Why Twitter matters … a lot. Clue = Soylent Green.

Twitter is moving into the mainstream faster than any major internet application in history, and is redefining  online behavior as we continue to  move away from “internet as information” and into the era of “internet as people”.

Obviously both information and socializing will play a huge role in online behavior for the duration, but like the ubiquitous and mysterious food source in the old Charleton Heston Movie, Soylent Green


Twitter is especially  important because ….  “Twitter is People”.

Some Twitter enthusiasts wrongly suggest that Twitter is important because it is breaking a few bits and bytes of news in real time (e.g. Hudson Plane Crash, CA Plane Crash) or providing a platform for discussion of pressing social issues (e.g. Gaza War).    Meanwhile Twitter critics very foolishly point to the obvious about Twitter’s superficiality as if this was a defect.

Twitter is certainly largely superficial in terms of how people chit chat on the service, but this is the reason for it’s spectacular success.  Humans by nature – ie by millions of years of evolution – are not designed well for thoughtful, reasoned discourse.   Instead, for much of evolutionary history we were very UNintelligently designed by trial and error and random mutations to survive in sometimes hostile environments.     This makes us a short term, superficial socializing thinker more than a long term planner.    Sure, we sometimes  do that long term stuff but if there are any lessons we can derive from history  it is how poorly humanity has optimized our long term well being.    One need look no further than the ongoing global financial crisis, global terror threats, tribal disputes across Africa, or global religious intolerance to see how poorly we cope with situations that would probably respond well with even a modest level of long term, optimal  planning rather than the short term knee jerk nonsense that often stains our  local and international finance, politics, and social relationships.

Twitter’s simplicity and superficiality are exactly why it will continue to thrive, diving into mainstream use faster than you can Tweet  Ellen Degeneres, who yesterday challenged her viewers to become “followers” of her Twitter account.    Although her goal of a million followers was not realistic, Ellen rose from zero to over 110,000 followers in a single day – perhaps a Twitter record and certainly a demonstration of a significant convergence of Television and internet audiences.

As internet activity stabilizes I think we’ll see people relying more and more on Twitter as their socializing platform of choice.    There’s certainly room for many social networking sites,  but I think Facebook needs to worry that Twitter may diminish the time people spend at Facebook in favor of the simpler, more intuitive interactions at Twitter.     Twitter has done for social networking what Google did for Search – they created a super clean interface and made it extremely easy to participate, building a large and happy user base in a very short time.     Unlike Google, however, Twitter will continue to face challenges monetizing their success, for as we’ve learned from Facebook’s experiences with ads and advertising fiascos it is not nearly as easy to make money in social networking as in information searching.    I predict it never will be as easy and Twitter is likely to face some interesting challenges as they try to bridge the gap between user enthusiasm for Twitter and aversion to advertising.      However Twitter will be a spectacular success with even a fraction of Google’s adverising revenue, so I see them thriving for some time.

TechCrunch’s Erick has this

Gates on Yahoo: “It’s the People” | Yahoo on Gates “OMG! He’s making Soylent Green!”

As Microsoft prepares for a proxy fight that will pit them agains the Yahoo board in the fight over control of Yahoo, Bill Gates is talking up the deal as a way for Microsoft to access the great talent pool of Yahoo.    Although he’s certainly right that Yahoo’s got a lot of great talent, it is not at all clear that most of them will stay and work for Microsoft.   I think a lot of the Yahoo staff will see MS as trying to consume them into the Micro Borg mother ship, rather than work with them to make a better Yahoo/MS to fight the Google wars.

I suspect they will if MS treats them right, and I think MS would treat them right, but it would not take an extraordinary poaching effort from Google to effectively dismantle the really great parts of Yahoo.   Oh, yes, and this Google poaching has already begun. 

A couple years ago – at the Google Party no less – I was involved in a fascinating conversation with one of the key search guys from Microsoft’s search engineering team and another top engineer from Google.  One of the most interesting topics was how MS felt that Google had very selectively poached a key Microsoft search insider.    The MS guy said until that point he felt Google had been basically playing fair, but that he knew from that episode that Google was strategically picking off people not so much because they wanted them but because Microsoft *needed* them.      He felt this defied the “don’t be evil” Google mantra and had soured him on Google’s honesty in these matters.    Suffice it to say that as much as I think Google *usually* does follow the “don’t be evil” mantra there was some pretty interesting clandestine activity going on at that party to record the MS guy as several beers got him to spill more beans about the MS algorithm.    In fact it was then I realized how weak the MS search effort was with what he said were only 300 engineers working in search, while Google had *thousands*.

Gates is certainly wrong that the cultures are the same.   Based on my experiences with people from these three companies I’d suggest the cultures are pretty clear:   MS culture is a massive corporate empire with lots of heirarchies, corporate bloat, somewhat overbearing, and diminishes the role of the individual as a key part of the big team.  People are not proud to be with MS – they are often almost apologetic.

Google is flexible with lots of lateral motion in terms of project and ideas.   Ideas and cleverness will trump formal designations which are few anyway.   You can stand next to a top engineer worth tens of millions and a new hire and you can’t tell which is which – not even from the way they treat each other and certainly not from the casual dress or styles.    Google people are smart and confident, and generally very helpful and well-informed with the notable exception of questions about ranking quirks where transparency goes pretty much out the window.

Yahoo?   I think they *used to be* just like Google, but managed to mov in the direction of managerial bloat and questionable treatment of engineers several years ago.  They paid people well, but I think the focus moved away from search and engineering and towards a content and entertainment empire.  This was a mistake, and Yahoo’s about to to pay the price – they are about to get absorbed into the MS empire.    But don’t worry Yahoo engineers – they are not making much Soylent Green over there anymore.  Right Bill?

Ina on Gates

Disclosure:  Long on YHOO