My affair with Twitter, the idea, began over seven years ago.
It was at a party, a few blocks from where I live and work — San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. I was hanging outside, sucking on a stogie, and chatting with Twitter’s forgotten co-creator, Noah Glass. I learned about Twitter (or Twttr as it was known then), played around with it on my Nokia E71 phone, went home, blogged about it and went to sleep. And just like that, the service that over 230 million people now use every month was announced to the public. And if anything, that original post is a lesson in humility; a reminder that no one knows what the future holds.
I was skeptical, but oddly addicted. I was cautious, and yet optimistic. I tried to define Twitter then, and failed. I have tried many times since, and failed. After all these years, I still have not been able to come up with one singular definition.
Some have called it a megaphone for the planet. Others like PayPal co-founder Max Levchin have compared it to talk radio. My friend Narendra Rocherolle, in a post for us (back when Twitter first launched,) compared it to tamagotchi. The best I can do is to compare it to the pulse of our planet, one that gives the internet a sense of humanity.
Of course, in the same breath you could turn around and label it the love child of Hank Moody (the lovable rascal who is the lead character of Californication) and Miley Cyrus — in other words a dysfunctional and narcissistic marketing platform; a theater that is always playing a “movie starring me.”
Twitter, at its very core, is many things to many people: that is its beauty and that is its challenge. Twitter the idea and the product is ever evolving, and so is the company, which was and still is a work in progress. I have had a courtside seat to this evolution and what I have learned is that Twitter is one of the most unique companies I have come across in my twenty-plus years of writing about technology, innovation and optimism.
I once compared Facebook to the Roman Army, relentless and ruthless in its pursuit to conquer it all. Nothing has changed my opinion of Mark Zuckerberg’s company. Twitter, on the other hand, always reminds me of that rag-tag group that blows up the dam at the end of Force 10 From Navarone. (I originally compared Twitter to a UN Force.)
Twitter is unique because it was born in the crucible of failure and grew up in the glare of the spotlight. It took from its community, it learned from its community and sometimes it did shameful things. It failed in the public eye — after all its fail whale icon once was a badge for technical incompetence.
But that comes with the territory. For a long time at Twitter, being open and social weren’t buzzwords. Despite disappointing some of us in the last few years, it has remained a remarkably transparent company. Recently, Twitter was mocked for experimenting with its news stream in public. I wouldn’t have it any other way. However, critical as I might be of the company at times, I like that some of the old Twitter DNA is still intact.
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo isn’t afraid to take to (what else) Twitter and joust with his detractors, distasteful as it might seem. New Twitter employees announce their glee at joining Twitter on Twitter, and those leaving the flock say their goodbyes publicly. And if you pay close attention to the twitter accounts of Twitter employees, you can pretty much put two and two together, and see what’s happening inside the company. Like I said, being open is not merely a buzzword. And that’s what makes it different.
The founders club
The co-creators of Twitter are just regular dudes who have demons much like our own. It is why we can relate to them. They seem so approachable — and they are — and their success is so personal. It is like watching someone play and cheering for them in the minor leagues only to suddenly find them playing in the major leagues. When we look at Twitter founders, we are reminded of that very feeling.
Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin might be towards the top of the billionaire’s list, but they aren’t like Jack, Ev, Noah and Biz. They are not us — and that isn’t a bad thing.
When reading Nick Bilton’s tell-all book, Hatching Twitter, I saw that human frailty and all the baggage it drags along. In many ways, it is a story of anyone of us who are trying to figure out the future. Twitter is a reminder that successful startups start with a crazy dream, a random doodle (or a drunken conversation in Twitter’s case) that is then followed by a series of coincidences. Twitter is a random series of events posing as a corporation.
Yes: it is trying to become like Facebook in order to appease the demons of downtown Manhattan, who will soon be yanking its chain. But for now it is still the Twitter we know — flawed, fantastic, frustrating and it is the future. To me, it is a prototype of a company that was built on and for our interconnected planet. It is a company whose culture is defined less by its founders or by its chief executive but instead by those of us who use the service every day. It lives and dies in public. Let’s forget trying to to understand it, and forget trying to productize it. Twitter is us!
The uncertain future
The Twitter of today is facing an uncertain tomorrow. Uncertain, because a company that bows to Wall Street is bound to lose some of its folksy charm. You can see that already — many of the decisions being made by the company are being made to appease its investors; some are betting a successful Twitter offering will help them secure funds for their efforts to find the next Twitter.
Wall Street will take over from them, and will ask questions such as the amount of dollars that can be made per 1,000 tweets or something equally banal, like how many timelines can be monetized. Twitter is about to enter that weird zone where need for growth trumps everything, including one’s values. That is Twitter’s fork in the road. Does is want to be like Google, a company with faint regard for Wall Street’s expectations, delivering growth and sticking to its original (if somewhat more evil) game plan? Or does Twitter want to follow the path of Facebook, which in the process of appeasing Wall Street has become a little more complex, a little more spangled with banners, a lot less social and much more draconian in its pursuit of data that can be used to attract advertisers and thus grow and grow. Irrespective of the path it chooses, there is no doubt that Twitter is going to change. Its new masters will want it to change.
Twitter, as we all know, thanks to its S-1 filing, has a growth problem — a problem that comes from the fact that average folks (like my mom) come to Twitter, scratch their heads and leave. (And that is why I don’t mind that Twitter is trying to be like Facebook, though clearly being Facebook isn’t working for Facebook either.) And if that is not enough, Twitter faces the challenge all aging consumer internet services eventually face — an audience that is aging with it.
The kids of today have other internet distractions and ways of spending their attention. Snapchat and Instagram have shown that visual is the medium of communication for generation mobile. Cracking the growth code, attracting younger audiences and evolving the product without alienating the current user base are pretty steep mountains to scale — especially hard to do when hired guns and not founders are running product.
So what about the IPO?
What about it? In my most recent appearance on Bloomberg TV, I told host Emily Chang that Twitter would have a much more normal offering than say Facebook. The company — thanks to its former CFO and current COO Ali Rowghani — has done a good job of laying out a clear, concise and simple storyline.
Dick Costolo is funny and disarming. Twitter’s ad chief Adam Bain is a great salesman. This is a team put together to sell the offering with minimum fuss. We have already seen the initial price range go up to around $25 a share, perhaps even higher and from the looks of it, and Twitter will go to market and stuff its coffers with about $2 billion. The company will have a long honeymoon period where Wall Street will adore whatever it says — as long as the sales keep growing. It has ad-matching technology that is starting to work. Given that now anyone (and that includes Twitter and brands) can send direct messages into your DM box without following you, don’t be surprised if you see Twitter launch some kind of direct marketing type advertising.
BTIG Research’s Rich Greenfield (a bull) believes that the company will have $1.1 billion in revenues in 2014, $1.75 billion in 2015 and by 2016 that number will grow to $2.7 billion. All this will eventually take a toll on the product experience because there isn’t a Zuckerberg-like founder to help figure things out: they are all busy with their next new things. Jack has Square. Ev has Medium. Biz has Jelly. Noah has Noah.
With no clear product leader, it might be best for Twitter management and Wall Street to embrace what I learned a long time ago: You have to let Twitter (the company) just be Twitter, an idea that evolves and morphs with the times and for those who love it.