by C.G. Lynch

Five Things Twitter’s CEO Has Learned About What You Are Doing

Feb 08, 20084 mins
Consumer Electronics

How Jack Dorsey figured out that short is sweet, flexibility is essential and applications should work so that people don't have to be at their computers all day long.

Twitter cofounder and CEO Jack Dorsey got the idea for the real-time service working as a programmer in the dispatch industry as he figured out how to get messages to cabs, ambulances and bike couriers as efficiently as possible.


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One day he realized he should have the same service for his friends—notes about “what they’re doing,” in 140 characters or less—and the idea for Twitter was born.

1. Don’t be at your computer all the time.

Instant messaging has always been interesting to me, particularly the away messages you leave for friends. People would leave away messages such as “I’m eating lunch” or “I’m about to go to a movie” but this was limiting because you were always bound to your computer.

I wanted to find some way to get away from that. You should be out doing something and still be able to update your friends and get a sense of what they’re doing. Six years ago, the technology just wasn’t there to do that. Now, with short message service (SMS), and mobile phones, we can.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey

2. The merits of brevity

It’s intimidating to figure out what to put on a wall-size canvas. It’s much easier to approach a postcard. You can be a little bit more off-the-cuff, more in the moment. It’s this quality that makes Twitter different from e-mail or blogs. With e-mail and blogs, you have all this structure, like a subject line. Then, you have this huge area in which to write. All that can be intimidating, especially when you just want to get one message across.

3. Good technology has a narrow focus.

I’ve always loved systems that do one thing and do it extremely well. The Unix operating system is structured around this philosophy. You have a collection of tiny little tools. They do just one thing, and they do it well. You put these tools together and suddenly, you have an operating system. You have an environment with which you can work. Twitter and tools like it share the same philosophy. If you constrain a technology enough, if you really get it down to an essence, then the potential is unlimited.

The Origins of Twitter

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey talks about how he conceived of the messaging application while working as a programmer.

4. From users, expect the unexpected.

One thing that’s always surprised me about Twitter is the way in which people use it. We noticed that around 5 p.m. Pacific Time every day, a huge number of Japanese cats appear on the public time line, a page that lists everyone who opts to Twitter in public. Next to each picture of a cat is a tiny update in Japanese. We did a little research and discovered that this was a Tamagotchi application; you go to a website, adopt a cat, and it will update you through Twitter when it’s happy, sad, hungry, tired, etc. You can send it direct messages to feed the cat or tell it to go to bed.

We also see Twitter used during a natural disaster. Anytime we have an earthquake in San Francisco, for example, it goes through this really interesting progression of moving from gossip to fact on Twitter. The first update might say, “I think the epicenter was in Berkeley.” And then someone else will say, “Well, the USGS just reported the epicenter was in Richmond, and it was a 4.3 (on the Richter scale).” And so it’s really interesting in a span of two minutes to see something go from complete hearsay to actual fact from the collective intelligence of the group.

5. Technology should be amazingly useful.

We’re looking to make Twitter the easiest way to communicate with people. It needs to feel like it’s always “there.” So we’re focused on making it as accessible and reliable as possible. We consider it a new form of communication, and we’re building a utility service around it with all that that entails. It should be as reliable as the electricity grid, or the water system, or the telephone. When we have that, we’ll have something that is amazingly useful to people.