I'd been meaning to write something on this topic for a while, but with the announcement of the Twitter IPO, and Mathew Ingram's reminder of how it started as a "harmless distraction"
before turning into something much, much bigger, it's reminded me once again to talk about why the constant fretting about entrepreneurs doing trivial things is a pointless pastime. First, as Ingram noted, the early days of Twitter had the site being frequently dismissed and mocked as nothing important.
By now, most of us have grown accustomed to thinking of Twitter as a key player in the world of real-time information, a crucial tool for politicians, celebrities and dissidents alike — and even armies — to get their message across. But when Om first got a look at what was then called Twttr in 2006, he thought it was a waste of time, and he wasn’t alone. That perception dogged the company for years, as people made cracks about how “no one wants to know what I had for lunch.”
However, as Chris Dixon pointed out a few years ago, big innovations often start out
looking like a "toy." And Twitter is no different. While there are some, of course, who still mock it, many have realized that it has become an amazingly powerful tool. It's a method of real-time communication, conversation, reporting and broadcasting that has tremendous power. It's been useful in all sorts of unexpected ways.
And yet... as always, we still have people who like to mock new innovations for being trivial or unimportant, in part because they often lack the vision to see what it might become. Just a few months ago, there was a widely publicized and discussed article in the New Yorker by George Packer, which mocked the innovative spirit of Silicon Valley
by complaining that so many of the entrepreneurs appeared to be working on trivial ideas that were really just toys for young rich kids. The key part that got discussed over and over again was this:
A favorite word in tech circles is “frictionless.” It captures the pleasures of an app so beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances, and grievances have been smoothed out of existence—that is, an apolitical world. Dave Morin, who worked at Apple and Facebook, is the founder of a company called Path—a social network limited to one’s fifty closest friends. In his office, which has a panoramic view of south San Francisco, he said that one of his company’s goals is to make technology increasingly seamless with real life. He described San Francisco as a place where people already live in the future. They can hang out with their friends even when they’re alone. They inhabit a “sharing economy”: they can book a weeklong stay in a cool apartment through Airbnb, which has disrupted the hotel industry, or hire a luxury car anywhere in the city through the mobile app Uber, which has disrupted the taxi industry. “San Francisco is a place where we can go downstairs and get in an Uber and go to dinner at a place that I got a restaurant reservation for halfway there,” Morin said. “And, if not, we could go to my place, and on the way there I could order takeout food from my favorite restaurant on Postmates, and a bike messenger will go and pick it up for me. We’ll watch it happen on the phone. These things are crazy ideas.”
It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.
Imagine if this had been written just five or six years ago, when Twitter was first catching on, and you could bet that the same paragraph would include something about the pointlessness of updating your friends about what you're eating on Twitter. It's easy to dismiss these things when they're young, because it's impossible to see what they've become. Today, however, Twitter is used by world leaders, activists, celebrities, families, religious leaders, communities, friends and all sorts of other people to communicate, to connect, to empower and to do amazing things. That was more or less impossible to predict early on because it was a a toy -- a trivial thing designed to be fun for a group of twenty-somethings. But scratching an itch for that group can create something with the power to change the course of human history, and that's kind of amazing.
Even with the things that Packer more or less mocks in that section, he seems to miss how they can have a wider impact. For example, he seems to mock AirBnB and Uber for being useful for well-off 20-somethings, but seems to be ignoring the flipside of that equation. Those two companies are also great examples of new services that have enabled many people to build new careers or just earn some extra cash in ways that they couldn't have not so long ago, such as by renting out a room or your apartment. I've met a bunch of folks recently who have talked about how using AirBnB to make some extra cash has been empowering.
Innovation can be a funny thing, and the truly breakthrough innovations are almost all mocked in their early days, in part because of the basic innovator's dilemma
, in that the new thing isn't "as good" as the old thing, but even going beyond that, because sometimes we just don't know how people will use something, and how it might empower something new and amazing. This is why it's important to have a structure and society that lets innovative experiments
flourish. Too often, innovation policy focuses on trying to get a "certain type" of company to get started. We see this all the time where a government decides it's going to invest in a particular area, rather than figuring out a way to encourage experimentation to see what comes out of it.
Twitter has become something powerful and amazing because, over time, more and more people realized how useful and powerful a tool it was -- something that very few of us (myself included) realized at the beginning. So, the next time you want to mock an innovation for being trivial, remember what people said about Twitter in the early days.