Twitter Untwittered


By Michael S. Malone



I have seen the future . . .and it Tweets.


I spent Wednesday morning in San Francisco at Twitter working on a profile of its founders, Evan Williams and Biz Stone, that will run this Saturday in the Wall Street Journal.


Twitter is, of course, the biggest tech phenomenon in the world right now.  You can’t go a day with reading a dozen new stories either about the company or the use of its technology.  And like all such blazing comets in tech – I’ve been around long enough now to see the same thing happen at HP (calculators), Intel (microprocessors), Apple (computers), Atari (games), Silicon Graphics (workstations), eBay (on-line auctions), Netscape (web browser), Google (web search), Facebook (social networks), Apple again (iPod and iPhone) and now Twitter (micro-blogging) – the story starts to take on its own momentum, divorced from the company itself.


Just in the last few months, we’ve seen Twitterers posting Tweets from the wildfires in Australia to a live home break-in in California to the new President of the United States announcing his victory on election night.  And trust me, this has only just begun.  Even though the number of Twitter users is probably doubling every month (or lately, every week), the total is still only about 20-25 million users in the U.S. and perhaps three or four times that in the whole world. 


That means we are still at the tail end of the early adopter phase for Twitter.  The real social breakout – 100 million U.S. and 500 million world-wide users and all of the social transformations that will come in their train – has not yet occurred. Remember the frenzy surrounding eBay when just about everybody you know started buying and selling on it?  It’s going to be like that for Twitter six months to a year from now.


For people who find themselves working for one of these companies during such a period it can be the single most exciting period they will ever know in their careers – if they can remember much about it at all afterwards.  That’s because the experience can be literally like being in the center of a whirlwind.  Crucial decisions are made by the hour and on the fly.  The company’s story slips out of the reach of the company itself and is written by others.  All of your friends want jobs, stock options and free products, and you pass the 40 hour work-week mark sometime on Wednesday afternoon – and then press on through the weekend.


I have known people to go through this process with apparent aplomb, only to end up hospitalized when it is over, too exhausted to appreciate their new wealth and fame.  I’ve know others who simply snapped as they approached the finish line – and walked away before they got their due.  And I’ve known still others who were the very embodiment of maturity and self-control while the whirlwind was underway, suddenly take their new wealth and blow it all in a display of poor judgment and irresponsibility.

I truly expected to see some combination of the above when I walked into Twitter.  Heck, even the company’s headquarters, a converted warehouse, is just a couple blocks from that one-time heart of dot.com craziness, South Park. . .


But Twitter turned out to be the least phenomenal phenomenon I think I’ve ever seen in tech.  The company’s office were, in fact, rather . . .sleepy.  Apple in its early years was piles of equipment scattered everywhere, with Wozniak buried under a pile of it in one office and Jobs bouncing through it in another.  eBay was Jolt cola and cardboard Star Wars figures standing in all of the empty offices.  Google was lava lamps and Pilate balls and code writers sleeping in their cubicles. 


By comparison, Twitter is nice.  A lot of free food and beverages.  Airy and sunlit meeting rooms and darker work spaces with glowing computer screens, and a few tchochkies here and there amidst the books and couches. 


Even the employees aren’t that young, which may in itself be a clue.  A lot of the other phenom companies I just mentioned were filled with very young people, many in their first jobs just out of college (a two-edged sword indeed:  many got rich, but none would ever be content in any job again).  As a result, for all of their success, these companies were also glorified kindergartens, with their post-adolescent employees still playing out the cliques, flirtations and party rules of campus life.


Founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone have taken Twitter in a different direction – which portends good things for the company.  For one thing, they’ve hired older . . .not much older, but there is a significant difference in the behavior and maturity of a 27 year-old and a 22 year-old.


By the same token, unlike say Google, where the obsession is always on one’s top-of-the-class credentials, Twitter seems to have hired more on personality and competence rather than on one’s college transcripts.  This may reflect the fact that Ev and Biz are themselves both college drop-outs-made-good, but it certainly seems to make the place altogether less prima donnish and arrogant and lot more relaxed.  Google may be the smartest collection of people you’ve ever met, but it can also resemble a bad cocktail party where everyone is trying to intellectually bully everyone else.  Twitter doesn’t seem to have that problem . . .but then, it’s still only thirty people.


To Ev’s and Biz’s credit, they seem intent on growing slowly, picking only people who are compatible with the corporate culture – a case in point, the new hire as vice president of global operations, my old Oxford friend, Santosh Jayaram.  Santosh is brilliant and almost superhuman in his energy . . .but also soft-hearted and gracious.  A telling choice for the guy who is supposed to whip the organization into shape.  It suggests that Williams and Stone are actually trying to do what most companies only give lip-service to:  build a team.


Of course, that’s easier said than done . . .and easier done with 30 employees than 3,000.  There have been a lot of companies with healthy, uplifting corporate cultures who found themselves forced to grow so fast, and recruit so many new employees, that there was little time to train the newcomers – who then infected their new employer with the dysfunctionalities of their old one.  That’s what happened at Intel early on, and Apple, and in both case it nearly destroyed those great companies.


Can Twitter maintain its seemingly supernatural calm as the eye of a media hurricane?  Well, so far so good.  While I was there, former California governor and current Attorney General Jerry Brown showed up, as all celebrities and politicians do, to get a touch of the magic from the hottest company in the world.  But there was no star turn, no goggle-eyed employees posing with the VIP vistor.  Just a casual conversation in the lobby, while other employees came and went.


If that seems a little odd – well, it was.  So odd that I decided to kick off the Journal piece with that anecdote  I’m accustomed to superstar start-up companies to be a combination of Scrooge McDuck and Animal House, with a touch of Lord of the Flies.  That’s part of the fun.  Twitter, by comparison, was so calm and focused that I almost felt like kicking over some chairs just for old time’s sake, like an aging rocker at a New Age music concert.


What does it all mean?  I think it means that it would be a mistake to underestimate Twitter.  This is a company that is in the game to win and to build an enduring enterprise.  It has become something of a joke that Twitter is a company with a great idea but no revenue model.  Trust me, when the company is ready to make money, it will make a lot of it.  And if you think it will roll over for the first real take-over offer from Google or Facebook, disabuse yourself of that idea. 


In the long run, Twitter will succeed or fail on its technology.  I’m still not convinced that 140 character microblogging is something that millions of people will want to do day-in and day-out forever.  But if you are waiting for the company to make a stupid tactical mistake or lose its way because of an emotional decision by management, you are going to be waiting a very long time.  Twitter may be the first superstar start-up I’ve ever seen that neither fears nor embraces the whirlwind around it.  Instead it simply ignores it.


And if you don’t believe me, just take a walk through Twitter’s offices.