Early Twitter Team Member Dishes On Service's Origins
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The Brainyard: With your friendship with Jack, you got to see Jack show you his new startup idea: Square. What was it like selling your books, music, art, and services on Square?
DS: I use Square to sell copies of 140 Characters.
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I'm one of the first merchants on Square, way back when it was called Squirrel in 2009.
I believe I'm also the first user to operate Square outside of the U.S., both in Central America and The Netherlands. Square is a revolution in payments, which I could see as soon as Jack made me pay him back for breakfast the first time he demonstrated to me at Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco.
I introduced Square founders Jack and Tristan [O'Tierney], recruited their first server team, and alpha tested the hardware. When it came time for Sundance in 2010, my friends at Tweet House arranged for actor/director Adrian Grenier from HBO's Entourage to make his first live tweet. Immediately following that, Levar Burton and I talked Adrian into donating a record amount to Yele Haiti on stage for the quake victims, using Square.
The Brainyard: How did that go down?
DS: We used the black and silver prototype. I had to swipe twice. As we completed the transaction, Levar said, "That's some Star Trek [stuff] right there, man."
I'll never forget that.
It was the first time anyone had created a secondary Square account.
This was back in the beta days when there were no transaction limits. There were also no geographical limits then.
The Brainyard: What's the value in social media? And what do you use social media for?
DS: I believe value of any network is measured in compassion. With Twitter we are all writers now, but who is truly listening? With Square we are all merchants now, but who is truly improving lives?
I use social networks to galvanize communities around events. We built the largest independent developer community in the world for iOS using Twitter in 21 days--from first tweet to first seat--in 2007. It's doubled in size every year since then.
We are together because we've come to care for each other, and we've learned to care by listening to each other every day on the network.
The Brainyard: Can you be more specific about the advice?
DS: Limit yourself to one thought, one sentence.
Don't worry at all about the number of people following you.
Consider instead who are they? Do they click on your links, share your content, or show up at your event? Think about it like this: if you were to make an app that sold for a dollar, would you be content if people merely downloaded it but didn't use it? Sure you've made your 70 cents, but what good is a user without use? Similarly, what good is a reader without action?
Our Official Obama '08 iPhone App had over half a million downloads in total, but that number doesn't impress me even though it was a very large percentage of app users at the time. What's more important is that we achieved over 42,000 phone calls to people in swing states using the most vital, private social network of all: the individual contact list. Measure not followers, or reach, but engagement.
Remember: you don't have to tweet about everything. Cherish your privacy, that most recent of human conventions. I don't suspect it will last very long at the rate people publicly discuss their lives.
If you do write, be original, be yourself. Try to fit your speaking voice into your writing, because everyone's way of speaking is distinctive.
The Brainyard: How has social media changed since you started building Twitter and where do you see its future? What's its value add to businesses?
DS: The term "social media" wasn't in parlance when we started. Even now, I prefer the term "information network" or "social network" because really these systems are about people connecting with people and it's not always about content.
Twitter has gone from being nearly invisible, to being everywhere as a story in itself, and has now become a part of almost every story. I look forward to the day when it is invisible again, a utility like gas and water, electricity and sanitation. The network must always be on, and as close to real time as possible.
The simplicity of 140 characters of immutable hypertext is its own reward. The fact that Twitter is a public commons also has intrinsic worth. The value in Twitter itself to businesses is the same value as to the individual: transparency. It's very difficult to hide inside 140 characters. Authenticity is king.
What Twitter does is remove barriers individuals and the products or brands that they choose. It holds the same promise for citizens and those who govern us. We now have the common denominator back.
The Brainyard: Are you and Jack close?
DS: Jack and I are close, I'd say. I talk with him about once every other month. He's full of great advice.
I first met Tristan the week he was hired as I was consulting for Tapulous during the pre-App Store days. I made sure Jack attended iPhoneDevCamp 2 at Adobe, and introduced him to everyone I could.
Tapulous was a major sponsor of the camp that year, and they brought everyone. Each engineer or designer from that company ended up at Square eventually. It began when Jack said, "I was impressed with that fellow Tristan, an engineer who really appreciates design."
A month later, I recruited Tristan to help us with the Obama '08 app. Jack saw his work and hired Tristan immediately following Evan [Williams'] coup at Twitter that Fall.
As soon as Jack got kicked out too, we reconnected. That's how I ended up testing Square before anyone else. I have a ton of stories about that.
I also participated in the birth of blogging at Swarthmore College in 1995, but that's another tale for another time.
Boonsri Dickinson is the Associate Editor of BYTE.
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