Twitter IPO Reminds Us That What Starts Out As Trivial And Pointless Can Turn Into Something Amazing

from the that's-how-innovation-works dept

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.

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Comments on “Twitter IPO Reminds Us That What Starts Out As Trivial And Pointless Can Turn Into Something Amazing”

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K1ng0fDarkn3ss says:


I did not actually think that the authro of the quoted aritcle was bashing those new services… I think it was just an honest take on them from their perspective. I did not sense a condescending tone or a dismissive attitude. I do not use any social media. Not because I do not see the value of it (although a couple years ago I would have been a bit condescending), but rather because I do not enjoy that level of exposure. Despite the fact that I (no longer) find any reason to dislike the concept of social media, if I were to write an article about it, it certainly would not do those services justice. My perspective is too far from the outside. Which is all I think may have been going on with the author of the above quoted article.

End unnecessarily long comment post

Brazilian Guy says:

Well, other way to look at things is that if you are old, or have to take care of someone old or of children, and get to understand technology, those same services are a godsend too.

Living in Brazil, i’ve only recently heard about LifeCall and the amusing “I’ve fallen and i can’t get up” soundbyte. In the 80’s, that would be a great service. Well, now you have cellphones, twitter, facebook – all good ways to get people to help.

And well, i find it amusing that after three decades of playing RPG’s and games, people are now used to the idea of posting fetch quests in the real world.

Anonymous Coward says:

I have to admit, I still consider Twitter to be a 100% waste of electrons. I view it as a communication medium for narcissistic, illiterate, uneducated, vacuous idiots with severe attention-deficit disorder and an inability to think in more than sound bites. There is nobody, nobody, on this planet who is worthy of my attention in 140-character-at-a-time chunks. If you can’t write at least a paragraph that’s cogent, interesting, funny, insightful, informative and/or thought-provoking, then kindly STFU: the Internet should be read-only for you until you can.

(Thankfully, there are plenty of people who express themselves, often beautifully so, in more than throwaway one-liners. I read as many of them as I can, as often as I can. I advise others to do the same. Your brain will thank you for feeding it a substantive diet instead of endless empty snacks.)

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I once thought the same as you but two years ago I started following World War II twitter updates in real time and it’s been amazing getting as sense of history as it unfolds in little news bits and photos that make the whole complexity of it easy to follow in a linear fashion.

It’s still the only thing I use Twitter for, but I think every service has its uses if you can figure out the right way to use it. It’s not just about self expression.

out_of_the_blue says:

Umm, movies and all entertainment are actually useless too.

And like Twitter, irrelevant to civilization.

The sciences and industries that support modern society are still objectively far more important, and to those of a certain mind, vastly more entertaining. Of course you kids don’t see those as fun, so you all just sit on your ass snarfing chips and playing Call of Duty while waiting for someone to do the brain work and labors to invent the Starship Enterprise.

And that reminds me: who are the heroes in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”? — Industrialists. She never intended for useless weenies to profit from the work of those who take up the burdens of being fully human, and I believe explicitly said that.

Steeply progressive income taxes are needed to prevent a few weenies unduly profiting off the labors of the many, and quickly coming to believe themselves inherently superior rulers.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Umm, movies and all entertainment are actually useless too.

Pretty ironic coming from someone that sits there all day making supercilious comments on Techdirt.

You know what Atlas Shrugged is? More useless fiction no better or worse than Twitter or Call of Duty or Hollywood’s crapola.

I hope your foot tastes good.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Umm, movies and all entertainment are actually useless too.

They guy says movies and all entertainment are useless, and then supports this statement by talking about a work of fiction. Philosophy or not it’s still a piece of entertainment. So either entertainment is worth something or it’s not.

And considering a tweet can contain a link to Atlas Shrugged, a single tweet can actually include her entire work.

And if you judge value by how long something is, I’ve got a few phone books you might want to read.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Umm, movies and all entertainment are actually useless too.

“Atlas Shrugged is philosophical/political manifesto”

…in a dystopian science fiction novel telling the stores of fictional characters in a fictional world. It doesn’t matter how long it is, it’s still a work of fiction. It’s still a novel in exactly the same way as other politically charged novels, ranging from Catch 22 to Animal Farm, and is no more or less a work of fiction than Dracula or Harry Potter.

The point is, the idiot above manages to reject all entertainment as “useless”, yet of all the examples he could have given, he gave a work of fiction (a.k.a. entertainment). I wonder if he’d also reject the movies based on the book as “useless” as well, or if this would be yet another example of him changing his tune as soon as it’s pointed out how wrong he is.

I also wonder if he’ll admit to the hypocrisy next time he’s attacks someone who creates a useful product (e.g. Google) because they’re supposedly causing the “useless” movie industry to lose money. I doubt he’s even honest enough to notice.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Twitter, Facebook, Google, only re-distributive, not productive.

The telephone only redistributes rather than produces. Would you also claim that’s useless?

I know how short-sighted and moronic you are on even your best days, but how blinkered do you have to be to think either that those sites aren’t involved in production (they certainly enable and encourage it, even in cases where they don’t produce the end result themselves) or that production itself is the only thing that matters without considering the importance of the other aspects of a business. Even a factory that does nothing but produce raw materials still needs to be able to communicate and deliver, and few businesses are purely in the business of production.

Oh, and “economist” giggle. Good one!

John Fenderson (profile) says:

The funny thing about Morin's example

As I read Morin’s description of San Francisco and all the glorious things that new services allow there, I kept wondering when I was going to get to the “new” part.

I’ve been doing literally everything he said for many years now, without the assistance of these new apps and without living in an urban areas anywhere near the size of San Francisco.

His future appears to be my past. I never realized I was so far ahead of my time!

Anonymous Coward says:

Twitter is just another tool. There have been thousands before and will be millions after. It’s not the holy grail by any stretch of the imagination… not to mention there is very little oversight and is being widely used by criminals (like every other protocol). How it became so big is a mystery to most of us, as other, better tools have been around for much longer.

GMacGuffin (profile) says:

I remember the specific day that Twitter suddenly became useful to me...

April 4, 2010. We felt a bigass earthquake on our mesa in San Diego. That doesn’t happen; no major fault line. Nothing about it anywhere online, radio, tv, nothing. It had to be far away, and big. Needed someone talking about it *now*

So I signed up w/ Twitter, and instantly found out it was felt all the way up in LA, and out to AZ, complete with shots of sloshing pools, etc., and got a feel for where the epicenter likely was (Mexicali/Calexico area). (And at the time, from the press, I thought of it as Ashton Kutcher’s miniblog.)

Have used it for status of close brush fires as well (and of course, baseball info). Pretty friggin useful, indeed.

Clouser (user link) says:

Misguided policy hampers innovation and evolution in many regions

Well done here Mike I enjoyed this article it was refreshing. Its not about Twitter per se but the innovation, whether or not one believes Twitter is amazing or useful etc.

“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. “

This I agree with that government and university policy often focuses on current industries and sectors, and aren’t good predictors of those to come. Also, I would add, especially for information technology innovations, its best to encourage a lot of them to start, accelerate, seed, incubate as many as you can in a region. As Kathy Ku has said about Stanford’s OTL perspective “throw as many on the wall as possible and see what sticks”. Too many times policy makers and university officials end up trying to pick winners in the early stages, but they have way too many built in biases. Better to make room for as many as possible and let the knowledge spillover, the workers and founders migrate, the evolutionary process kick-in and sort them out. The winners will emerge. Picking winners is also unfair and is thus a poor way to allocate the public’s funds.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Misguided policy hampers innovation and evolution in many regions

Good point — actually several good points.

However, I think it’s worth noting that if we agree to say “Twitter is successful” (which I don’t, by the way, as valuation and profit are poor metrics to assess success), then we should observe that Twitter is successful for the same reasons that reality TV is successful, that “professional wrestling” is successful, that One Direction is successful, that The DaVinci Code is successful, etc: most people are really quite stupid. All of these are explicitly designed to appeal to inferior minds, taking advantage of their diminished critical faculties to extract money and/or attention from them.

If that’s “success” — and apparently it is — then count me out. I see far more “success” in the efforts of singer-songwriters, of coders, of writers, of researchers, of many people who will never be rich or famous but who have actually created something substantive, something of worth and value…not a 24×7 flowing river of shit like Twitter.

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