Thoughts on Twitter #3: If the creators of Twitter don’t always get Twitter, why should you?

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In interviews (lots and lots of interviews), the creators of Twitter (Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone) admit they are surprised by the level of hype Twitter is receiving. Being savvy and experienced in such things, they know also that hype doesn’t always equate to the adoption of new technology or, more importantly, to business success. Indeed, they have personal experience in this reality as Twitter, itself, rose from the ashes of a failed venture — a highly visible (at least among a small corner of the geekosphere) and stinging failure: the crash and burn of Odeo, a podcasting platform.

Unlike the typical early Web 2.0 startups that tried out “on the road” during a period of “closed beta” testing before heading to Broadway, Odeo was announced to the world in a major New York Times story before it was ever operational. Before the first user ever registered, CEO Evan Williams was quoted in the Times declaring Odeo was going to be “an eBay for podcasting.”

Evan (who goes by @ev on Twitter) tried to do some expectation-reducing spin control after that New York Times article appeared, but the damage was done: the service was defined by that article — and his quote — before Odeo ever appeared in public, before its users could try it out and decide for themselves what it was all about. It didn’t help that Ev and the other developers weren’t podcasters, as they missed some of the nuances of the medium, as in, their platform wasn’t that good and, to no surprise of anyone, podcasting didn’t need an eBay. The real killer, however, was the decision by Apple to support RSS (the technology underlying the distribution or “‘casting” part of podcasting) in its iTunes Store and later when Apple added a few podcasting-friendly metaphors to the user interface of its audio production software, GarageBand. Both decisions drowned out any interest in either the technology or marketplace of Odeo.

But hey, I wish we all could fail so wonderfully as Odeo did. Evan became a Harvard Business School case study of entrepreneurial angst and finally, in October 2006, Evan and his Odeo partners returned the money to Odeo investors (Evan had already done well in selling another startup, Blogger, to Google) who seemed to appreciate getting their money back. (Later, they sold the podcasting remnants of Odeo, as well. The current service at the URL is no longer associated with Twitter.)

Ev and his partners decided to focus on — a little feature of Odeo they had spun off as a separate product a few months earlier. When they launched Twitter (first called twittr) no on in the universe, including Michael Arrington of TechCrunch understood what it was — not even Evan, Jack and Biz, as evidenced by the current interviews.

With Twitter, there were no pre-release chats with non-bloggersphere reporters and no attempts to define the product narrowly to a reporter from New York Times. As I recall, Ev and Biz and Jack did little to get people to sign up on Twitter in 2006 — beyond, of course, depending on having a core group of registered users among those who will register on anything appearing on TechCrunch.

Unlike with Odeo, the creators didn’t get bogged down in trying to answer questions about how it worked or why anyone would want to use it. They didn’t say it was a service that could help you could discover if one of your friends was in the same bar or concert you happened to be — the way others did who launched similar ventures around the same time, or earlier. They didn’t define Twitter as anything, other than a means to relay messages via the web, RSS or text message. In fact, they didn’t make it location based, at all. They didn’t even stress that it was a mobile platform, something that would have been more trendy then, and now, among investors.

They simply set up the service. And this time, they actually started playing around with it themselves. Unlike their apparent disinterest in podcasting, they seemed to enjoy tweeting. But they didn’t make lots of rules about how other people should tweet — and when users started putting “@” in tweets and “#” in tweets, they didn’t tell them not to, they just adapted to what Twitter users were doing.

Back then, the creators seemed to embrace the idea that no one — including them if you believe the interviews — actually got Twitter. It was not until March of 2007 at South by Southwest Interactive that Twitter actually “debuted” with a bang. SXSW 2007 will be remembered as the place where Twitter took off.

And by taking off, I mean “the hype.”

But unlike with Odeo, the hype did not cause the failure of Twitter (although it did help surface lots of scalability dilemmas that could have led to later failure had they not be caught and dealt with then). But the hype did turn Twitter into something the creators never envisioned — and something they apparently still (just like the rest of us) don’t quite get.

Because recently, the creators of Twitter did something that is completely contradictory to the way in which Twitter succeeded earlier: they added a list of suggested people to follow for those who now register on Twitter for the first time. (Biz Stone blogs here the reason from his point of view.)

I didn’t understand the problem with having “suggested users to follow” until last Friday when Dave Winer posted a screen grab of “what a new Twitter user sees.” Looking at it convinced me that had the “suggested users to follow” option been available when I first joined Twitter, I doubt I would have ever used it a second time. Because if I had chosen the 20 default users the creators of Twitter are now suggesting, I would have never used Twitter because these users (as demo’d on Dave’s screen grab) reinforce to me the commonly-held belief that Twitter is completely banal and useless.

By adding default suggested users, the creators have created an unintended consequence: They are projecting how “they get” Twitter to new users who should be allow to “get” Twitter in a completely different way.

Instead of suggesting users new users you believe people should follow, help them discover users they may actually want to follow: It would be better for someone to sign up and have no default users than to sign up and have Twitter pre-selected users. Here’s a suggestion to the creators of Twitter. Replace the default users option with a link to a page that tells people how to find people to follow.

Keep it simple and suggest they do two things:

1. Click on the “advanced search” button on Twitter Search and look at all of the ways you can search for specific people or track topics you may be interested in.

2. Use the new search box and “save search” features on your user page and look for people who tweet about the topics you are interested in.

There are lots of ways that Twitter can be used for interesting, enlightening or, even, vital purposes. Following the 20 users the creators of Twitter suggests is not one of them.