Tweetie, Twitter & the Secret of Tweets

By Shlomo  Maital    


        Yesterday, Thursday Nov. 7, Twitter launched its IPO. Its stock started at $26, rose to over $50 and ended at around $44.  Twitter began its stockmarket life with a market capitalization of $25 b., bigger than that of half the  companies on the S&P 500 index. It raised billions in capital, that it will use to make acquisitions and to scale up its activities.

   What is Twitter’s secret?  What’s so great about ‘tweets’ that 200 m. people follow them?  Why does Justin Beeber have 46 million true believers?  And – what would Tweetie Pie say about Twitter, if she just had a rest from Sylvester’s pursuit?  Are we in another IPO bubble, like the bubble?  Is Twitter really worth $44?

   I recently had the privilege of meeting Greg Pass, former CTO of Twitter, in New York City.  Greg designed the technology.  Here is how Paul Ford analyzes Twitter’s amazing behind-the-scenes technology, in Bloomberg Business Week today.  His explanation is rather long, 857 words, but worth reading, it shows how clever inventors shape technology to the lifestyle, values and culture of today’s young people:


●  “Consider the tweet. It’s short—140 characters and done—but hardly simple. If you open one up and look inside, you’ll see a remarkable clockwork, with 31 publicly documented data fields. Why do these tweets, typically born of a stray impulse, need to carry all this data with them?  While a tweet thrives in its timeline, among the other tweets, it’s also designed to stand on its own, forever. Any tweet might show up embedded inside a million different websites.   It may be called up and re-displayed years after posting. For all their supposed ephemerality, tweets have real staying power.

● “Once born, they’re alone and must find their own way to the world, like a just-hatched sea turtle crawling to the surf. Luckily they have all of the information they need in order to make it: A tweet knows the identity of its creator, whether bot or human, as well as the location from which it originated, the date and time it went out, and dozens of other little things—so that wherever it finds itself, the tweet can be reconstituted. Millennia from now an intelligence coming across a single tweet could, like an archaeologist pondering a chunk of ancient skull, deduce an entire culture.  

● “All tweets share the same anatomy. To examine the guts of a tweet, you request an “API key” from Twitter, which is a fast, automated procedure. You then visit special Web addresses that, instead of nicely formatted Web pages for humans to read, return raw data for computers to read. That data is expressed in a computer language—a smushed-up nest of brackets and characters. It’s a simplified version of JavaScript called JSON, which stands for JavaScript Object Notation. API essentially means “speaks (and reads) JSON.” The language comes in a bundle of name/value fields, 31 of which make up a tweet. For example, if a tweet has been “favorited” 25 times, the corresponding name is “favorite_count” and “25” is the value. 

● “From a single tweet and with no other information, you can extract a sense of social influence—how big a voice an individual has, the number of people they reach, the number of people who engaged with this particular tweet. Tweets themselves are just regular text (although text on a computer is anything but regular; there are dozens of abstractions that make it possible for an “a” to appear on a screen—but it’s safe to gloss over that). Here it is, 140 characters, a plain little beastie. You might be fooled into thinking there’s hardly anything there.  That’s the genius of Twitter. All of this scaffolding has emerged around a very basic human impulse. A tweet is the manifestation of the human desire to communicate with many other humans at once—to exercise some influence, to inform, amuse, or outrage.

   ● “Of course, people have been informing, amusing, and outraging each other forever.  First, Twitter discovered that blogging is hard. At the time of its birth in 2006, many people in traditional media mistakenly thought that blogging was too easy, and would lead to a profligacy of voices and perhaps even the downfall of polite society. But creating and maintaining an old-fashioned blog took time, effort, and an audience. Twitter democratized blogging by redefining it—the term “microblogging service” is today as meaningless as “microcomputer,” but that’s what Twitter was. It gave millions of people voices they might not have known they possessed—and now is in position to sell a place among those voices to advertisers.  Another of Twitter’s discoveries was that mobile phones could work as a broadcast platform. This was something of a miracle of timing: A massive proportion of its traffic today comes from mobile devices. The short length of the tweet was perfect for celebrities in limousines to communicate with thousands, and later millions, of followers. The tiny payload of tweets could be easily jammed into narrow mobile phone data streams, giving people a real-time flow of information.

   ● “Twitter started with a very simple form—a single box on the Web with a limit that kept people from inserting too many characters—and through tens of billions of repetitions became a network unto itself. It’s embedded within the Web’s culture, but it’s also so large that it’s separate from the rest of the Web. The technologies that go into building Twitter today are not the same technologies one uses to build a typical website. The tweet is the social network’s building block in the way that Web pages built the Web in the mid-1990s.  Twitter’s founders recognized that encouraging people to use a very small number of very tightly controlled forms, billions of times over, creates huge, deeply interconnected, highly creative, and potentially profitable new spaces.

● “It’s as if you could, with exactly the right kind of bricks, build a skyscraper that was infinitely tall. Twitter, like its half-sibling Facebook (FB), became so powerful that people now use it to log on to other websites; your Twitter identity is a major component of your Web identity. And today major news properties and blogs increasingly look like Twitter: infinite streams of data, tags, and voices.”