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.

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.

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.

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 ;-)

My Web Hosting Recommendation: Pair.com

Apparently a lot of people are suffering from downtime at Dreamhost lately. I’ve run one site with them and found everything they did frustrating, from the control panel to the uptime to the customer support. I’ve been a Pair.com customer since 1999 and love them. They’re not the cheapest, though when I consider they’ve had no downtime ever and I’ve only had to contact customer service once, that makes it quite a good value.

Feel free to use my affiliate code when signing up :-)

Blow Open the Social Media Doors

David Pogue with some good ideas from everyday life:

It seems to me, though, that we haven’t even scratched the surface [of social media potential]… I was thinking about this — a LOT — as I lay in bed last week, sicker than I’d been in years. I hadn’t eaten for two days, and I was nervous about being well enough to travel to a speaking engagement the next day. (Is it just my imagination, or are the bugs getting a lot nastier these days?)

I kept thinking: Surely I caught this from somebody — somebody who now knows what this virus’s course will be.

When my kids come down with various horrible flu variations, and it gets bad enough to see a doctor, we often hear from the pediatrician: “Oh, yes, it’s going around. You’ll have vomiting for two days, and then you’ll get better.”

Well, gosh darn it, why couldn’t someone have told us?

The Tom Sawyer Effect — Old Media Fallacy?

Just when you think the traditional media is getting over their jealous gripe with new media we hear of the snarky Tom Sawyer Effect, websites that avoid the arduous task of painting the fence (creating content) and instead convincing your friends (customers) to pay for the priviledge of painting it themselves.

Point taken, some lame sites do ask too much of their customers. But after consulting to several different established media firms in my career I sense a lack of appreciation for the power of the application. Flickr doesn’t just succeed because people contribute photos — Snapfish and others did that long before. Flickr enhances that experience through use of design and enhances the photographic network through its API.

And the longer the publishing-centric companies ignore this fact, the longer they will fester in old business models that become increasingly irrelevent. A website that allows visitors to contribute content is a far cry from a platform like Daylife that allows customers to manipulate content.

Having the API Rug Pulled Out From Under You

John Hagel observes how “the large Internet players are wearying of the high acquisition premiums for attractive Web 2.0 companies and are increasingly deciding to grow their own copy when they see an interesting venture.” So if you’re a start-up, what’s your new exit strategy? Hagel says…

The only sustainable edge in Web 2.0, as in all businesses today, is to get better faster by working with others…

There are basically two ways to do this. First, you can accelerate the innovation in the services you offer so that you are constantly one or two (or more) steps ahead of those tempted to copy you. Second, you can find ways to use your service offerings to build trust-based relationships with your users, ideally with some powerful network effects that will make it very difficult for later entrants to pry these people away from your service.