With all of the news coming from this year’s AIMFire, sorry Twitter, developer conference, it’s almost hard to imagine how a chat app used mostly by teenagers and college students came to dominate what we now know as “social media” in eight short years. Before we dive into what this means about the future of how we communicate, it’s worth taking a look back at how we got here.
In 2004, AOL Instant Messenger was the dominant chat application in the world, having grown steadily from an integrated piece of the America Online service into a standalone application used by students, families and some businesses. Facing heavy competition from Yahoo and Microsoft, the AIM team decided to rethink what online communication meant. In what was clearly a hastily assembled conference, then called aimCON, the team revealed a six-months-long skunkworks project to rebuild the chat service around an open source protocol called Banter.
Jeremy Milner, lead developer on the Banter project, took the stage in front of a crowd of just a few hundred developers, most of them fellow free software activists, to announce the change. While the news generated a lot of buzz in the open source software community, most of the tech press saw it as a desperate move, which wasn’t helped by a rash of outages that summer as the AOL team transitioned platforms.
Having mostly ironed out the technical issues, the newly renamed AIMFire conference in 2005 saw a slight rise in attendence, mostly from press hungry for a story of the beleagured AOL. Milner again took the stage to demo the AimPI, an API built on top of the AIM protocol that would allow anyone to build their own clients and applications. Milner showed off a few chatbots that acted like very rudimentary personal assistants, responding to canned commands to fetch things like weather forecasts and sports scores.
The 2006 conference was preceded by some significant buzz following the leak of something known only as “Chirp”, which tech rumor sites were suggesting would bring AIM to mobile phones. When AIM’s VP of product introduced Noah Glazz, he then showed off what he called TWTTR, an application he’d built over about 3 months using the AimPI. “TWTTER is like a status message that you take everywhere,” Glazz told the somewhat perplexed crowd. His first “chirp” from the stage read “figuring out this twttr thing”, which was followed by a few polite claps and bemused chuckling.
In interviews later that day, Glazz said his TWTTR prototypes had been acquired by the AIM team after some internal research showed that people were using the AIM client in ways they’d never expected. What was interesting was how people were using the status feature, originally just a way to say whether you were online or not. Lots of people would leave notes behind for their friends, like where they were going to be or just abstract and often funny one liners.
"When I started to see the jokes, reactions to the days news and political commentary that people were leaving in their status, I knew we had to find a way to capitalize on that," says a former executive who asked not to be named. Part of what Glazz’s original TWTTR app did was let you set your status from anywhere, even via a text message gateway. The AIM team then aggregated people’s public status updates on the web in a stream for anyone to see. Glazz’s suggested another big breakthrough — to let anyone "follow" anyone else’s statuses, not just limit it to the people in your buddy list.
By AIMFire 2007, Twitter, as it had become known, was starting to be a big deal in tech circles. At SxSW a few months earlier, the only thing that people were talking about more than “tweeting” was the fact that this was coming from AOL. Bloggers and pundits were still unsure of its purpose or usefulness — “who cares what I’m eating for lunch?” was a common complaint — but that did nothing to slow its growth. Integration between the chat service and the status update component of Twitter was also starting to take form. “What’s the difference between a chat and a series of direct updates between Twitter users?” Glazz asked, demoing a new streamlined desktop client that brought the two services closer together.
A year later, there were two themes: scale and location. A few Twitter competitors had cropped up over the previous year but quickly fell apart when dealing with how to handle tens of millions of users. Jeremy Milner, now the CTO of AIM, said that AOL was used to the kind of scale and growth they were seeing. “Frankly, something like [Ruby on] Rails just isn’t going to cut it for real-time delivery like this. We’ve been dealing with this level of traffic for over a decade.” At AIMFire, Glazz and Joseph Williams, founder of Gowanna, announced that Twitter would be integrating the fledgeling location service into the app to help users share not just what they were doing but where.
Two months later, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong was introduced by Steve Jobs to demonstrate the AIM app with Twitter integration on the newly announced iPhone app store. The presentation was something of a misfire as Armstrong clearly underplayed, or was simply unaware, of the features that the increasingly-important Twitter played in the app and focused more on the great relationship AOL continued to enjoy with Apple. Noah Glazz would announce that he was leaving the company a month later, with rumors circulating that Armstrong’s snub, unintentional though it may have been, playing a key part.
During a heated presidential election, social media would play an important role in the increasingly hyper-attentive, short-attention news cycle. Twitter got a special mention when Sarah Palin, in an interview with Katie Couric, said “Oh, I get the news from all over. You know, all of the newspapers. The magazines. Of course, the kids are always chatting on the twitters, it’s such a distraction. I mean, who cares if you’re eating a sandwich, right, Katie?”
By AIMFire 2009, Twitter had captivated the attention of much of the mainstream media, especially after the news of a downed passenger plane that crash landed on the Hudson River broke first via a cameraphone photo that quickly spread via tweets. AOL, in the throes of a messy divorce from Time Warner, was happy to have a bright spot in the declining media landscape. That year, they announced a news service called TweetWire, an aggregator delivering a firehose of news from around the world, and a new photosharing add-on that would make it easier to send photos and video from smartphones.
"Millions of people are carrying around cameras, video cameras, tape recorders, all disguised as smartphones. This is a great opportunity for news organizations to tell stories they were never able to tell and for everyday citizens to report about their world."
Twitter also announced that they had over 100 million users who updated their status at least once a day and were serving over 2,000 tweets per second.
Growth would only continue to accelerate the following year. When AOL failed to announce a date for that year’s developer conference, rumors quickly spread that the service was being spun off or had fallen victim to the larger corporate fallout at AOL or was even being acquired by Google, Microsoft, or Apple. Instead, Tim Armstrong would once again take the stage with Steve Jobs to show off a new real-time video chat service called FaceTime that was being built into every new iPhone 4 and built on top of AIM/Twitter. This, it would turn out, was news to the Apple development team, who would spend another 3 months rebuilding the underlying protocol to work with AIM’s infrastucture.
Despite the triumphs, the AIM/Twitter team was under a tremendous amount of shareholder pressure to show some big returns. Some felt the AIM/Twitter department wasn’t contributing enough to the bottom line, despite the success of the Newswire service, to justify all the hype.
"Look, we are an incredibly lean organization," said a clearly frustrated Jay Shellin, the new VP of product for AIM/Twitter. "If this was a standalone company, we’d be seeing 50% year-over-year revenue growth, with fewer than 350 people. Show me a startup with those kinds of numbers. The tech press would be salivating over us if we were out there burning up VC funds but because we’re part of a larger organization, we don’t get the same latitude. I’m not saying it’s unfair, I’m just saying we have to work extra hard."
Reprieve came from an unlikely place: the Middle East. When the Arab Spring bloomed, Twitter was on the lips of every technologist with a blog. “What the satellite dish was to the downfall of European communism, Twitter is to Middle Eastern dictators,” blogged Clay Shirky. “The brilliance of Twitter is it can be as trivial as we want or it can be the cry of free people that topple dictators.” A Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times report months later would indicate that the AIM/Twitter team worked directly with the US State department to route around attempts to censor the website, even going so far to build and deploy experimental wireless mesh networks and satellite phones to rebel groups and protestors.
This year’s conference didn’t bring flashy new features, rather a reorganization. The news that AIM/Twitter would now simply be known as Twitter is hardly surprising given the strong brand that Twitter commands. The widely anticipated move towards advertising, however, has failed to materialize. Instead, the team plans to double down on the already profitable stream and analysis tools that their data team has been building for years.
"Sure, we could probably hire a thousand sales people and do what every startup in the Valley decides to do when they get desperate for a little more cash: sell out our users for a few ads," Shellin said. "We set out to do something different here, though, something that will really change the world. Look at what’s happening out there every day, from protests in Egypt to two people getting to know each other and then going on a date. These are real people, not users to throw a brand at. We’re doing just fine taking the pulse of the connected world, I don’t expect that to change."
Not everyone’s buying Twitter’s dream, though.
"Disrupt, disrupt, disrupt, disrupt, disrupt, disrupt," pontificated social media guru and pundit Jeph Gervais on, where else, Twitter. Over the course of nearly a dozen tweets, he ripped the service as naive and irrelevant. "If you’re not disrupting you’re being disrupted. Twitter has haf-a-billion [sic] people addicted to [their] service, web 3.0 is all about monetizing micro-slices of the macro-pie. The way [to] do it is through brand engagement vis-a-vis trusted social circles. Twitter will be dead in 36 months; some enterprising upstart w/o there [sic] useless ideals will rewrite Twitter in a wknd [sic] 2 be a brand ambassador. Sorry, Twitter, I <3 u, u had a good run but haven’t pivoted this time."
Uber-blogger Anil Dash countered Gervais, writing on his blog “Jeph is a nice guy, I even tend to agree with him, and I love the idea of a real-time brand engagement company. I’m that guy! But here’s the thing: nobody wants a real-time brand engagement company! Digerati like Gervais are lamenting the fact that the networks are defying their conventional wisdom. Twitter is not only doing well but they are doing good and anyone who thinks they can do it better is wrong.”