Twitter's new question: What's happening?

Ronny Kerr · November 19, 2009 · Short URL:

Biz Stone says "What are you doing?" was never the most important question

From the beginning, Twitter has asked its users one simple question: "What are you doing?" The original idea assumed the network would be a place for people to keep in touch with each other and the occurrences in their day-to-day lives.

But, as co-founder Biz Stone acknowledges in a Twitter Blog post today, that question has taken a backseat to a more important question.
What's Happening?
According to Stone:

The fundamentally open model of Twitter created a new kind of information network and it has long outgrown the concept of personal status updates. Twitter helps you share and discover what's happening now among all the things, people, and events you care about. "What are you doing?" isn't the right question anymore—starting today, we've shortened it by two characters. Twitter now asks, "What's happening?"

Basically, Twitter realized that users don't checks the site daily simply to read about Joe Schmo drinking coffee at a cafe in San Francisco. The social search site has morphed into something more interesting, a real-time stream of the most important events occurring all around the world: users are sharing technological breakthroughs, discussing election protests, warning others about major traffic accidents, etc.

Though the update appears relatively small, it may signal a move by Twitter towards specialization. As a startup, it may never quite have known what the service would become fully, so it meandered somewhere between a social network for friends and family and a global network of tweets about global events. Now, it appears, Twitter may be choosing to embrace the second of those two a bit more, since that is why most people use the site.

If so, such a move should stifle the comparisons to Facebook a little, as no longer would Twitter be competing to be that kind of all-encompassing network, but instead just a real-time social search engine.

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What is Twitter?

Twitter is an online information network that allows anyone with an account to post 140 character messages, called tweets. It is free to sign up. Users then follow other accounts which they are interested in, and view the tweets of everyone they follow in their "timeline." Most Twitter accounts are public, where one does not need to approve a request to follow, or need to follow back. This makes Twitter a powerful "one to many" broadcast platform where individuals, companies or organizations can reach millions of followers with a single message. Twitter is accessible from, our mobile website, SMS, our mobile apps for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, our iPad application, or 3rd party clients built by outside developers using our API. Twitter accounts can also be private, where the owner must approve follower requests. 

Where did the idea for Twitter come from?

Twitter started as an internal project within the podcasting company Odeo. Jack Dorsey, and engineer, had long been interested in status updates. Jack developed the idea, along with Biz Stone, and the first prototype was built in two weeks in March 2006 and launched publicly in August of 2006. The service grew popular very quickly and it soon made sense for Twitter to move outside of Odea. In May 2007, Twitter Inc was founded.

How is Twitter built?

Our engineering team works with a web application framework called Ruby on Rails. We all work on Apple computers except for testing purposes. 

We built Twitter using Ruby on Rails because it allows us to work quickly and easily--our team likes to deploy features and changes multiple times per day. Rails provides skeleton code frameworks so we don't have to re-invent the wheel every time we want to add something simple like a sign in form or a picture upload feature.

How do you make money from Twitter?

There are a few ways that Twitter makes money. We have licensing deals in place with Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft's Bing to give them access to the "firehose" - a stream of tweets so that they can more easily incorporate those tweets into their search results.

In Summer 2010, we launched our Promoted Tweets product. Promoted Tweets are a special kind of tweet which appear at the top of search results within, if a company has bid on that keyword. Unlike search results in search engines, Promoted Tweets are normal tweets from a business, so they are as interactive as any other tweet - you can @reply, favorite or retweet a Promoted Tweet. 

At the same time, we launched Promoted Trends, where companies can place a trend (clearly marked Promoted) within Twitter's Trending Topics. These are especially effective for upcoming launches, like a movie or album release.

Lastly, we started a Twitter account called @earlybird where we partner with other companies to provide users with a special, short-term deal. For example, we partnered with Virgin America for a special day of fares on that were only accessible through the link in the @earlybird tweet.


What's next for Twitter?

We continue to focus on building a product that provides value for users. 

We're building Twitter, Inc into a successful, revenue-generating company that attracts world-class talent with an inspiring culture and attitude towards doing business.

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