Hatching Twitter, by Nick Bilton

hatching_twitterThis is a story of Twitter's first five years, and of the various falling outs between its four founders. And it's one of the best stories of its sort that I've ever read. I was so fascinated by this story and so moved, that I strongly suspect much of it to be somewhat on the false side. In this case, I am putting this preface up front because I have at least three Facebook friends who work or worked at Twitter, and I think one of them was there for some the events described in this book. Thus my disclaimer will be: I know nothing about the real Twitter; all I know is the portrait painted in this book.

Yesterday, when I read Ben Horowitz's book, the line that most fascinated me was  the one where he talked about how horribly managed companies can succeed as long as they have good product/market fit. Basically, if you're the only one selling something that the market really wants, then you're going to be a success. This is particularly the case with regards to tech companies, where network effects mean that the company which amasses an early lead can often crush later competitors in the same space.

Twitter (as portrayed in this book) seems like a perfect example. These four people's main innovation seems to be that they created a clean, simple, and phone-friendly interface for displaying public text messages, and that they launched this product at roughly the same time that the launch of the iPhone was resulting in a massively increased the appetite for this kind of messaging. Other than that, it doesn't seem like they were particularly innovative or good at what they did. For instance, two of Twitter's main features, the @ reply and the hashtag, were both introduced by users, and the hashtag, in particular, was initially derided by the company.

Some of the stumbling around in the book is pretty comical. For instance, after Twitter has amassed well over a million users, an engineer is stumbling around in its software architecture, trying to patch things up and make it more stable, when he discovers that there is no backup for the system. If they lose the database, then everything--all the users and all the tweets and every cent of (what was then) tens of millions of dollars in market value--would disappear. That is insane.

There's just an all-around bumbling quality to the management that is interesting, because it pierces the startup hagiography. I've just finished reading two books (which I blogged about yesterday) that were all about how some founder-CEO exhibited stanch and bold leadership and propelled their startup forward despite horrible calamities. Twitter's story is a lovely counterpoint. Here's a company that led something of a charmed life. It grew on its own, almost without marketing, and it had no major competitors. It just sort of grew on its own. The quote in the book that I best love is that part where Mark Zuckerberg tells a group of friends that Twitter "was such a mess it's as if they drove a clown car into a gold mine."

But that's not the best part of the book. The best part is the crisp portrayal of the principal characters, and the horrible drama that ensues.

One thing that makes me doubt the veracity of the book is its focus on visual detail. In an early chapter, for instance, it vividly describes Twitter founder Evan Williams biking to his apartment in Sebastopol in 2005. That's the kind of thing that you generally don't read in nonfiction books, because it's pretty hard to know exactly what things looked and felt and smelled like when you weren't there. But that visual focus is what makes the book such a delight. You feel like you're there. The people feel real.

The loneliness of these four founders is so palpable. They all come from such malformed backgrounds, and all want community and friendship. And they all achieve it, for a brief moment, with Twitter. And then immediately proceed to destroy each other. Basically, they squabble over who'll be CEO of the company. But watching it play out is so heartbreaking. After finishing the book, I was enveloped by a not-unpleasant sadness that persisted for some hours.

You’re Not Using Enough Clickbait In Your links (And Other Social Media Mistakes Authors Make)

dAtYDGLf_400x400(Today, I'm running a guest post from a friend of mine and fellow Baltimorean. One of Ezra's business pursuits is helping people build their online brands and drive traffic to their sites. Oftentimes, when people ask to write guest posts for my site, I say no, because I'm like, "Well, what's in it for me?" In this case, I knew that Ezra would deliver a solid essay, and that I might be able to get a little bit of his social capital)

I spend a lot of time on various social media networks, and communities within those networks.  Many authors are starting to realize the importance of social media, especially as print publishing becomes all the more shaky, but a lot of them don’t quite seem to be able to execute. So without further ado, some gentle scolding from a person on the other side of the creativity/filthy capitalism divide:


1) Great Content But No Growth

You’re a writer! You excel at clever posts and spend a lot of time promoting your work with bon mots on Twitter or pithy observations on Facebook - but nothing seems to reach an audience larger than mom and your few-remaining college friends.  I see this constantly with writers and comedians I know, talented people who put up great stuff but neever reach a larger following. Now the overall subject could fill a book, but in general following and interacting with people is the only way they will come across you. I wouldn’t be afraid to put a small budget into a Facebook or Twitter ad if you actively have a book or other product for sale, but just following and talking to lots of people will have your follower count climbing rapidly.

Link to your social media accounts from your blog, friend’s blogs and other accounts that have bigger following.  Link from message boards and comments on forums or aggregators.  If you’re making all this great cotnent its really a shame to not have a lot of people see it.


2) Useless Or Harmful Posts

Consistency is absolutely crucial on social media and I would strongly recommend one-two posts a day. However it’s better to not post at all then to have a stream of useless things.  Punchy, witty commentary on a football game may make for a good Twitter feed, but rantings about quarterbacks may turn off a lot of your audience, especially if you happen to be a young adult or science-fiction author. I always strive for share-able, self-contained posts on my public social media, ones that will appeal to the broadest segment of my audience.  I happen to love Scandinavian Black Metal, but most of my readers (and frankly, the bands themselves) have little interest or need for the latest rare Norwegian cassette form the nineties to be discovered.

Also I know many authors are passionate about their political beliefs, but I’ve seen a lot of follower accounts go down after the mid-term elections and very little in terms of measurable change in our governance...


3) Too Many Qualifications.

Many author profiles I come across list the person as a “writer, editor, blogger, publisher, poet, cover designer, marketing expert, window cleaner, sandwich artist.” Those of you who have been grinding away at this thing know how hard any one of these roles is and it cheapens your main purpose to list so many things. The main bio space on your social media channels is very important, as it may be the only representation most people see of you.  Make sure it is clear, direct and highlights ONE or TWO credentials.


4) No Call to Action

Related to the above, people put enormous work into their social media presence, but to what end?  On Twitter and Instagram, you are allowed ONE and only one link in your bio, where does it point towards? Figure out what your express goal is (sell a book? drive readers to your blog?) and make sure you have a pinned post at the top and a bio link that all point towards that call-to-action.

And don’t be afraid to go a little clickbait! Maybe you don’t want to be “Which Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Would You HAve Sex With?” but an attention-grabbing headline will do a lot to get your reader’s to click through to your Amazon or Goodreads page or whatever the target link is.


5) Too Much Inside Baseball

While it may be tempting to complain about the rigors of NaNoWriMo or kvetch about specific personalities in your genre, I imagine your goal is to reach a wide audience with your writing, and it’s important to keep in mind what they want out of an author’s social media account.  Things like productivity tips or content about improving your work are interesting and relevant to many people other than writers but posts about conferences, internal politics, academia etc can all put people off.


Anyway, thanks a lot to Rahul for letting me snag some valuable real-estate on his highly-entertaining blog! My name’s Ezra Winter and I’m a full-time social media and online marketing person, working with clients like the soul singer Bosley, to help grow and take advantage of their public presence. I really love this kind of work so I run accounts on most of the major networks for myself, and I’m beginning to write articles and blog posts about what I’m doing.  The most relevant to the Blotter Paper community (and one of my favorites to write) is probably this interview with Daniel Kibblesmith, who is amazingly clever at Twitter, which helped lead to him becoming a published author and writer at The Onion.

The above tips were written from the point of view of Twitter, but apply pretty generally.  I find Twitter to be the most effective tool for spreading written or verbal content, though Tumblr offers some exciting opportunities in that regard.  If I’ve piqued your interest I hope you’ll check out my blog, and give me a follow on the ol’ social media channels.  If you have any thoughts or feedback leave a comment, send a tweet, or shoot me an email ezrawintrymix@gmail.com

Wow, it’s really possible for a random tweet by a random person to go viral

Was just on Twitter for a sec and saw a mildly amusing tweet and retweeted it. And then I clicked on it and was like, "Whoah, 2.2k people have retweeted this? Who the heck wrote this?"

Then I clicked on that guy's profile and saw that he only has about 450 followers. And he's just a random guy in Great Britain. Like, correct me if I'm wrong, but it doesn't seem like he has much social capital at all. In fact, reading his timeline was pretty amusing, because half his tweets from the last day are about him being amused, then bemused, then annoyed, then astonished that this one tweet of his is getting retweeted so many times.

I have no broader point about social media that I am trying to make here. Just something interesting. I'd always assumed that the people who create jokey viral retweets are folks like, I don't know, Zach Galifanakis or Stephen Colbert. But not always.

Oh, here's something interesting. Despite having so many RTs and favorites, the guy still only has 450 followers. Which makes sense. You might RT something funny, but you're not going to follow the person who said it (unless you start seeing their name more and more).

Oh my god, I finally understand Twitter

Up until yesterday, I’d only really used Twitter on my computer, so I’d missed the point. Twitter isn’t like Facebook, it’s more like text-messaging. You know how sometimes you’re sitting at home and you’re kind of bored and you’re like, ehh, let me send out some text messages. Twitter is a bit like that, except you’re text-messaging everybody in the world and waiting to see who replies back.

That doesn’t make it any less silly or superficial. But it does make it considerably more fun. I think I’ve sent out more tweets in the last 24-hours than I did during the entirety of last month.

Twitter does atomize attention, though: I don’t think I’m going to get nearly as much reading done during odd moments as I used to.

Actually, I’ve been a bit dissatisfied at how my reading has fallen off lately. Of course, that’s mostly because I’ve been going through the final volume of Plutarch for the last ten days, and that is some pretty dense stuff.

Now that school is over, I kind of want to get back into the reading groove that I was in during that year in Oakland, before school ever started. What an amazing and freeing time that was.

And it’ll be better now because I’ve made a number of refinements in how I select the books that I read.

For instance, I am done with grand reading plans. Now I just read whatever I feel like at any given moment.

I’ve also stopped being such a book hoarder. Nowadays I just buy or borrow whatever books I actually want to read. I don’t stock up on shelves upon shelves of books that I’m going to get to someday. I know that some people like to have that weight pressing down upon them. In fact, I used to be one of those people: I still have roughly 1000 novels in my parent’s house. But lately, I’ve been feeling more and more oppressed by the weight of expectation which a huge book collection carries with it.


Twitter is the only social network which punishes you for following a person you’re interested in

In an offhand comment on his blog today, John Scalzi wrote: “Weird to think some of you [i.e. his blog readers] don’t follow me on Twitter, but there you go.”

Which interested me, since I am one of those people: I’m an avid reader of Scalzi’s blog, but I unfollowed him on Twitter several months ago.

And it was for a simple reason: I don’t follow anyone who isn’t following me back.

For a long time, I assumed that this was the policy of most authors, but I was talking about it to someone at AWP, and he seemed to think there was something shameful about this stance, so maybe not everyone acts this way.

But I think that the design of Twitter encourages my way of thinking. Whenever you look at a user, their number of followers is prominently displayed next to the number of people that they follow, which provides a very clear and intuitive glimpse of whether they are more of a listener or a broadcaster. If they’re the former, then they’re a consumer: a set of ears. But if they’re the latter, then they’re obviously a person whom people listen to.

Something like this mechanic is necessary, since Twitter needs a way to signal that someone is a spammer: people who accrued tens of thousands of followers by following tens of thousands of people. (Although another alternative would be to limit the total number of accounts that you’re allowed to follow.)

But it sets up a weird incentive for someone like me. Whenever I follow someone who isn’t following me back, I tip myself further into the “listener” and farther from the “broadcaster” category. Which doesn’t feel good. Twitter is the only social network in which your social status is reduced if you follow other peoples’ work.

In a way, Twitter is a zero-sum game. Every time you follow someone, you add to their social status and reduce your own.

A bigger person wouldn’t care how they were perceived: they would just go ahead and follow all the people whose tweets they enjoy. And I think that is what most people do. I mean, not everybody can maintain a positive followed-by to follower-of ratio (although, since most Twitter accounts are pretty passive or defunct, it is possible for a majority of active twitter accounts to maintain a positive ratio).

But that’s not me. I do care. So my policy is to not follow anyone who doesn’t follow me. Which is not to say that someone like John Scalzi ought to follow my Twitter account. He has tens of thousands of followers, and he obviously needs to limit his feed to the ones that he actually wants to talk to. But my policy remains. While I would not be uninterested in reading Scalzi’s tweets, I refuse to sacrifice even an iota of my social status in order to gain the privilege of doing so.