Twitter was a slow hunch

Part of my research into concept design is to look at where successful products and services came from. Today, it’s Twitter.

Lately I’m also perusing Stephen Johnson’s thoughts on Where Do Good Ideas Come From. In this context it’s interesting to read here and here about Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s years of experience creating software to dispatch messages, and how this interest goes back to his childhood, so in Johnson’s terminology, the idea for Twitter looks like a slow hunch not a eureka moment, typical of many good ideas in Johnson’s view.

Here’s his sketch from 2000 showing key parts of the user interface:
early sketch of a Twitter user interface

Fast forward to 2006 via Dom Sagolla:

“Rebooting” or reinventing [Odeo, the struggling podcasting startup] started with a daylong brainstorming session where we broke up into teams to talk about our best ideas. I was lucky enough to be in @Jack’s group, where he first described a service that uses SMS to tell small groups what you are doing. We happened to be on top of the slide on the north end of South Park. It was sunny and brisk. We were eating Mexican food. His idea made us stop eating and start talking.

I remember that @Jack’s first use case was city-related: telling people that the club he’s at is happening. “I want to have a dispatch service that connects us on our phones using text.” His idea was to make it so simple that you don’t even think about what you’re doing, you just type something and send it. Typing something on your phone in those days meant you were probably messing with T9 text input, unless you were sporting a relatively rare smartphone. Even so, everyone in our group got the idea instantly and wanted it.

This telling from an Odeo developer helpfully points out that this session was one of several:

When it became clear that Odeo was not going to become a huge success in the podcasting space, there was a period of soul searching and hack days. One of those hack days, Jack, Noah, and Florian (another rails dev at Odeo), created Twitter. The initial version seemed interesting, Noah, Jack, and Florian kept working on it for several months, while the rest of the team stayed focused on Odeo.

This interview with Dorsey shows he really did have the essence of the idea years before, and had to wait for technology to catch up:

We were limited until 2005-2006 when SMS took off in this country and I could finally send a message from Cingular to Verizon. And that just crystallized — well, now’s the time for this idea. And we started working on it.

and again:

At that time, one of my co-workers introduced me to SMS (short message service), which I had never seen before. She used it all the time. Once I saw that, I’m like, ‘Whoa, this is awesome!’ This communication blew my mind, and the way she was using it blew my mind. I thought, What if we simply set status, archive it on the Web, use SMS to do it, and it all happens in real time? We all kind of went into a corner, wrote out a bunch of user scenarios, and started inviting co-workers in. They fell in love with it. We knew we had something.


A prototype was built in two weeks
and Twitter was publicly launched almost four months later.

There’s a few lessons here for anyone creating product or service concepts. One is that slow hunches are slow and take time to evolve. Two, sometimes technology needs to catch up to ideas. Three, nurturing company environments like Odeo help these concepts take shape.

Four, obviously Twitter is a very emergent concept and less goal-oriented than even many startups would attempt; it feels more like a demo you’d see on a Labs page, except it just wouldn’t work on a Labs page. And it’s different than how we usually create concepts that require making money; the New York Times profile states, They freely acknowledged that they had no idea how people would use it or how it would make money. But they thought it had potential…

Webinar with Bill Scott of Netflix, Yahoo + 20% Off

Bill Scott of Netflix, formerly of Yahoo, will be hosting the Future Practice webinar tomorrow, helping web designers learn how to create designs that are easier to implement by illustrating the UI engineer’s point of view. And you, my dear readers, get 20% if you enter the code VTWBNR when signing up.

I recorded a bit of our rehearsal with Bill. He’s killer smart — an O’Reilly author and frequent presenter — but has a great laid back style that’s such a pleasure to learn from. Here’s a ~7 minute edit:

Web 2.0 Strategy: Customers Create Value

Note: Over the next few weeks I’m blogging my notes on Amy Shuen’s book Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide: Business thinking and strategies behind successful Web 2.0 implementations. (O’Reilly Media). The book is both a good introduction and a synthesis of diverse theories that should offer something to even experienced strategists.

Background: What is Web 2.0?
Wikipedia entry
What is Web 2.0?, the seminal article by Tim O’Reilly

Chapter 1: Users Create Value / Flickr

  • Alvin Toffler predicted the “prosumer” in his 1980 book The Third Wave, and with recent technical advances in web and digital technology his vision is being realized.
  • Like so many startups, Flickr started out doing one thing (a game) and by listening to customers transitioned to another offering, online photos. The small team including technically-smart founders could turn customer feedback into rapid release cycles. A key to Flickr’s growth was making photos public by default.
  • The freemium business model was first described on Fred Wilson’s blog: “Give your service away for free, possibly ad supported but maybe not, acquire a lot of customers very efficiently through word of mouth, referral networks, organic search marketing, etc, then offer premium priced value added services or an enhanced version of your service to your customer base.
  • Flickr’s platform was timely in compounding the positive network effects of broadband, digital cameras, blogging, social networking, and online syndication.
  • Flickr’s core business message: Don’t build applications. Build contexts for interaction.
  • Stages in the open systems movement: Linux; APIs; user-generated content. Flickr combines the last two to compound their use.
  • Flickr’s interestingness algorithm factors in popularity, interaction, identity, and time.
  • Flickr uses the first three of the six kinds of revenue models: Subscription/membership; advertising; transaction fee; volume/unit-based; licensing and syndication; and sponsorship/co-marketing/revenue-sharing.
  • They managed to avoid the four major cost drivers (inventory, payroll, IT, and marketing/advertising/CRM) compared to retail photo printing and online stock photo companies.
  • In March 2005 Yahoo! brought Flickr for an estimated $40 million, a value that can be calculated using a customer-based formula in which revenues are directly tied to customer fees, not unit prices. Tracking customer behavior and metrics on an ad-supported site can result in an average revenue expectation per customer; in 2006 it was $13 for Google. Flickr had advertising, premium services, and partner revenue, making the average revenue per customer about $20. Multiplied by Flickr’s 2 million customers, we arrive at the $40 million valuation. More sophisticated formulas might give different weights to customers based on how actively they use the platform.

Nokia Offers New Email Accounts Via the Mobile Phone

Niti has an intriguing post including this quote describing service for the Nokia 1202:

the new devices will allow users to set up an e-mail account on Nokia’s Ovi Web portal without ever going near a PC. That’s an important distinction for the millions of mobile-phone users who live in regions without reliable electricity, much less computers and Internet connections. “It gives those millions of users their first identity on the Internet,” says Alex Lambeek, Nokia vice-president in charge of handsets aimed at low-income users.

A brilliant move, IMHO, and makes me wonder about which other bits of the PC-oriented Internet could be mobilized.

But Niti goes on to explore how an email address changes our identity or online presence differently.

Social Media as a Product Testing Audience (e.g. for Motrin)

To catch you up, Motrin posted the below ad and people, particularly baby-carrying mothers, were so offended that the makers of Motrin pulled the ad.

Many of the offended people (“Motrin Moms” there were dubbed) were on Twitter, as well as blogs and YouTube. As a result, marketers are starting to get scared of social media, just as social media is taking off as a legitimate communications approach.

But another way of looking at it is, better the Motrin ad underwent a social media firestorm than a mass media firestorm. Continue reading

Creative Commons: Good for Nature

At Overlap 08 this past weekend we talked a lot about sustainability in all its forms, including sustaining nature. This was on my mind this morning as I cycled over the Brooklyn Bridge and saw a small video crew capturing some footage of the bridge. Surely, I thought, there’s so much footage of this bridge already, you hardly need more. But of course they do need their own shots since most of the existing video is copyright protected. So crews all over the world today are traveling and otherwise consuming resources to recreate what was created yesterday.

Creative Commons is the legal infrastructure to change all that, helping us share all our media which gives us no competitive advantage, such as video footage of the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve been sharing and using creative commons media for my work, and it occurred to me this morning that CC not only makes media available for everyone’s use, it encourages reuse which is one of the better ways to preserve our natural environment.

Put simply, reusing existing media is a more environmentally sound approach than creating media.

Lifehacker has a great list of 6 ways to find reusable media.

creative commons logo

Happy Birthday Noise Between Stations

This here blog turns 9 years old tomorrow. Quantitatively speaking, she’s got 2,041 posts, 590 comments, and 130 categories. Checking the PageRank, it’s a 6, the same as generalmills.com, whatever that means.

Kevin Kelly on Eight Uncopyable Values

Kevin Kelly established himself as an Internet pundit with true foresight with the 1998 New Rules for the New Economy which is still a classic, if showing a little age with its dot com bravura. Now he’s working on a new book piece by piece on his blog. The latest chapter examines the future of value online. In Better Than Free he posits:

“When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.
Well, what can’t be copied?”

His answer is eight uncopyable values, which he calls “generatives”:

Immediacy — Sooner or later you can find a free copy of whatever you want, but getting a copy delivered to your inbox the moment it is released — or even better, produced — by its creators is a generative asset.

Personalization — A generic version of a concert recording may be free, but if you want a copy that has been tweaked to sound perfect in your particular living room — as if it were preformed in your room — you may be willing to pay a lot.

Interpretation — As the old joke goes: software, free. The manual, $10,000.

Authenticity — You might be able to grab a key software application for free, but even if you don’t need a manual, you might like to be sure it is bug free, reliable, and warranted.

Accessibility — Ownership often sucks… Many people, me included, will be happy to have others tend our “possessions” by subscribing to them.

Embodiment — …PDFs are fine, but sometimes it is delicious to have the same words printed on bright white cottony paper, bound in leather. Feels so good.

Patronage — It is my belief that audiences WANT to pay creators… But they will only pay if it is very easy to do, a reasonable amount, and they feel certain the money will directly benefit the creators.

Findability — …no matter what its price, a work has no value unless it is seen; unfound masterpieces are worthless.

We’ll Reach the Semantic Web One Small Step at a Time

XFN and FOAF were two small steps in that direction, and Google just built on them with the Social Graph API (watch the friendly little video intro).

Any day now we’ll see an application that not only helps us generate XFN and FOAF data, but does so in a way that manages our online identities, particularly with regards to search. It’ll tip the balance of art and science in SEO toward science.

Top-down semantic web visions were judged by skeptical-but-realistic critics to be overly systematic. Well, yes, but if we get there a piece at a time, helping people understand, implement, experiment, and capitalize with each little piece, we’ll get there in an organic way.

Time to go generate some XFN…

Links to what others are saying.

Fighting Spam and Apologies in Advance

An off-topic post…

Apparently I have a high enough Page Rank that spammers love my site. I actually have two different anti-comment-spam plug-ins running on my WordPress installation. But lately there are been hundreds of spam comments per day that the system can’t decide are spam or not, and so it offers them to me for moderation. I just don’t have time to sort through them all, so I simply delete them.

I haven’t heard any complaints, but if your comment falls into the pit of false positives, my apologies.

Update: I installed another WordPress plugin that asks you to answer a simple math question before posting, and this seems to be working perfectly so far.

Hamel and the Technology-Driven Future of Management

Here’s some terms from a recent interview with Gary Hamel, management guru…

digital device
Internet
the Web
Googlers and bloggers and mashers and podcasters
community
open source projects
PCs, routers, and hubs
social network
MySpace

I’m fascinated by his view that technology — particularly Internet tools — will change management. This isn’t just the hyper-hype of the Cluetrain Manifesto, this is a top-tier business professor who regularly publishes in HBR. When I wondered aloud a couple years ago, Who are the new rebels? (Managers?), I saw this as daydreaming, but perhaps the entrepreneurs of the Internet will also influence future management techniques.

The Internet is the New LAN

As we build more and more functionality into both the client and server sides of the Internet, we’re ending up with, well, client-server technology. But instead of a server in a closet up on the 3rd floor, it’s around the world.

If Microsoft were to update Visual Basic’s user interface and transmission protocols a little, they could leapfrog everyone with a rich Internet application platform ;-)