Jan 13, 2009

Twitter Experiment Part part Deux: Where is this all going?

Somebody retweeted my twitter experiment article today and I thought I might offer up an update. Since I've been using twitter as @guykawasaki mentors, I have made mistakes, learned from them, made more mistakes and realize just how patient people can be.

For one, in my last piece, I totally failed to include anywhere in my post what my twitter user is. (@rfisk). Marketing idiocy #1.

If you share something and somebody finds it valuable, an absence of contact information is a failure of epic proportions - Homerus Marketeblus - 654 B.C

That aside, I have been thinking about social marketing in general and twitter specifically. I believe that the web as we know it will disappear within the next 5 years, and twitter is the canary in the coal mine. In this case though, it only spells tragedy for people and companies who do not take a closer look at what twitter has done here.

Note: I've never set foot in a college but for an electronics class back in the mid 80's. You need to know that because I am not going to write here from an academic point of view but from personal experience. Sometimes personal experience is very useful and sometimes it can be wrong due to personal bias. I do not suggest I am a social marketing expert. I'm not even a marketing expert. I do however have some relevant experience which has provided me some insight I think you might find interesting.

That being said, I have been working in software and specifically delivering Software as a Service, since the mid 90s. I wrote one of the first on-line ordering CGI sites back in 1993 before anyone trusted their credit cards to an online provider. We sold Porsche parts, and the "shopping cart" - if it could be called that - simply provided a printable form. I wrote it in Perl.

My day gigs were mostly working as a system administrator for some very large companies and I did a 5 year stint in a start-up that eventually failed. I was not in the founder's circle for that endeavor. It was a hardware company that competed with Sun Microsystems called Auspex Systems. The founder was the man who invented SCSI, Larry Boucher. Their file servers are revered even to this day by SA geeks but Auspex made some very poor business choices and finally declared bankruptcy. Most of their technical expertise abandoned ship to start Network Appliances. I went to Lycos to help manage their ad delivery network, and then Cisco to write software for SA's.

Five years ago, I went to work for Hire.com (now Authoria) and after some wonderful experiences there, decided to take the start-up plunge.

In my 20+ years working in Silicon Valley and now Austin, I've seen so much change in technology and business practice it boggles my mind. When I landed my first entry-level job in 1986, Apple had recently introduced the little Macintosh. And I mean little. It had a tiny vacuum tube screen in monochrome. Some of the major Silicon Valley companies were Wang, Control Data Systems (though not headquartered in SV) Sun, Apollo, HP (Silicon Graphics was just in start-up mode), Xerox, DEC, Intel and Apple.

There was no internet even close to what we see today. The browser wouldn't be invented for another 5 years. Email was literally slower in most cases than post-office mail. Really. UUCP delivered mail from one mainframe or VAX machine via modem and to save on long-distance phone charges, would dial a machine and tell it to please call the next in line so the email could arrive 3000 miles away having never made anything other than a local call.

This isn't to say that LANs were as archaic. Sendmail existed but it's goodness was limited to the LAN. If you wanted to send to somebody in Boston (only high-tech or government employees even had an email address as we know it now) you had to find a map of the machine names between you and your colleague or acquaintance. (dec-vax2.stanford.edu!dec-vax2.declassified.garble.gov!xxx-xxx-fred.edu!). It was a pain. No open ports. But there was porn even then and very creative ways were invented to encrypt and compress it into ASCII so it could be posted to USENET. Some things never change.

This may end up a bit long but Please bear with me.


Wang probably had one of the largest advertising budgets I can remember in the late 80's. They had ads on every radio station in the Bay Area. Wang sold proprietary computer systems that included their own proprietary network protocols. Their business model was to essentially to offer a good network and lock companies into buying all of the peripherals they manufactured which could connect using those proprietary protocols; printers, tape storage, etc.

This model was not unique. Apple also had their own network protocols. Network standardization was 5-10 years away. Apple and Novel were the last holdouts.

Wang went belly up shortly after DNS became a real hit and the backbone was converted to TCP/IP rather than modem. It happened very quickly because their competitors were already adopting TCP/IP for internal LANs where Wang resisted. They didn't adapt.

Innovation by Accident.

Part of that story must include ethernet. Ethernet was invented at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Xerox didn't think it was a profitable invention and gave it away. You should thank Xerox on every possible occasion. It changed the world even though their management (I'm sure the inventors didn't agree) didn't believe it was terribly useful.

I call this "innovation by accident" not because the inventors just stumbled upon it, but because the useful innovation occurred after the fact. A tool's potential was not realized until it was delivered to a large number of people who turned it this way and that in their minds and started creating incredible possibilities with it.

Of all the social networking ideas which have been brought to fruition, I think twitter has the most potential as a game-changer. My reasoning around this has to do with the size - 140 ASCII characters. That is just under the 160 allowed by SMS text on a cell phone - another accidental innovation which allowed carriers to notify you of a waiting voice mail message. Hint to Twitter - this leaves 20 chars for advertising.

Twitter wasn't the first to see potential in SMS. Other companies have used SMS for years as a means to market to consumers. However, Twitter is the first web-based application so far that could potentially eliminate the browser as a web standard.


1. Its simplicity. Twitter is similar to Google search in its simplicity. It's easy to use and its utility is as limitless as are other simple tools like a hammer or screwdriver. Anyone can learn its basic use in minutes. The downfall (in my opinion) of many other social networking apps is their complexity and dependence on the browser over the long term.

2. Hosting costs.
A huge advantage that twitter will have over say, Facebook is just the sheer resource drain that desktop video and images are when building a storage and delivery system.

3. The API.
Twitter's real utility can be found through the API. Twitter in fact is far easier to manage when used from one of the down-loadable non-browser applications that have been springing up.

I believe that eventually we won't be using browsers to connect to the internet. Over the past 15 years, the web evolved from html pages made "exciing" using <blink> tags - to amazing css tricks - to web 2.0 which is itself merely an attempt to get around limitations of the browser and the http protocol which demands that everything delivered be converted to ASCII. Ajax was created to simulate the way that desktop client applications acted.

But that's just the technical side. Twitter is becoming the next accidental innovation on par with ethernet. It isn't just another social networking site, it's a twool. And its usefulness will only increase. Its developers had the decency to keep its interface simple. They didn't try to add features when follow/follower lists became unmanageable. They didn't fix what wasn't necessarily broke. By merely providing a robust API instead, they encouraged users and developers to bridge the gap. Witness the number of apps that have sprung up to slice and dice its data.

This is all development work that the Twitter team has not had to waste time inventing, planning, releasing, supporting and marketing - and potentially screwing up. Ultimately, they could buy the very companies who provided the useful applications having never burned any seed-money on ideas that weren't embraced by their users.

It's the opposite of the traditional acquisition strategy. Sure, companies like to buy startups that have a successful track record, but with software companies, they then have to integrate the technology into existing frameworks. In this case there's almost nothing to do but slap the twitter brand on it and it's a real twitter product.

One possible way to generate revenue is simply to deliver ads in the free version of a tool like TweetDeck and charge for versions which don't deliver ads.

Another revenue opportunity is an acquisition of smart phone application developer or product. At a dollar a download for an iPhone/Android/Palm follower/manager or other twitter niche product, the revenue potential is enormous over time. With companies and users flocking to twitter to market their brands and engage their customers, twitter clients could become company-wide expenditures and be far more effective an expense than traditional marketing channels.

The potential here for changing the world (twitter has already changed the world) beyond social networking is intense. Companies would be wise to follow what twitter has accomplished whether they intended to construct this new paradigm or not.

Though you and I may not be the next Cisco or Microsoft, we can also emulate this pattern because it has an underlying philosophy to match: Don't try and be something you are not.

By focusing on your strengths and building networks which include people with the skills you lack, you don't need to know everything or control every outcome. The old practice of hiding weaknesses or spinning them as strength will be turned on its head if it hasn't been turned already. People do figure it out. @perrybelcher has some extremely good videos explaining his vision of transparency and your social presence which illustrate this. Check him out and thanks for reading this. Your feedback is appreciated. @rfisk

1 comment:

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