Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter. It was an engaging conversation about the Twitter phenomena and the future of the site.
Eric Enge: How did you come up with the idea for Twitter?
Jack Dorsey: Well, it’s a long story, but for some reason since I was 14 years old I have always been interested in careers, dispatch, and real-time systems. At that time I was living in St. Louis, and I wanted to start a small career firm to build software to create a dispatch system. It turns out that the St. Louis area was in no need of a dispatch firm for careers, or dispatch in general, because it’s such a small town, and has a downtown area that is not that cohesive, but, I was still fascinated with the concept of information passing, and especially real people saying where they were, what packages they could take on, and what packages they currently have.
As I went on with my life I ended up working for the largest dispatch company in the world in Manhattan, this was 1999-2000, some web-based communities were popping up and IM was becoming huge. One community I was fascinated by was LiveJournal, and FrontPage diaries (editor: not to be confused with Microsoft FrontPage). The concept of FrontPage diaries was that you could share with the people you are very close to your day in a diary format. They were very emotional and it wasn’t like an edit-compose thing, it was more like a blog post, which is still quite formal. At the same time, I was fascinated by IM. However, these really limited the range of things you could tell your friends about what you are doing. I went away to figure out how to tell my friends that I am walking, or that I am out eating a taco, or something of that nature in real time. I always find that small bit of connection, even though it’s somewhat meaningless, really means a lot because it’s very contextual. I have always been fascinated with the little details of people’s lives and what they choose to do with it.
Eric Enge: Right. One of the interesting things you mentioned there was this notion of a blog post of being quite formal. Compared to traditional media, blog posts are far less formal, right? But, it’s a continuum of sorts.
Jack Dorsey: Exactly. It’s all different layers. I consider myself a man of few words and I really like conciseness, succinctness, and laconic speech, and I just find a lot of value in those short bits of information, and those small details that are not composed. Because I think there is less abstraction. It takes time to compose oneself, so you could argue that there is more value, and more honesty, in a spur of the moment commentary instead of something that’s really thought through and considered. I’ve always been drawn to that form of communications.
Eric Enge: I read about a couple who made up t-shirts that said: “I fell in love with 140 characters or less”. It’s kind of interesting because that by itself is actually a value statement. The brevity seems to me to be a part of the attraction because it’s so easy to do quickly and it discourages you from getting overly long in your communication because it’s impossible.
Jack Dorsey: Yes. I am a big believer in constraint inspiring creativity, so the way I approach my work most often is to try to formalize it, and try to constrain it as much as possible, so that you find the energy to break out of that and provide something amazing anyway.
That constraint makes you more off the cuff, but you really have to think about how your relationship is going to work with this medium. I think it is a new medium, and I think it’s a different approach to writing and communicating with other people. It is something that is very transient when it takes on a mobile aspect, and it’s something that evaporates. It’s not really meant to carry a lot of weight, but it’s really what you make of it. I have always found that the notion of a big blank canvas is going to be daunting for people. There are so many ways you can go. But, when you really constrain that and you break it down to the smallest detail, you create something really magical.
Eric Enge: I would think it enables a lot more people to participate who otherwise would not engage.
Jack Dorsey: Yeah. The expectation is very low. We have people on Twitter who only update in haikus, and we have people who just update about what they are eating at the moment, and those are both on the same level. They are definitely different approaches, but depending on who is looking, they are meaningful in different ways.
Eric Enge: Right. Ultimately, because it’s a continuous stream of consciousness stuff you find out what really care about.
Jack Dorsey: Exactly.
Eric Enge: What is it that compels people to participate?
Jack Dorsey: I think Twitter is like writing on the wall, and you have people walking by that wall, and they choose to read it, or they ignore it. I think it feels really good to express oneself, and B I think it feels really good to know that for anyone passing by there is an opportunity for someone to learn more about you, and that they are partaking in your sharing of thoughts. Those two things are fairly powerful and it is very easy to do, and, if there is any benefit to your life than why wouldn’t you do it?
It’s very easy to get into that cycle where you find some benefit in the system, and I have heard from a few people that sometimes you get these very aware and engaging updates from a friend, and it just completely shifts their relationship to the product, the service, and their friend.
Eric Enge: Why does the immediacy matter so much?
Jack Dorsey: One example is being in a place when an earthquake happens. Situations like that are really about shared experience, so as soon as an earthquake happens here in San Francisco, everyone who is on Twitter, immediately gets on and talks about how they are feeling an earthquake. I also think that there is some competition in those situations to be the first one to report the earthquake. There is this huge catastrophic event happening around you and you want to connect with other people and communicate about it. You want to connect with people around you who are also feeling it, but you also want to connect with people who are outside of your context.
Personally, when I feel an earthquake I update, and then I say I just felt something and then I get an update back from a friend that says they just felt something and they think it came from Berkley. And then, I get another update from another friend who says the USGS is reporting it as a 5.1 and epicentered in Richmond and it’s very interesting because it goes from gossip to strong fact, then stronger fact, then news in a matter of a minute.
At the same time, I am getting an update from my mother who says I hope Jack’s alright. She is following the real-time experiences. It’s very powerful to be in that situation with a bunch of people and be able to instantly, no matter where you are, communicate. The immediacy really speaks to these temporary groups that come together for that one experience and then disperse after the fact.
Eric Enge: I talked to Robert Scoble a few weeks back, and he talked about the earthquake in Mexico where he had information about that within seconds of it happening. It took the US Geological Services an hour to report it on their site, and CNN 3 hours to report it on theirs.
That’s a little bit of a negative event to talk about for shared experiences, but in general, there is just this whole notion of sharing experiences and impressions.
Jack Dorsey: The other shared experience that we often talk about is the Texas Southwest conference, where we had hundreds of people using the system, all at the conference. They were all attending different parties, different speeches, and we had this pretty flexible technology to communicate experiences in real time. It just further brought people together in a way that they obviously wanted to have happened.
Eric Enge: You allow a whole bunch of different ways for people to provide input: SMS, instant messaging, email via your website, other applications. Is there one medium that is most popular?
Jack Dorsey: The system is open enough that it really allows you to approach it in whatever way your life demands. I would say that during the day, especially in this country the usage is predominantly over the Web, and IM, and various API clients. Note that we have identified over 300 different individual API products that hook into Twitter in some way. People have become fanatical and passionate about building their own public face on to Twitter. So, during the day in the U.S., that sort of usage is huge.
As 5 o’clock rolls around and people go away from their computers, the mobile aspect goes up and, we see more and more SMS usage. The SMS and mobile usage are particularly interesting because it starts extremely well on Monday, and then it just climbs and climbs and climbs and so it’s at the ultimate height on Sunday. Friday nights and Saturday nights are huge for us, and Sunday is huge as well because people are usually talking about what happened on Saturday night, or how was Sunday, and how beautiful it is, and how they are looking forward to Monday.
Then, Monday arrives, and SMS drops off the radar, and API and IM take over. We have a lot of really interesting usage patterns. As we see more and more IM clients on mobile phones, usage is going to climb, but I do think that this country is just getting used to SMS.
Internationally SMS is the biggest by far, mobile is huge and it’s very consistent with the traffic patterns. It doesn’t really have the same patterns of the workday here in the US.
Eric Enge: Congratulations on the money you raised. It had to be great for you to get that done.
Jack Dorsey: We were very happy about that because as you know, choosing an investor is probably one of the most important decisions that you make as a small company. It’s as important as choosing the right employees to work with because this is a relationship that needs to be extremely beneficial and that you can necessarily end easily. You want someone across the table from you, and working side by side with you, that you can say you feel comfortable with and is a good person to work with. We found some amazing people and we are thrilled to be working with them.
Eric Enge: The best investment situation is where you get someone who actually invests some of their time in helping the business succeed. Of course with investment comes an expectation of making money at some point, so what are your plans for commercializing the service?
Jack Dorsey: Our main focus is still to refine the user experience. We have a lot of very obvious shortcomings with our service today that we’d like to improve, so we are concerned with that at the moment. We do have four very specific revenue models that we are looking at and considering and will potentially experiment with soon. At the moment, we have some time to really watch the network, watch what our users do with it, and extract a good model from that. Our goal has always been to build a sustainable business and I am confident that we will do that.
Eric Enge: Any sense as to when you will begin such experiments?
Jack Dorsey: We have done some experiments with revenue already, and within the next 6 months we will continue to do more. We always have that on our minds, and we are always thinking about ways to sustain the business. It’s just a matter of picking a particular model, and then refining it so that it will make sense for all parties.
Eric Enge: Do you have new releases planned in the near future that we can talk about?
Jack Dorsey: Well, our most requested feature has always been Groups, and we are working diligently on coming up with a good model for what that means. When you ask one of our users what does Groups mean to you, and what does that look like, and how do you interact with that, there are a lot of different opinions. The challenge for us is to find something that is going to be broad enough that the majority of people who use it can find some benefit with it, but not be so specific that it turns people away. And, Group-ware is a very hard problem, and it’s hard to make everyone happy with any one solution. That’s something we’ve done a lot of hard work on and we’ve done some planning and some implementations internally. We are going to start user testing them soon, and we’d like to have that out as soon as possible.
The biggest thing for us in the near term is our partnership with MTV and with their Video Music Awards on September 9th. Ten to fifteen celebrities will be given phones to access Twitter while the show is happening live, and during the after parties and the pre-parties. Anyone from all over the world can follow them live as they go through this experience. We are really excited about that. It’s our first major push into the mainstream audience, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the world reacts. We are definitely going to learn a lot from that experience and to react accordingly.
Eric Enge: That’s really cool. Back in May, you had some scalability issues for a while. What are you doing to build up the architecture going into the future?
Jack Dorsey: Our #1 priority is recruiting people right now, and it’s been extremely hard to find good engineers especially here in this market. So, we are looking to, first of all, increase our engineering team. Our engineering team is just three people, and once we have the engineering team, we’ll also build out just more machines and a better hosting environment, so that we can grow stably. We have worked really hard to optimize two major sections of our system, which are the web-frontend and the message routing system in the back, which is completely device agnostic and routes all these different transports in a real-time manner. That’s been quite challenging and we are slowly getting over every hurdle, and we are at a really good situation right now for MTV, but, it’s always going to be a challenge, so it’s going to be something that we are going to be working really hard at, and that should be expected.
Eric Enge: You also recently announced the profile search functionality, which can help you potentially identify people that you didn’t even know that were on Twitter. What’s been the impact of that?
Jack Dorsey: The people search is actually a feature that we had originally in the system, and we took it away after we had some scalability issues because it was just killing our database. We took it away with a promise of rewriting it in a better way, and it took a while to do that re-write, but we came up with a really good and clean solution that’s extremely scalable. The result has been awesome – people love it. For instance, I can just type in St. Louis and I will find all these people, and all these organizations using Twitter that I would have never guessed were on Twitter at all.
It provides a view into what’s happening within the network using some very simple keywords. People search is one big aspect of any social network. Another big aspect is text-based search. That’s next, and where you will be able to search through any of our updates and search for activities like search for who is reading right now, or who is walking right now, or who is eating right now, who is in San Francisco right now, etc. It really opens up some very interesting possibilities of how this system benefits you, what you can do with it when you know that five people in your general radius are eating Mexican food right now. It’s a different world.
It’s interesting, because as more and more people use the mobile aspect of Twitter it’s really cool, because you have all these autonomous beings walking around, and reporting what they see, and what they do, and what they feel in real time, and you have all these other people who can receive those notices. What happens when we have that sort of ambient knowledge of what people are doing should be really interesting to find out.
Eric Enge: This is the kind of thing that a conventional search engine just wouldn’t be able to deal with, because of the nature of the way the content is managed on your site.
Jack Dorsey: You could also see news wire reports, or more traditional forms of journalism, when you have these people on the grounds, and reporting immediately, and off the cuff, and without an editor, what they are seeing right now. It’s really the ultimate first-hand account of what’s going on.
Eric Enge: It’d be interesting to have a dynamic RSS feed built off of a particular search query, where the search query might be “earthquake”. Whenever someone starts talking about an earthquake, your RSS feed starts flagging you that something is going on. You could use it as a newswire type service. You could see a news editor subscribing to such a feed to get the information first.
Jack Dorsey: I think there is a lot of potential with just this base concept, which is shared status real time. You have this huge amount of data, and it’s just pulsing through the system in real time. It’s a challenge to find a way to manage it, filter it, and approach it in a way that it’s not overwhelming and obnoxious. That is our greatest interface challenge – to present this engaging information that is just flying at you from every direction, in a way that you can digest, and in a way that feels good.
Everyone at Twitter is very concerned with what the service feels like from an emotional standpoint first. I think that’s really important because if you are not emotionally engaged with the product, or with the service, or with the person, you are just going to leave. We are definitely putting a lot of thought into that area and are really concerned with that aspect.
Eric Enge: Do you see the potential for tying into other people’s search products like the recently released Spock service to enhance the information further?
Jack Dorsey: We will if it makes sense for the majority of our users. Our main concern is just doing one thing, and doing it very well, and we don’t want it to take away too much from our core competency which is device agnostic message writing. Obviously, you need to find people, and obviously you need to be able to connect to people, and obviously, you need controls on how to turn them on or off. If there is something that helps us achieve one of those goals, then yes we are going to do it.
For instance, we also just released our Gmail friend finder. Basically, you provide your Gmail credentials, and it goes through your address book and looks to see how many people in your address book are on Twitter. Then you can follow them right away, and it’s often time surprising to people. For instance, I typed in my credentials and I came back with 350 people who I had no idea were on Twitter.
I followed about 100 of those from that point, and they are all people I communicate with regularly. It’s very interesting because it’s just another dimension to the relationship with the person. Things like that are definitely important, but it definitely has to go through a vetting process to determine if it is important enough for us to do a new feature, or should we manage this through our API. Traditionally we manage a lot through our API because we want our API to be amazing.
Eric Enge: Who do you view as your competition?
Jack Dorsey: I think we have identified over a hundred “copy cats” of the system. These are people or organizations who have directly copied the model, the web models anyway, all the way from the text and the nomenclature we use down to the way the interface looks.
That’s some obvious competition, and we’ve people who are taking the model and interpreting it in different ways. Some people take the model and interpret it as Micro-Blogging, and so, Micro Blogging has become competition area for us, and we’ve places like Pownce and Jaiku who are adding more types of status.
Then we have people like FaceBook and MySpace, who have status built into their systems. Both of those sites are also trying to be something much larger, and they are trying to wrap everything together.
Eric Enge: Facebook wants to map the social graph.
Jack Dorsey: Status is definitely one aspect of that persona, that social graph. So of course, they are going to do it. Our relationship to all these entities is just to provide an open entry point into their social graphs to allow our users and their users to interact with each other, and I think that the power of our platform and the power of their platform are just great. We have a very good relationship with Facebook, we have a Facebook application, and we will continue to work for that platform, and as long as it makes the sense, for our users. And, at the moment it makes a lot of sense. Our philosophy has always been to do one thing and do it very well.
Eric Enge: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today Jack.
Jack Dorsey: You had some really good questions. Thank you.
Eric Enge leads the Digital Marketing practice for Perficient Digital. He designs studies and produces industry-related research to help prove, debunk, or evolve assumptions about digital marketing practices and their value. Eric is a writer, blogger, researcher, teacher, and keynote speaker and panelist at major industry conferences. Partnering with several other experts, Eric served as the lead author of The Art of SEO. Learn More About Eric Enge