform appealing to developers again, if it can find the right tools to offer them.
Scream & Shout
If we go back to that day in 2010, we can find out exactly what kind of things excited Twitter’s first wave of developers.
The start of the Chirp conference was a flurry of speeches from top execs, and of course the headlining Will.I.Am appearance. But by afternoon, the splashier news had passed, and it was time to get down to nuts-and-bolts developer conversations. The highlight for coders was a preview of an upcoming developer feature that seemed incredibly promising: Annotations. This nerdy new capability promised that developers would be able to pack more information into each tweet.
Annotations promised to upgrade tweets from being a 140-character postcard to being a 140-character message written on the outside of an envelope. What was inside the envelope? Whatever a developer could imagine.
At the time, this idea for Annotations was radical. Twitter’s core service had only just begun to stop displaying the fail whale, a whimsical and all-too-common illustration that popped up whenever the service was too overloaded to respond. To imaging going from not just being able to deliver tweets in realtime to anyone in the world, but to delivering almost any message in realtime to anyone in the world was a shocking leap forward.
And Twitter Annotations too. That's pretty exciting. I've been wondering about Twitter as a transport for non-social information for a while— Tom Coates (@tomcoates) April 14, 2010
Reaction from developers was immediate, and ranged from enthusiastic to downright rhapsodic: "Twitter Introduces Annotations; Hash Tags become Obsolete"
Even some of the more sober analyses of Annotations saw the potential for Twitter to be transformed as a service. And the excitement over the feature was clearly justified — many of the ideas that developers immediately suggested for Annotations, such as including photos or videos in tweets, have become indispensable parts of the platform’s current success.
Even Twitter’s most interesting newer features, like the “cards” in tweets that show excerpts and thumbnails of linked stories, or the experimental “buy” button that the company has been testing to enable e-commerce, are all things that Annotations had promised to make possible years ago. These capabilities were hinted at in the first reviews of the feature written back in 2010.
But more exciting than the ability to add new little buttons or links within Twitter is what Annotations could enable outside of Twitter. But that potential was never discovered, because the company soon stopped talking about the upcoming feature, and eventually abandoned the effort altogether without even so much as a tweet marking its demise.
One of the fastest growing categories in consumer technology these days are smart devices, which take ordinary household items and connect them to the internet. Each one usually comes with its own app. One app will tell you when your smart lightbulb is going to burn out, and another app for your smart toaster will tell you when it’s going to burn your toast. Each of the individual gadgets is pretty cool, but all of this noise on top of the nonstop barrage of notifications that light up your phone during the day seems like a recipe for message fatigue. It’s not difficult at all to make the argument that these notifications would be a better experience as delivered in Twitter’s signature stream.
Delivering these notifications is already done regularly by developers today, but each has to reinvent the wheel when it comes to handling tons of users or building the necessary code to support features on each new phone or device platform that comes along. If a smart device is fortunate enough to succeed, its makers get to face the same kind of fail whales that plagued Twitter for years. Piggybacking on Twitter’s infrastructure and could solve a lot of these issues, especially if they relied on an updated version of the features that Annotations promised.
This concept already exists for coders — it goes by name like a “messaging bus” or a “message queue”, though these services tend to be far more complex and expensive than it is to simply send a tweet. More to the point for developers, Twitter’s also a lot more fun than using an “enterprise message bus” service.
There’s a more subtle point here, too: Twitter enables connections between accounts. What exists today as a social network between people who follow and reply to each other could tomorrow expand to be an information network between devices that could follow and reply to each other. Telling your smart smoke detector not to set off the alarm when the smart toaster has said it’s about to burn the toast is currently a task for only the most stalwart geeks. There’s no reason that kind of connection couldn’t be a new use for the “follow” button.
But the point here isn’t to outline every possible interesting feature that can come from a fully-networked Internet of Things. Hell, I don’t even know what the most interesting capability would be. The key here is that Twitter is the best service to offer these features. It’s simple, fun, familiar, and available already on every device that matters. None of those things are true about the other “Internet of Things” platforms that have been announced.
Twitter could charge apps or devices (or humans!) that send high volumes of messages with Annotations, diversifying its revenue stream from simply being advertising-based, and building trust with any developers who still had lingering concerns about Twitter’s developer strategy by making these new features sustainable.
Chris Sacca speaking at Twitter’s Chirp conference in 2010.
Boom Boom Pow
The thing is, it’s easy to write fan fiction imagining all kinds of features being invented by Twitter. I want a pony! And a new CEO who’s from an underrepresented community!
But most of the smart suggestions are probably already on Twitter’s roadmap, including those on Chris Sacca’s list. These suggestions tend to assume, though, that the only audience that matters are Twitter’s mainstream, non-technical users. This is an odd assumption given that many of Twitter’s most engaging signature features were pioneered by its early adopter nerds.
And it’s essential for Twitter to get out of the MAU metrics game with investors. We can imagine a hundred different ways to juke the stats and try to distract fickle financiers, but revisiting Annotations may be one of the few ways to do so in a way that’s based on substance — actually providing the kind of meaningful platform innovation that developers actually want.
There’s something unique and distinct in being an information network instead of just a social network. Twitter has been that network, and can be again.
Revisiting Annotations wouldn’t be a magic bullet. But it could be a way to reconcile Twitter’s past and its future, to appease both developers and investors. And it might be a chance to rekindle some of the unqualified enthusiasm that so many saw for the company at its coming out party half a decade ago, before it’s 2000-and-late.
August 23, 2013
First, some disclaimers: I’m writing this as I sit a few feet away from Medium’s NYC team. (I even asked them for tech support while writing this!) Ev Williams, founder of Medium, is an old friend of mine, whom I became a fan of as I was the first public user of Blogger, which he cofounded. And Ev explained the idea of Medium to me before he’d even decided on the name. So, in addition to offering the falsely-humble way of bragging that such disclosures always provide, it should be pretty clear that I’m far from objective about Medium. I like it, because I like blogging, and I want it to succeed. This piece originally appeared on Medium.
Lately, there’s a bit of question about what in the hell Medium is, exactly. Alexis Madrigal neatly captures most of the common perspectives on this question in his piece today, aptly entitled “What Is Medium?” But Medium’s nature isn’t confusing by accident — it’s confusing by design.
I’m more circumspect about confusing lots of people (although Ev’s patience in trusting people to eventually figure out a new communications platform has been right with both Blogger and Twitter, see below) so I thought I’d explain what Medium is, for the benefit of the smart people who build it, the creative people who publish on it, and the larger audience of people who are starting to discover it.
Medium is blogging in form, but not in structure.
Ev explicitly evokes blogfather Dave Winer’s definition of blogging as the “unedited voice of a person”. With respect to two of the people who’ve done more to define blogging than almost anyone, I think that’s an adequate description of the content of blogging, but that the reverse-chronological structure that’s defined blogging and its descendants such as Twitter’s timeline and Facebook’s news feed is just as essential to the medium’s nature thus far.
Medium eschews reverse chronology, organizing instead by “collections” (which seem to be an aspect of the platform that is in significant, if largely behind-the-scenes, evolution). Collections can be fairly arbitrarily created, both by authors and by readers.
Tellingly, Winer’s new work on Fargo also steps away from focusing solely on reverse chronology to be based more fundamentally on the hierarchal outlines that are core to Winer’s work and philosophy.
In both cases, the abandonment of reverse chronology has the effect of undoing a core tenet of blogging: The social contract. Blogs have had prominent timestamps on each post since the turn of the century, and the newest content has always sat on top of a stream since the form was born. As a result, even casual readers understand an implicit promise from the blogger that more content will appear in the future, and the expectation changes the nature of reading what’s written.
The promise of updates to a blog has positive impacts, in that it assumes some literacy and persistence and an ongoing relationship on the part of a reader. But it’s also been the biggest cause of stress for bloggers; Having to keep updating is seen as an overwhelming obligation by many, and the requirement of newest-on-top has frustrated countless bloggers who want to assign some semblance of editorial judgment (or simply want to inflict their authorial authority) on behalf of readers. Trying to fight reverse chronology has been the impetus behind most of Gawker’s never-ending parade of reader-enraging redesigns, and is part of why Winer advocates his outline-based organization as superior.
Despite the good reasons for Williams, Winer, Denton and many others to resist the tyranny of reverse chronology has triumphed (see “Stop Publishing Web Pages”) and a billion people spend time reading a reverse-chronological stream almost every day. Even Winer, with his preference for outline-based organization on pages, is a relentless advocate for RSS, the syndication format he pioneered, which offers only a singleminded newest-on-top organization to feeds.
So what does Medium resemble more, with its organization-by-collection, diminished prominence of the creator’s identity, and easy flow between related pieces of content? It’s simple: YouTube. Though some subset of YouTube users subscribe to channels, most of us just graze through the site when someone sends us a funny video, only barely aware of who even posted a video. Medium is evolving to be the same; We get sent an article that someone wants us to read (or in the case of the recent spoiled-startup-boy essays mentioned in Madrigal’s piece, we get sent an article someone wants us to hate), and then hopefully we click around to check out a few more things.
Medium doesn’t (yet?) support the embedding of its content into other sites, which was essential to YouTube’s wide adoption, but in the core experience by which content is created and discovered, Medium is much closer to “YouTube for Longform” than it is “Blogger Revisited”.
Medium is a better magazine.
When Chris Hughes picked up The New Republic, I found it a charming throwback to the days when tycoons would pour their money into publishing. This of course presaged Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post, but the core idea was the same—rich guys buy “credible” publications in order to have big platforms for their ideas.
But, even though I like what Hughes seems to represent, and he’s seemed to have a thoughtful touch in how he’s running TNR, I’m pretty sure I’d forgotten the magazine existed by the time he bought it. I have no doubt there is a small but significant audience to whom the brand is really important, but cultural credibility is no longer based entirely on having an august old name atop of some writing.
By contrast, Medium is a free-for-all, with the most perversely obtuse branding for a platform since Google named its nearly-chromeless browser Chrome. There’s some amount of crap on the site, for which it’s justifiably earning criticism, but there are also paid pieces which will undoubtedly start to meet or exceed the quality of the average TNR article.
And then it occurred to me that the contrast between Hughes’ and Williams’ approaches to making modern media mirrors a bit of their own background. Hughes has the most old-school (and impressive!) credential possible: He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. Williams, on the other hand, dropped out of college shortly after he started, a story which he offers up in great detail during this fantastic interview with Kevin Rose.
This is the fundamental nature of Medium: it’s meant to be inclusive and egalitarian. In crass terms, it’s arguing that 10,000 monkeys can make a better magazine than Ivy League editors. In the more charitable terms I prefer, it’s arguing that culture is better for amplifying the voices of those whom traditional institutions exclude, even if that requires giving a platform to those who are thoughtless or negative.
Regardless of which tactic is more successful (and fortunately for Chris and Ev, it’s not an either/or scenario), Medium is at least a reinvention of the traditional narrative whereby the tycoons who win at the beginning of a new technological era plow their winnings into buying up captive media to act as a house organ. Carnegies build libraries, yes, but they don’t usually try to give away printing presses.
Medium At Large
Going forward, Medium has to solve some issues about what it wants to be when it grows up. Since it piggybacks on Twitter’s identities, it doesn’t have the struggle of defining who’s “verified” (along with all the attendant inanity that accompanies verification) but it should do a better job of identifying the commissioned pieces that appear on the site.
That’s not because the money being paid is all that important, but because it provides a declaration of intent for the kind of content the site is going to promote. (It should be noted that Medium’s rules for content are admirably clear.)
Every social media platform is identified by its early breakout successes (few of us realized just how profoundly prescient Lazy Sunday’s success would be in representing YouTube’s future), and while Medium has done a brilliant job of presenting itself as a “serious” or desirable neighborhood for writing on the web, the great danger now is that it’s seen as just a plaything for overprivileged techies. In fact, the first thing I ever wrote on Medium was about exactly that danger. Sure, Williams’ earlier efforts with Blogger and Twitter transcended those concerns to some degree, but those were started back when he was an underdog.
And I’m equally excited to see how Medium evolves technologically. It doesn’t presently have much of a social model; The inability to follow people is clearly intentional (probably part of undoing some of that obligation to post often), but it’s tough to follow collections and discoverability overall is a challenge.
At a deeper level, the authoring environment on Medium is unparalleled (they actually have repeatedly quoted me to that effect on their introductory articles), and the increasing amount of code the company is sharing on GitHub makes me hopeful that some of the tech that makes such a good experience possible will be opened up.
There are more nuanced choices, such as offering statistics to authors that show not just page views, but how many people actually read an article, which offer great promise as well. This is especially true as Ev has hinted at an interest in paid content as part of the mix of revenue streams for Medium, and anything that changes the web’s current relationship with traditional display advertising would be incredibly powerful.
Similarly, the fact that Medium is entirely a web-based experience (it has a responsive design on mobile devices, but almost no mobile writing experience, and no native mobile applications) is heretical according to current Silicon Valley orthodoxy. Certainly we can picture mobile applications being added in the future, but the fact that Medium is web-first is an under-sung victory for those of us who love the web, and harkens back to some of the idealism about the Internet that’s always underpinned blogging technology.
The most important parts of Medium’s future aren’t about its technology, although those innovations have been surprisingly underplayed.
Instead, Medium matters because it helps to define whether great writing finds a sustainable expression on the web in the post-banner-ad era. Medium matters because it pushes blogging, the native medium of the web, to a new stage of evolution after a decade of relative stagnation.
And Medium matters because of what it is: Something that looks really familiar, but is actually quietly something truly new.
April 21, 2010
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.
July 16, 2008
Sometimes if you do something very difficult, and you do it really well, the end result is that your achievement becomes completely invisible.
I mentioned a year and a half ago that I like Twitter. That was a little bit less common a position to take back then, but in the months since, tons of people have taken to the little messaging service, so clearly this was no great insight on my part -- it's just a useful, fun service.
But of course, that popularity has not been without its problems. Twitter's gotten a reputation for being unreliable, as a result of its rapid growth. In fact, in many ways, the Fail Whale and its related frustrations has come to define Twitter's brand more than almost anything else.
I'm no expert at these things, but there are a lot of reasons startups fail, and the reasons almost never include the fact that thousands of users clamoring for a service. Indeed, it seems to me that most companies (whether they're tech startups or anything else) fail because of being poorly managed. Put another way, execution is everything.
With that in mind, it's worth pointing out how particularly well-executed Twitter's recent acquisition of Summize has been. I don't know any of the deals of the financial or business arrangements, except that I'm a little disappointed that Twitter isn't maintaining a presence in New York City, instead moving all of the employees to San Francisco. That nitpick aside, the public face of this transition was extremely well executed.
Ev Williams, co-founder and the most public face of Twitter, speaks about the deal at some length in this excellent, candid interview with Techcrunch. (Which site, by the way, may rank as my "most improved" blog of 2008.)
Rumors of the Summize acquisition leaked a few weeks ago, but both companies kept discipline around communications and didn't acknowledge or respond to the conversation. And then, when it came time to announce the deal, the sites had been fully integrated, a lengthy and personable blog post complete with a sketch of some future ideas for integration was posted, consistent branding was in place on the acquired site, and the roadmap for what was going on with employees affected by the acquisition was clearly communicated.
In all, that's a formidable amount of coordination to happen across the country, while business deals are being worked out, and while maintaining secrecy about the fact that it's taking place. And, all of that was done with an eye towards providing a good user experience to their shared customer base.
There are a lot of things to criticize in such deals most of the time, though it seems likely that this will be a successful acquisition, from an outsider's point of view. But what's striking to me is that, as quick as so many are to criticize Twitter (fairly) for technological problems, people haven't been as eager to acknowledge a remarkable discipline and execution on the business side of the company. Frankly, all of those who'd suggested that Twitter should be sold to a larger company seem to have forgotten that almost none of the big companies suggested as acquirers have a history of consistently pulling off this kind of execution. And that's even more true for the smaller innovative companies that they've acquired.
February 20, 2007
One of the goals a lot of people have when they become entrepreneurs is to have "fuck you" money: Enough personal wealth to be able to say "fuck you" to whomever you want.
As is probably evident from my little love note to Twitter, I'm enjoying Ev Williams (and his team) having the freedom to experiment with a slightly nicer version of that freedom. Call it "Thank You" money.
The best part about people being independent is that they can tell the truth. And while this is true for other bloggers (Dave Winer, Jason Calacanis, and Mark Cuban come to mind), Ev's probably the most graceful with it. So a rumination a few months ago about Odeo's mistakes sets the stage for an honest appraisal of the challenges faced now that Odeo is for sale.
Pretty much everybody else who'd want to do something like this would have to ask permission from someone else, permission that would likely not be granted. As someone who likes entrepreneurship and working for an independent company, it does my heart good to see others revelling in it as well.