Yesterday fellow Daily Anchor Editor Ella and I met with Twitter co-founder and Chairman of the Board Jack Dorsey for a little chat over a cup of coffee. Well, a latte, drip coffee, and cappuccino, respectively.
The Story Behind Twitter
If you’re in a rush, here’s a summary in 140 characters: Jack. DispatchSoftware. SMS. RealTimeInfo. ODEO. +Ev+Biz=Twitter. Obvious. VC. Buzz. Mainstream. Scale. API. Explosion. $$$?. Champagne.
It all began with cities; Jack Dorsey loves them. How they work. How information flows from one point to another. Couriers, taxis, and 911. At 14 Jack started working as a software developer at a dispatch company in his hometown of St. Louis, MO, and at 18 moved to New York City to attend NYU and began working at one of the biggest courier services in the country, DMS, where he continued writing dispatch software. Jack was fascinated by the fact that all the users of this software – taxi drivers, limo drivers, couriers – were really just reporting what they were doing; stripping information down to its bare essence. And thus the seed for Twitter was planted.
In 1999, at 22, Jack Dorsey had a RIM 850 (the predecessor to the Blackberry,) and developed a program where he could send an email to a service and it’d blast it out to friends. Problem was, any of his friends who didn’t have a RIM 850 were still tied to a computer & keyboard. So, Jack could be out hiking and send a message to his friends, but if they weren’t at their computer there was no chance of a back-and-forth. Jack shelved the idea for the time being and went back to developing dispatching software, and in Oakland, CA in 2000 launched his own company to dispatch couriers, taxis, and emergency services via the web.
Over the next few years Jack Dorsey continued working out his idea of fusing dispatch software, instant messaging, and text messaging to create real-time status communication, and in 2006 he approached San Francisco-based podcasting company ODEO, which was also interested in text messaging. It was there that he met Biz Stone and ODEO co-founder Ev Williams. Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone spent just 2 weeks creating the first Twitter prototype and implemented it as an internal service for ODEO employees. Jack slipped home to spend some quality time with family (think he knew this was going to be big, or what?) and then they launched a full-scale version of Twitter in July of 2006. Thee months later Biz, Evan, Jack and other members of the ODEO team formed Obvious Corp and acquired ODEO and all of its assets – including Odeo.com and Twitter.com – from the investors and other shareholders, and Twitter was spun off into its own company in 2007.
Twitter started out as a mobile-centered tool, and Jack believes that’s still the most engaging method. One of his first eye-opening experience using the service was during an earthquake here in San Francisco. The first message he received was something along the lines of, “was that an earthquake?” followed seconds later by someone confirming the quake and guessing at the magnitude, followed by someone across town sharing their experience, followed by someone saying they just checked the USGS website and could confirm the magnitude was… whatever it was. In minutes rumor had turned to news, and it didn’t happen with any phone calls or TV News Anchor or “confirmed report” from the USGS, it happened on cell phones with SMS text and a nifty little program that required you to condense your sentiments into 140 characters. The authenticity of real-time individual experience had collided with cold hard facts and the bare essence of information.
At first the buzz built steadily but slowly, and then in March of 2007 Twitter started attracting mainstream attention. 2 months later Jack, Ev, and Biz secured about $22 million in VC funding and the stage was set to scale the program for mass-adoption. In 2008 Twitter saw a lot of those earthquake-type events and exploded to the front of the public eye… During the 2008 Presidential election CurrentTV streamed twitter updates on-screen during the debates and Twitter created a mashup that aggregated user-updates about the election. During the Mumbai attacks citizen journalism went real-time via Twitter, and when US Airways Flight 1549 played Red Rover with a flock of birds and crash-landed into the Hudson River, the first news reports reached the world stage via Twitter, not CNN, with a little message and a picture sent via cell phone, “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.”
What’s Changed, and What’s Changing
The short answer = Not much. According to Jack, the back-end has been stabilized and scaled for growth, but the platform hasn’t changed in 2 years. The only modifications to Twitter’s interface have risen from the community before being adopted by the platform. The whole @reply thing? Twitter didn’t create that, users did. The whole #tag thing? Again, users created it, not Twitter. Jack says that the system is build on gauging user experience and then incorporating key trends, so when Twitter saw users were using the @ symbol to reply to each other, all they did was filter @replies into a separate tab.
Twitter’s API (application programming interface) is where you’ll see the most growth and change. The API allows 3rd parties to create their own applications, and there are now hundreds – if not thousands – of Twitter tools, clients, and add-ons, and usage of the API is more than 20 times that of the actual site.
Companies are changing the way people use Twitter, too. Brands have started using twitter for marketing & promotions, market research, and customer service. Jet Blue was one of the first companies to adopt Twitter for commercial use, and in addition to using Twitter to market its service and promote deals, they use it as a market research tool to see what people are saying about their company via search.twitter.com, and then as a customer service tool by responding via @replies or direct messages to customers. Think about the value here. 5 years ago if you had a complaint about an airline you’d have to call or write the company, and good luck getting the sympathetic response you’re looking for. With Twitter, maybe you don’t ever even reach out to the airline, you just post an update that includes a gripe about your experience, and minutes later a rep from the company can contact you and ask you what the problem was and how they can help rectify it. This is huge. Not only does this humanize the brand, it replaces worn-out methods of communication with a real-time exchange, and puts the initiative for contact in the hands of the company.
What About the Whole “Twitter is Going to Start Charging Brands For Use” Thing?
Ert, wrong. On Tuesday 2/10 the twitterati and the tech world were all abuzz with the rumor that Twitter was about to start charging brands a fee for using the service. People were flipping out! Reps from a few brands threatened to walk away from Twitter if the cost became prohibitive, users were scared that individuals would eventually be charged a fee, too, and others were wondering how Twitter would separate the brands of high-profile individuals (e.g. Britney Spears or Demi Moore) from individuals.
Have no fear, friends. Jack says there is no plan to ever charge individuals or companies a fee to use Twitter. To be sure, Twitter is a for-profit business, but it plans to generate revenue from added-value services, not existing services. Jack, Biz, and Ev have been talking publicly about developing a revenue stream out of the commercial use of Twitter for over a year, so they’re all scratching their heads as to why this is suddenly considered newsworthy (read their response on the Twitter blog: http://blog.twitter.com/)
Don’t expect this to kick in in the immediate future, either. Part of the reason why Twitter has worked to secure substantial VC funding is to take the time to find the right revenue model, not just implement some arbitrary fee structure or slap up banner ads. Do expect a revenue-generation model that meshes with the platform, enriches user experience and provides added value. Think of Google’s implementation of Ad Words: after 4 years of generating zero revenue, Google found a way to add value to the primary use of their service (the hunt for information) by allowing companies to push relevant information to consumers… for a fee. Twitter plans to find a revenue stream that not only fits within the network but helps to prop it up.
Four Interesting Facts
- Jack Dorsey doesn’t use direct messages. Not a fan; direct-messaging circumvents the whole point of Twitter: the public-exchange of information.
- What are Jack’s favorite search terms? “Champagne” and “Rooftop.” Why? Because there’s always a good time if champagne or a rooftop are involved.
- What are the most popular types of searches on Twitter? Vanity searches… people looking for information about themselves or their company.
- What’s Jack’s favorite iPhone Twitter client?
- Pick #1 = None of the above: Jack still prefers SMS text to make his updates. SMS is true to Twitter’s roots; it’s mobile, simple, and inherently forces you to condense information into its bare essence.