When Twitter broke the news last week about its forthcoming IPO, I got a bit sentimental. In 2006, when Twitter was entering the world as a side project of the podcasting startup Odeo, I had just left my first “career” in the film industry to try to make it in the tech industry. Web development was my day job at the time, but tech blogging became my passion. Twitter was one of the first things I really zeroed in on.
Truth be told, I was actually a little late to the game. While I recall reading about Twitter in 2006 — with most everyone wondering if the service was “interesting” — it wasn’t until January of 2007 when I actually signed up. Tweetbot tells me I was user number 652,193. Pretty early, but hardly early adopter-early by today’s standards.
Still, I’d like to believe that I “got it” right away. A quick scan of my Gmail archive shows a barrage of recorded IM conversations with firstname.lastname@example.org in early 2007. This was actually the main interface I would use to Tweet: Google Talk. These were the most mundane updates possible. One example: “Heading home“. I would actually Tweet things like that — quite often. To no one in particular. I probably had two or three followers at the time.
The Gmail scan also revealed a few other interesting Twitter tidbits from the era — including the company updates that used to be sent out every few weeks by Biz Stone himself. (I particularly liked the one from 2/20/07 when it was announced that the team was entertaining offers to sell Odeo while gearing up to head to SXSW — perhaps the first real watershed moment for the company.)
Another find was an email conversation with a friend trying to explain what Twitter was. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
While that friend was not particularly well versed in tech and certainly wasn’t working in the industry, that was the common refrain I felt like I would hear (and read) over and over again in those early days. Twitter was stupid. And I was an idiot for liking Twitter.
As time passed, the argument against Twitter morphed slightly. It was no longer “the dumbest thing” that “no one would ever use”, it became “the dumbest thing” that “no one would ever use outside of the tech bubble“.
Then came the downtime. The dark days. Twitter nearly fulfilled the fate that so many had laid out for it because it was simply unusable a not insignificant amount of any given day. And yet somehow, it emerged. And then it really started to gain steam.
Of course then the knock on Twitter shifted again. Now it was the service that was “never going to make any money“. The valuations being thrown around were just ludicrous, you see. Twitter was a house of cards. Bubble!
And yet, here we are.
Twitter has not only endured, it has thrived. It’s a force in both politics and my old stomping ground, Hollywood. You can’t turn on a sports telecast without dozens of mentions of Twitter. Hell, you can barely turn on TV at all without it being everywhere. It’s the watercooler, the newsroom, and the news itself. Reports have it bringing in a billion dollars in revenue next year. It has hundreds of millions of users.
All of this makes me happy not because I was right — okay, that’s part of it. And it’s not because I got rich as a result — though I do technically now own some shares via an acquisition or two. The story of Twitter makes me happy because it’s the perfect example of a startup being scoffed at, beaten up, beaten down, underestimated, left for dead, and still emerging from the other end not only alive, but seemingly stronger from the journey.
It’s very easy to get cynical in this business. Over the years, I’ve sat through hundreds, if not thousands, of pitches (both on the writing and investing side of things) that many people would have classified as “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of.” Most of those startups would go on to be forgotten in time. But all you need is one, like Twitter, to catch fire, sparking a million new ideas as a result.
All of the best new ideas sound stupid to most people at some point. This isn’t rocket science: if an idea is immediately obvious to so many people, it would have been done already. My point is simply that not only is hearing “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of” not a bad sign, it has the potential to be a great one.
It was exactly six and a half years ago that I first wrote a professional article about Twitter. Okay, I’m being liberal in my use of both “professional” and “article”, but at least my timing was good. What a wild ride. Stupid, even.