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.