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Tweet Science

The impact of all this hand-holding was not only to help the media but also to help the media help Twitter. To make Twitter seem inevitable, it got people with large organic followings, like newspeople and celebrities, to use it and draw in more users—what social-media investors call “viral looping.” Fred Wilson, an early Twitter investor and until recently a board member, has joked that his company, Union Square Ventures, could be renamed “Viral Ventures.” Companies like his often track progress using a number called the “viral coefficient,” a measurement of how well the brand is being amplified by its own users.

Sladden is in charge of schooling these crucial adoptees—TV talking heads, ­reality-TV producers, newspaper columnists—in the ways of Twitter, which is, in essence, about giving followers that “magical feeling” of being inside with the insiders. Sladden’s message is that to build an audience, you have to draw back the curtain on your life, or appear to. (Anthony Weiner may have taken this too much to heart.) In Sladden’s view, this is perfectly in step with broader developments in the culture. “We’re changing to this more quote-unquote authentic media experience,” she says, “and everything is caught on tape. And that was a big part of the mission here, making it a two-way experience.”

The key to this quote-unquote authenticity (this, after all, is the age of the oh-so-authentic Kardashians) is the use of the word I. The first rule of Twitter is that talking about yourself makes the tool work better. The upshot is a narcissism so democratized that users don’t have to feel guilty about it and, in fact, barely notice it.

Out in Hollywood, Omid Ashtari has telegraphed the same “authenticity” message. He spent several weeks this summer persuading Justin Timberlake to do a Twitter Q&A to promote a movie, which made the thematic hashtag #askjt the No. 1 Twitter topic in the world. “You’ve just got to be authentic; that’s how you grow your follower base,” Ashtari says. “Engagement and authenticity will lead to a stronger audience, and that’s pretty much what I preach.”

Working closely with new-media staffers in the congressional caucuses, Sharp held private events to teach senators and congresspeople why and how they should use Twitter, promising that they can “build a deep echo chamber to have a continuing dialogue with these people, who then go into their communities and they can say, ‘I was tweeting with Senator So-and-so last night.’ ”

Sharp figures three-quarters of Congress has signed on to Twitter. Says Sharp, “If they can make that connection—‘Oh, he’s a family man, he’s just like me,’ or ‘She’s a working mother, just like me’—the candidates realize that the ‘just like me’ is the most effective foundation for engaging to the political conversation.”

Journalists and bloggers, too, have learned that they attract more followers by “making the connection.” “It’s like voguing,” observes Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger and stunt rabble-rouser who frequently engages in Twitter flame wars with liberal adversaries. “Getting onstage and acting like a model. Everybody has their inner model and inner exhibitionist they want to get out there. I’m just one of the millions.”

Brian Stelter, the TV and media reporter for the New York Times, has adroitly mixed news reportage with details of his personal life, tweeting links to his stories along with documentation of his efforts to lose weight and updates on his onetime love affair with a CNBC reporter named Nicole Lapin. When the Times ran a story on its front page about TV cable boxes draining power from people’s homes, Stelter tweeted to his girlfriend, “I watch your show even though it drains my cable box AND my body clock. #goodboyfriend.”

He has embraced the Twitter credo: The more personal information you reveal, the better. “The tweets with the word I in them tend to be really well received, and the most retweeted,” he says. While this is all amusing, it also encourages a kind of elitism, an unintended consequence of a supposedly democratic medium. “It’s where the inside conversation is happening right now,” says Ben Smith, a reporter for Politico who tweets dozens of times a day. But, he says, he notices how it exaggerates the insular, lemminglike effect already prevalent in the media. “It requires you to play within the consensus,” he says. “If you’re not buying the premise of the conversation, you’re not really welcome in a way.”

Stelter, lauded among his peers as the future of tweeting journalism, says he can’t imagine life without Twitter. “I want to live in that stream,” he says. “So scary to hear myself say, ‘I can’t imagine life without it.’ It’s a private, for-profit company.”

Well, not for-profit yet. Which explains the undercurrent of dysfunction and anxiety at Twitter. Consider the conversation I overheard on the elevator between two engineers exiting to the third floor.

“Did you read the e-mails last week?

“Yeah. A lot of changes.”

They sighed, shrugged.

“It’s to be expected, I guess.”

The week before, four senior product managers, top engineers, had left the company. And within a month, three more would depart. A person with close ties to the company says the morale inside Twitter, especially on floor three, has been low. In the hothouse of Silicon Valley, engineers are the coin of the realm, and what they want, in addition to a financial stake, is to put their stamp on a winning company, even if it means working for one of the thousands of tiny startups developing applications for Facebook or Google. Twitter, while sorting out its strategy and management problems, has hired hundreds of new engineers, even as it’s taken its sweet time rolling out new features those engineers can lay claim to.

Everyone involved knows how tenuous Twitter’s footing may be. “We’re a fraction of the way into creating the value and growing the size of the service we know it can be,” says Williams. “It’s precarious, and it’s always precarious when you’re in that position.”

Based on speculative secondary markets for private shares sold by former employees, the company is currently valued at $8 billion. But with more than 650 employees to support, and income projections for this year well below $200 million, it’s not yet clear how it gets from here to there. In August, the company raised another $400 million and used it to buy out early investors, a sign that some money is already being taken off the table.

“They’ve got ahead of themselves in their private valuations in the secondary market,” says John Battelle, a technology journalist who heads high-tech marketing company Federated Media and is a friend and neighbor of Costolo’s in Marin County, north of San Francisco. Perception of Twitter in the Valley is that it’s fragile. One Twitter investor who has not yet cashed out told me, “There’s a lot of head-scratching. They look at Twitter’s numbers, and they say, ‘That’s all they can do with that?’ ”

“The criticisms of the company are very loud,” acknowledges Fred Wilson. “A lot of people don’t take the time to understand Twitter for what it really is.”

Unfortunately, what it still is is a gold mine without, as yet, any sure way of getting the gold. And if too much dreck pours in, in the way of self-promoting tweets and obtrusive advertising, the gold may be lost forever. For Twitter, it’s a hazardous paradox. As Ashton Kutcher recently said, “There’s a danger of it becoming spammy, and that’s what really hurt MySpace … If Twitter doesn’t apply the proper filters, it’ll be harder to find the information you want. With Facebook, I’m probably not going to get spammed from my aunt or my best friend.”

What’s great about Twitter, as opposed to its competitors Google+ and Facebook, is that it’s a free-for-all, with few rules, welcoming anyone and anything—it can be unpredictable and wild. But the danger is the Wild West becomes so many digital strip malls. And who’d want to spend time there?

Twitter, distracted by technology problems and infighting among its founders, was practically the last to understand that curation and filtering is part of its business. At first, it was happy to let users, and start-up developers, take care of it. One of the early attempts to focus Twitter was StockTwits, co-founded by an angel investor named Howard Lindzon. He used the symbol of two dollar signs, $$, as a code that users could add to their tweets, allowing Lindzon to sift for $$-related tweets and invent a separate conversation band for traders and businesspeople. “Curation and discovery is everything,” says Lindzon. “Otherwise it’s the dumbest product you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Consequently, Lindzon has managed to peel away a whole thread of valuable conversation from Twitter. And he wasn’t the only one: TweetDeck, a popular platform for monitoring Twitter, marshaled Twitter’s users into its interface and was on its way to selling ads—until Twitter realized this was its business and paid $40 million to acquire TweetDeck in May. People like Lindzon, whose company is built on Twitter, believe Twitter is an invention akin to TV, an amazing development, but not worth anything without defined channels like his. “They have a TV-radio problem,” says Lindzon. “How do you monetize TV? Nobody remembers who the first CEO of radio or TV was.”