Can Twitter learn from AOL's mistakes?

Posted by andreaitis on September 9, 2009

Biz Stone

Image by Joi via Flickr

When a business’ growth chart looks like a hockey stick, it’s sometimes hard to keep up.   In the case of Twitter, co-founder Biz Stone describes the incredible upswing as  “growing like gangbusters.”   I like that description.  There’s inherent joy and wonder in those words, and the Twitter team certainly deserves to revel in their 20 million users (according to ComScore) for at least a minute or two.  As they do, though, the revenue chant continues to grow.  A business is, after all, a business.  And it goes to reason that 20 million users oughta translate into some kinda cash flow.

Yesterday,  Stone announced that Twitter plans to add services for businesses to generate revenue in Q4 ‘o9.

The products might include an “analytics dashboard” to help companies monitor Tweets about their business, or verified corporate Twitter accounts, Stone told reporters yesterday at an event in Mexico City…  Companies using the service to communicate with customers may be willing to pay for added features, Stone said.

The paid services would probably be offered on a limited basis at first, Stone said. He didn’t say how much they will cost or how much revenue they could generate.

via Twitter to Generate Revenue as Site Grows Like ‘Gangbusters’ –

Fair enough.  The Twitter team strikes me as a smart and thoughtful bunch.  When they first started growing and fail whale sightings were far too frequent, Twitter  bought the Summize team to increase their development prowess.  I’d be skeptical of a knee-jerk revenue plan.   I think this steady progress is encouraging.

Three points in the story caught my eye, though.

1. Stone said the company has a goal of expanding from about 65  to 100 employees this year. Sixty-five employees.  Sixty-five!  That sounds like a lot to me.   Summize had 5 employees, so that purchase didn’t increase their Twitterage by much.  And a when the Guardian reported from Inside Twitter HQ six weeks ago, the staff number was 52.  Sounds like some explosive growth is happening inside the company, too.

2.  Twitter has 20 million users.  Not all of them actively engaged, but in Dr. Evil terms that’s still 20 meeeellion users.  When I joined AOL in 1997, they were just hitting 10 million.  I remember because I was a contractor at first, and I didn’t get the 10 Million Member plaque.  At its peak, AOL had 30 million members, and in 2007 it was back down to 10 million.   I think entire college courses can be taught on the rise and fall of AOL, and the continuing revisioning.   Communication was AOL’s initial and longstanding core; Twitter might learn a few things about how to handle their future by looking at AOL’s past.

3.  Stone also said they’re “working on a project to help new users discover others who might have similar interests or who live nearby.”    That gave me a Wayne and Garth back-to-the-future flashback:  AOL. 2002.  Match Chat.

I was managing AOL’s community products in those days, and we were trying to make it easier for AOL users to discover others who shared their interests.  Sound familiar?  We created Match Chat, allowing people to search in real-time for other users chatting about specific topics, along with relevant chat rooms.   Instantly connect with others who share your interests.   Here, I dug up a pic from  my files.


You could search on usernames, keywords or topics;  schedule a Match Chat and receive an alert or reminder; even invite others to Match Chat.  All in real time.   Pretty cool, right?  Epic fail.   Oh, it all worked and did what we said it would do, but no one was really interested at that time.  Of course, there are things I would try today that we didn’t do back then.  But seven years later, people  are much more adventurous and outgoing in their online interaction in large part thanks to Twitter.   We had a good idea but bad timing.

As Fred Wilson said in his post today,

“Don’t hide your failures. Wear them as a badge of honor. And most of all, learn from them.”

So, @biz, @ev and @jack: I learned a few things from AOL and Match Chat.  I”ve got some more screenshots and notes lying around.  Maybe even a PRD.  DM me if you want to (match) chat.


2 Responses to “Can Twitter learn from AOL's mistakes?”

  1. iskid2astop said

    I think part of why this failed is the inherent fear people have today. People don’t just start talking with strangers. They could be creepy, obsessive, or axe murders. Or, they could be nice, normal people. There was a time when you could talk to anyone, but that is no longer. We like our nice little segmented life, where we have our friends, and our deny button.

  2. andreaitis said

    I think there is less fear in a digital world. In many ways, it’s easier to forge relationships when you have an online persona. Fewer barriers and a greater sense of freedom. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, even the concept of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon…all of these have changed how we communicate and connect. Twitter will have far more success than we did with AOL Match Chat. People’s boundaries, desires and expectations have changed.

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