Dear Twitter: It’s Not You, It’s Me

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September 13, 2009:

I love Twitter and use it a lot, but I’m tired of developing for the API. It’s not that I don’t think the API team over there do a fantastic job, or that I think the API is bad, it’s a personal thing. It no longer excites me the way it once did, and this is part of the reason it’s taken a long time for me to get v2 finished, and it’s still not ready.

(TwitApps Shutting Down)

September 16, 2009:

Fast growing startup Twitter will soon be joining a select group of startups with private venture round valuations of $1 billion, we’ve heard from multiple sources. CEO Evan Williams disclosed the round to employees at a recent all hands meeting.

(Twitter Closing New Venture Round At $1 Billion Valuation)

There’s no direct connection between the two posts quoted above, but they’ve been bouncing off one another in my head since I read them, so it seems worth a little exploration.

The TwitApps shutdown post resonated with me because I’ve been there. It’s hard to say without it sounding like a potshot at Twitter (which, to be clear, it isn’t, exactly), but I hit that same point with the Twitter API while ago. I’ve had a huge amount of fun with the API, but when it came down to it I basically stopped building stuff.

A part of it is failure of imagination on my part: I couldn’t come up with anything really new to build, and I was unwilling to make the jump over to trying to scale what I had already built without some sort of supporting energy that I did not find. That’s not particularly Twitter’s fault, and people have certainly continued to build on top of Twitter, but my sense is that the pace has really slowed over the past six months or so.

The more cynical (and more widely held) take on this is that other shiny new things showed up, Twitter mostly didn’t drop its cash to snap up the stuff being built on top of the service (or the people building it), and the whole question of “how do you make money off of something that doesn’t make money when people are preparing for the apocalypse by going to blacksmithing school” started getting traction.

Fair points, all, but let’s take a look at the second quote before we start addressing them. Assuming that the the basic outline of the rumor-now-written-as-gospel Twitter funding being discussed is accurate, you inevitably come up against the question that Google Blog Search neatly captured for me earlier today: billion? Like, with a B?

Since the mechanics of valuation of pre-revenue startups fall under the heading of “stuff that makes my liberal arts undergrad degree holding head hurt” I’ll hit the squishier side of things. Is Twitter worth a billion dollars or whatever? I don’t know. Nobody knows. Seriously. Nobody. Just bear in mind, please, that “valuation” doesn’t actually mean “there’s a check with that number on it sitting out there somewhere, just waiting to be cashed.”

What VC investment of tens of millions of dollars suggests to me in squishy terms is that a bunch of people were sitting in a room and agreed on something along the lines of “there is something really, really significant queued up to happen, and we need to be there. Let’s not dick around, okay?”

Inching out a little further on this limb here, I’ll say that I stand by my “Twitter as plumbing rather than wallpaper” view of the situation, and as a new homeowner I can definitively state that plumbing costs a hell of a lot more than wallpaper. A few million dollars would let you slap up some nice wallpaper, but if you want to be running those underground mains all over the place…well, that’s something else again.

And so how do the two quotes we started with fit together, then? [You remember the two quotes, right? This is a post about the two quotes.] I don’t think that having a bunch of random people writing front end stuff to make Twitter cooler factors into the company’s plans in a big way, but I do wonder how long other services will keep writing Twitter into the picture if the user facing coolness isn’t there.

If people aren’t excited about writing for the Twitter API, a lot of responsibility rolls back downhill to Twitter itself.  The stuff that people are building on top of Twitter might not be that big a deal, but the fact that people are (or aren’t) building stuff is.

It may be that some of the rumor-now-written-as-gospel cash coming to Twitter is earmarked to pick up some of the stuff that’s been written on top of Twitter, or the people who developed that stuff, which could in turn kick off a second Twitter honeymoon on the development front. It may also be that I’ve misinterpreted one or more of the variables here. Dunno.

A year ago I was convinced that Twitter as a company had a clear idea of what they did and what they wanted to do; while that didn’t always jive with what I wanted Twitter to do or how soon I wanted them to do it, that (perceived on my part) certainty made it easier for me to roll with the punches.

Now I’m less sure that Twitter as a company knows quite what it wants to do. Sure, that’s probably because what they need to do is something that has never before happened, but nevertheless it’s chipped away at my comfortable faith. Maybe Twitter can do what it needs to do alone, but I wonder. Apostles help.

Zune: congratulations and condolences

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Back in the day, I had myself a very nice time watching and writing about the release of Microsoft’s first Zune device:

After reading a bit about the latest Zune HD, I find myself wearing a wistful, bittersweet little smile. Alas, gone are the days where you could expect a full on, wild eyed, ‘roid-ragey product design, media, or marketing fuckup from the Zune group pretty much every week.

In fact, it sounds like with this version Microsoft has quietly released a very solid–perhaps even elegant–portable music player. My congratulations.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, however, they have released that portable music player into a world where it’s being compared to devices for which playing music is fast becoming a “well yeah, of course it can do that…” feature; they brought a music player to a portable computing device fight. My condolences.

Millions of Blogs are Now…

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A week ago I wrote the following:

Either everybody who’s been gushing about rssCloud “making millions of blogs real-time” is missing the point, or I am.

I haven’t worked through it all in my head, but if I had to write a totally speculative, one day after release headline right now I’d go with something along the lines of “rssCloud offers millions of blogs the opportunity to become something rather different.”

I’ll admit that I’m predisposed to question the long term significance of the “oooh, I can see it right now!” part of the real time Web (in many cases, anyway). When you add in that my perspective is colored by my own rather…leisurely, once a week blogging schedule, I don’t start salivating at the prospect of being able to see new blog posts right now rather than 20 minutes from now.

So this particular perspective on rssCloud [or the related PubSubHubbub, for that matter] doesn’t excite me, but the underlying structures and their implications really do. As I said above, millions of blogs now have the potential to become something different, and that’s where things really blow up.

In what way, exactly, do things “blow up” because of this, you ask? Well, that’s the piece that’s bugging me. I don’t see it right now. I’m convinced that there’s something really significant starting to happen here, and that “seeing blog posts sooner” isn’t it, but the rest is fuzzy.

So: these changes mean that millions of blogs are now. Now what?

Untitled #470: On Foursquare

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Being a post against the possibility that enough hasn’t yet been enough written about foursquare in the past few days.

In the post that launched a thousand VCs on to foursquare, Charlie O’Donnell both neatly outlined a compelling analysis of foursquare’s potential as a real, money-earning business and articulated some areas of concern for that business. [If you haven’t read the post, you really should. Like, now.]

I won’t try to summarize Charlie’s post, but rather push in the direction that I think logically follows from his thoughts: foursquare’s potential depends on the service tackling a couple of interesting challenges head on:

  • If your revenue is going to come from selling to—or, if you prefer, selling access to—your users, rather than directly from the users themselves, you’ve got a balancing act on your hands. You’ve got two constituencies to please, and their needs and interests are often going to be out of alignment. A common issue, but it’s handled very, very badly much of the time.
  • As foursquare becomes a real, money-earning business, I suspect that its users will start expecting more from the service in return for their no dollars a month. I think that foursquare’s game structure is great, but once you become a Legitimate Business, people tend to start eyeing what they’re getting from the service with a little more skepticism. [Bonus: I’ll buy a shackburger for the first person to correctly identify the joke I deleted from this point.]

Happily for foursquare, the best way to start digging in to the two points above is to realize that they’re intertwined and can <coughshouldcough> largely be addressed as a package deal.

As Charlie suggested in his post, foursquare is in no small part exciting as a business because it’s about data. Users are rewarded (right now with badges and mayorships) for dropping breadcrumbs about where they are and what they’re doing; that same data, viewed through a different lens, is extremely valuable to a variety of other businesses.

The incredibly cool part—and again, Charlie hit this one, but of course you know that because you’ve read his post now—is that this same data can be extremely valuable to users even if those users couldn’t care less about what badges they’ve unlocked or how many mayorships they’ve racked up.

Thus far the foursquare guys haven’t done too much around exposing that accreted data to their users in useful ways, but that’s got to come in time. They’ve taken a good first step in this direction with an API that allows services like Social Great to build cool stuff while the foursquare crew takes an occasional nap, but I’m sure that a lot more is queued up in this direction. When foursquare’s rewards to users start really moving outside of the right now and outside of foursquare itself, things get really, really interesting.

Foursquare has a tough nut to crack in the selfish bastards syndrome, and a tougher one in the fact that they’re moving into pretty new and poorly understood territory, but whatever mistakes they make are likely to be interesting mistakes, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out.