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Tweet Science

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Illustration by Christoph Niemann  

“At a simplistic level, it sounds easy,” says Costolo, “because we could just go find, you know, the top trending topics and the tweet that was retweeted the most in the last two hours and show people that. But you want to be able to surface discovery at the global scale—‘Hey, there’s fomenting revolution in Tunisia’—but also surface discovery at the hyperlocal level: ‘I can tell by the fact that you’re on your iPhone, and you’ve exposed your lat-long [your location, as latitude and longitude] to me that you’re at the Giants game, and here are a bunch of other tweets and pictures people are tweeting from the game right now.’ ”

The danger of overstructuring the information, he says, is that the user stops experiencing Twitter the way people originally came to experience Twitter, as the place for free-form, serendipitous chatter.

“You lose the roar of the crowd,” says Costolo. “You look at the search results and ‘Oh, there was a goal,’ but you lose the athletes you follow and Mario Batali and Dennis Crowley from FourSquare. It’s a design and engineering challenge.

“This will be built into Twitter,” he promises, “as a way of reducing the ­distance between awareness and engagement.”

As it happens, that’s the exact distance between Twitter as a phenomenon you’ve heard of and Twitter as a huge moneymaking business.

But to surface the content, and keep the audience happy, you have to make sure that the content keeps flowing in, and this, too, is far from a sure thing. A study conducted by sociologists working for Yahoo found that if they looked at a random Twitter user's feed, roughly 50 percent of the tweets came from one of just 20,000 users.* “It’s really dominated by this media-celebrity-blogger elite,” says Duncan Watts, one of the researchers. “It’s a small number of users who are hyperconnected, and then there’s everybody else just paying attention to those people.”

“They have a TV-radio problem—how do you monetize TV? No one remembers who the first CEO of radio or TV was.”

To continue the broadcast metaphor, these people are the show users came to see. And Twitter is learning that it has to tend the talent as carefully as any entertainment company. In the planning rooms of Twitter, the most prolific and widely followed tweeters are called “influencers,” or “power users,” and they are at the core of its business. If it loses them, it becomes, essentially, MySpace—a digital graveyard where a party used to be. So while they race to retool the tweeting experience for the masses, Costolo and Dorsey are on a parallel campaign to keep Twitter’s star attractions, celebrities and politicians and the media, chattering away on Twitter. Last year, they opened offices in Hollywood and Washington, D.C., hiring liaisons to act as free Twitter consultants and keep influencers pumping out all-star tweets. In a conference room around the corner from Costolo’s office, Omid Ashtari, a former agent at Los Angeles talent firm Creative Artists Agency, tells me the pitch he gave actor James Franco before the Oscars last spring: “If you’re on Twitter and you have a spotlight shining on you in other media, your Twitter resonance and your Twitter growth explodes.”

The reason Twitter wants James ­Franco tweeting is to sell his audience to advertisers. And if it can figure out how to insert a Starbucks tweet into the Francosphere, and prompt people to buy coffee without stifling their intimacy with ­Franco, Twitter wins. This advertising model is still in the dream stage. But what a dream it is.

“A new kind of advertising that can go everywhere, frictionlessly, immediately,” says Costolo. “It’s not just a browser ad, it’s not just a desktop ad, it goes to smart phones, it goes to feature phones, it can go to SMS [text messages], it can go to TV.”

In theory, it’s an ad-sponsored tweet that would go everywhere you want to be, cozied up with your friend James Franco like Texaco was with Milton Berle 60 years ago.

But while they’re doing all this blue-sky dreaming, the noise outside their windows is getting very loud. And Twitter is still recovering from self-inflicted wounds: The founders and early funders fought a pitched battle for months over what the company should be and who should run it. As one venture capitalist in Silicon Valley observes, it looked like the founders “drove their clown car into a gold mine and fell in.”

Dorsey, a young engineer who came up with the idea of Twitter and helped build the prototype, was pushed out three years ago in a feud with co-­founder Williams, its first funder and chairman, just as Twitter was becoming popular. The board of directors made Williams the leader, but after two years, Williams stepped down, evidently overwhelmed by the job. The board then handed the reins to Costolo, who had been advising Williams, and, in a bizarre about-face, brought Dorsey back six months ago as the new front man and chief product manager. Williams and a third co-founder, Biz Stone, who are still board members, decamped to start a new venture.


*This article has been clarified to show that Yahoo's research findings were in reference to single Twitter accounts, not all users, and that they did not find that 50% of all tweets originated with those 20,000 users.


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