Jack Dorsey -- in 140 characters or less
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 18, 2009 - Jack Dorsey, the St. Louis native who co-founded Twitter, is a social media man of the moment. His microblogging service has attracted millions of users who share spits of information in 140 characters or less and track hot topics mentioned by other tweeters.
Dorsey just last year assumed the role of chairman of Twitter. And already he's taking on another challenge: a start-up company that he said will adhere to the ideas that made Twitter popular -- immediacy, transparency and approachability.
His new venture is still operating in "stealth mode" and should be announcing itself soon, he said Friday in front of a crowd of at least 700 people at Webster University's Loretto-Hilton Center. "St. Louis will play a very large part in its story," he said.
That comment attracted the attention of the theater audience and St. Louis Twitter users who wondered aloud what Dorsey has up his sleeve.
Dorsey didn't expand on what the venture entails. But he did drop some hints during the speech about what industries he'd like to focus on. Health care in the United States "is a complete mess and it needs people to innovate," he said.
In the financial industry, "we have a thing called currency where we exchange value between two people," he added. "This is a social interaction. This is a communication. It should feel good. It should feel instant. It should feel immediate and it should feel transparent. There are way too many abstractions ... and I'd like to help fix this."
This was a homecoming speech for Dorsey. He attended Bishop DuBourg High School and lived with his family in Compton Heights. "I loved the aspect of the city," he said. "I loved the energy of downtown. I would spend weekends walking around and exploring how people were moving in and out ... I fell in love. This is the first time I remember falling in love with anything, and it was with the city of St. Louis."
Dorsey said he has long been fascinated with mass transit and how cities worked, which made New York a natural next destination. While in Manhattan, he got involved in writing dispatch software. Dorsey noticed how often people in various industries were sending short status messages, which led him toward the idea for Twitter.
Still, the concept didn't take off right away. He first had to convince his friends. Then Dorsey and the early Twitter team had to figure out who would be their core audience. "When the company first started we thought it was going to be the best thing ever for junior high and high school students. It turned out to be the best thing ever for old Unix (computer operating system) hackers with beards. That was surprising," said Dorsey, eliciting laughter from the audience.
Dorsey spent much of his speech giving advice to would-be entrepreneurs. "The greatest lesson I learned in all of this is that you have to start ... you have to start now," he said. "Start here and start small. Keep it simple."
Twitter has grown from three people to 74. Dorsey said the company was initially bad at communicating with the public about what it was doing. "What kept me up at night was not that the servers were going down, but that this programmer wasn't agreeing with this programmer ... and that we weren't coming together as a cohesive unit," he said.
Dorsey said the company early on realized that it didn't have all the ideas and answers. "A lot of what you see that is successful on Twitter today is from the users," he said.
For instance, the @ sign that indicates a response on Twitter didn't come from within the company but from a user. Likewise, the word "tweet" "was resisted by a lot of people in the company," Dorsey said. The Twitter team called posts "updates," but it began to notice that tweet was catching on. So the term stuck.
Dorsey also shared the story of how the company came to be called Twitter. First came the name idea "twitch," because a cell phone would vibrate when a new status update came through. "That name didn't inspire great imagery or love for the product," Dorsey joked.
A co-founder of Odeo, the podcasting company that Dorsey previously worked for, went to the Oxford English Dictionary for help. He looked at "tw" words near twitch and found twitter, which means "a short, inconsequential burst of information."
"And we're like, 'that's it,'" Dorsey remembers thinking. "A lot of our success is because of how good the word Twitter is," he said.
Success still doesn't equal revenue for Twitter, but Dorsey said there are many ways to keep the company sustainable. (Listen as Dorsey talks about possible revenue streams.)
In response to an audience question about how Twitter can remain relevant in a fast-changing social media landscape, Dorsey responded: "We consider ourselves to be a utility, not a technology, not a product, but something that scales to every usage. We are worried about making sure that the network persists and that we're the carrier of the message." Dorsey said users will largely determine what direction the service takes.
Some of Twitter's biggest fans can be found in Washington, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., whom Dorsey mentioned as an avid tweeter. Dorsey said he's been inspired by prominent people in government using the service: "Both our government and the government of Iraq have really adopted this technology to expose in real time and open up the conversation and process of democracy," he said.
As one would expect from a Twitter speech, this event was interactive. As Dorsey spoke, a screen behind him showed tweets from people in the audience and beyond. That provided some amusing moments, such as when Twitter users began commenting on the length of the questions while the questioners were still talking.
Following the speech, Webster University awarded Dorsey its 2009 person of the year award. Benjamin Akande, dean of Webster's School of Business and Technology, spoke glowingly of Dorsey and his company: "Twitter is to our generation what the Gutenberg printing press and the Bell telephone is to theirs," Akande said.
The dean presented Dorsey with a baseball mitt and bat. Dorsey is scheduled to throw out the first pitch at tonight's Cardinals game.