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The Genius Of Twitter: A Paean, by Jon Evans of TechCrunch

Stashed in: @sarahcuda, internet, Twitter

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Unlike other tech companies, Twitter never HAD to exist:

Now, I think that we can all agree that while Twitter is a pretty big deal it hasn’t changed the world as much as Apple or Facebook or Google, or (less visibly) ARM or Cisco. What I’d like to point out, though, is that Twitter is far weirder, much less inevitable, and way more out-of-left-field than all of the above. For that reason its accomplishment is in many ways more extraordinary than theirs.

Some company was always going to get huge and rich building routers, or smartphones, or the low-power chips inside them, or the world’s primary social network, or the world’s finest search engine and/or distributed computing network. Once the technology reached the point where such things were possible, they became all but inevitable. If Apple had gone bust in the 1990s (as it very nearly did), today’s phones wouldn’t be as near as slick and well-designed, but they would still basically do what they do. Who knows? Maybe BlackBerry would have taken up the torch of design.

But Twitter? Twitter was never inevitable. The world was in no way crying out for the platform that gave us @horse_ebooks@DRUNKHULK, and @BoredElonMusk (to say nothing of @twentitled.) If Twitter had never existed, Facebook would still have eventually adopted its News Feed; blogs and RSS would probably have expanded; and maybe Google+ would have been a stronger competitor. But we would feel no aching Twitter-shaped void in our world. Twitter was always surprising, always the dark horse, always counterintuitive.

Hell, it’s still counterintuitive. I was talking to friends of mine not so long ago, both of whom are smarter than me (and better writers too) but who still fundamentally don’t get Twitter’s appeal. Of course they don’t. I didn’t either, until my sister somehow talked me into signing up for it five years ago. Thanks, Jen. Now I’d prefer not to imagine life without it.

To an extent Twitter is like the elephant examined by blind men, different things to different people. To me, at least, it’s where I simultaneously bookmark links of interest, keep track of scores of my friends’ lives, converse with those friends without knowing or caring where they are, share pictures and articles with them and with hundreds of people I don’t know, do research (“Dear LazyTwitter…”), and follow a small number of interesting people and/or news filters I’ve never met.

So many people still don't understand Twitter. That is its great strength and weakness.

Great article from Sarah Lacy in Sept 2012: Will Twitter's luck ever run out?

The best part of that article:

Facebook was always an outlier — a once in a decade success story by a young kid who came out of nowhere and built something huge. But while rare, we’ve seen those sorts of outliers before. Twitter is something even more uncommon: A company that has violated nearly every spoken or unspoken rule for how you build a successful company in the Valley. You hear it muttered everywhere in startup circles these days: This company should never have made it this far. And yet, here it is. Recent haters aside, it’s still the most significant private company to watch in the consumer Internet space.

A short list of said violations:

  • Twitter shouldn’t have even been started to begin with. It grew out of the failed podcasting company Odeo. Being spawned out of failure isn’t so uncommon, but the way Odeo ceased doing business was. Founder Evan Williams just accepted this company wasn’t going anywhere and bought out his investors. It was a rare “let’s call a spade a spade” admission of failure in a Valley that has become obsessed with finding soft landings. Had Odeo followed, say, the Digg playbook, its staff and assets could have wound up a part of a lame company like Yahoo, where any ideas would have withered, and staff would have bided its time until they could leave. That would have included an unknown engineer named Jack Dorsey and a fledgling idea called Twittr. And when Williams did the uncommon nice guy move of buying out his investors at a far more generous price than what Odeo was worth, he managed to keep investors happy and keep Twitter from starting life with a totally screwed up cap table.
  • Revolving door of CEOs. If one thing has characterized this wave of Web 2.0 and social media companies, it has been slavishly holding to the belief that founder CEOs should never be ousted. Twitter has ousted not one but two. That’s also led to a revolving door in senior management and a few waves of ousting and reconfiguring the board. People in the Valley like to believe that teams — not products — matter, or that it’s all about execution, not the idea. But Twitter is proving the opposite. The product has been compelling enough to survive three teams. It’s hard to come up with another example of a company that has not only survived that, but gone on to thrive.
  • Almost no product innovation. At all. The Web version of Twitter has changed remarkably little since its inception. Most of the innovation, has come from the developer ecosystem. Indeed most of the features like @s, #s, and the like came from the community, not Twitter. Most companies that survive on the strength of their product actually have product innovation from time to time or get passed by a competitor. Not the case with Twitter, so far.
  • Twitter’s product visionary is the CEO…of another company. Okay, Twitter apologists say, so there’s a revolving door at the CEO and board level. But Dorsey is still the chief product guy, and he was the founder. That’d be an important caveat in Twitter’s favor, were Dorsey not also running the hugely ambitious Square. Plenty of smart investors have passed up on investing in both Square and Twitter because of concerns about Dorsey splitting his time. But so far there seems very little outward evidence that this is the disaster that it should be. The only model for someone doing this effectively is Steve Jobs, who was running Pixar and Apple for a time. But his focus and heart was clearly with Apple. And, that wasSteve Jobs. If your entire company is being bolstered by its product, and you are expecting your product guru to be Steve Jobs, well, good luck to you.
  • Biting the hands developing for you. Every startup wants to be a platform these days, and every platform needs an army of developers. Twitter has it and is continually pissing it off. I totally get the business reasons for why. But the problem Twitter has is consistency. Early on, it was one of the most developer-friendly applications, flinging the doors wide open for development in ways most other platforms didn’t. But that’s what happens when you change CEOs three times. The entire company changes.

Pretty damning right? And yet, given how much my company relies on Twitter for distribution and how much I use it — more than nearly any other Web app — even I can’t count them out.

The Facebooks and Googles are rare. But if Twitter can actually turn this legacy into a successful, lasting public company, if it doesn’t flame out and become the tale of what could have been, we will have witnessed a singular event in the history of Silicon Valley.

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