Evan Williams announced his departure from Twitter tonight and though I’ve only spoken to him for about ten seconds ever, he’s profoundly changed my life for the better. I thought now might be a good time to thank him, publicly, since I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’ve also got a thing or two I’d like to say about the situation.
For those unfamiliar with the details, Mr. Williams was a co-founder of both Blogger.com and Twitter. He is a founding father of both blogging and what some people call micro-blogging.
In case you don’t know me, I blog for a living. I get a lot of the story ideas that I blog about from Twitter. I get a lot of my readership from Twitter. That’s just the most direct and personal way that Evan Williams has effected my personal life and the lives of my family members. There are many more.
It wasn’t so long ago that the media available to any of us was very limited. That’s no longer the case. Williams has been vital to the creation of this post-scarcity media world and to a new world of choices, learning, support for previously silenced or marginalized voices and much more. It’s incredible.
I’m very fortunate to be able to make a living thanks to blogging and Twitter – I wrote 3 years ago that Twitter is paying my rent, only to revise that post later to say Twitter was helping pay my first mortgage. From story discovery to access to experts to community collaboration with things like copy editing, Twitter is great for journalism.
If you’ll forgive me for pointing it out, it’s said that there’s no media organization today that gets more value out of Twitter than Mashable and Mashable learned to use Twitter for journalism from me.
I thanked Williams for all that in the only conversation I’ve ever had with him. I was walking into a bathroom while he was walking out, at some tech conference. I stopped him in the doorway, introduced myself and told him I wanted to thank him – that Twitter had been paying my rent for some time. And that it had changed my life in other ways as well. He said something like “cool, nice to meet you” and that’s the last we’ve ever spoken. That’s fine.
Gmail says I’ve had 63 threads with Twitter’s 3 primary communications people. I’ve only had one with Williams. Two years ago I wrote a blog post titled How Twitter’s Staff Uses Twitter (And Why It Could Cause Problems). It was about how Twitter’s leadership didn’t use their own service very much – they didn’t tweet very often, they didn’t follow very many people and they didn’t follow the top developers in the ecosystem. I argued that an abscense of Twitter power users on Twitter’s own staff could lead the company to make decisions that made life less wonderful for power users and developers. Williams told me by email that my concerns were unfounded. Two years later I think those concerns have been validated, though thankfully less than they might have been. We freakish Twitter users have mostly been left alone. (I believe I’ve been right about that, but I’ve certainly been wrong about other things – like the #fixreplies controversy. I was wrong about that.)
At ReadWriteWeb, we write more blog posts before lunch than Williams has written in the last two years. Blogging is decentralized and no decisions Blogger.com could make today would slow us down elsewhere. Twitter, on the other hand, is not decentralized.
But I love Twitter. I love the clean URL structure and public nature of the data. I love the way it lets me find and curate lists of people around a common topic, like people who work in a particular field or at a particular company. I love the way I can subscribe to those lists in interfaces like Tweetdeck or Flipboard.
I’m following almost nine thousand people on Twitter, but it’s just serendipty that leads me to read messages from most of them. A select few hundred I get in a column in Tweetdeck that pops-up high-priority messages whenever that column gets a new Tweet. So I watch news-makers closely, I develop close relationships with tech analysts by replying to their column quickly and I see inside the minds of companies of interest by putting their staff lists in columns.
A few weeks ago I told a man who worked at a big company about watching Foursquare employees chatter in a column on Twitter. He said, “I wish my competitors talked so freely on Twitter, but I’m sure they don’t.” I sent an email to the virtual assistant program FancyHands and asked them to look up engineers at said company on LinkedIn, then search for their names on Twitter and send me those usernames. I got enough back that I was able see what lists they had been put on and find more. I then put together all those people on a list and sent it to my new friend – saying “your competitor’s engineers do chatter publicly on Twitter, here’s one link you can click to subscribe to them all in one stream.” Thanks, Twitter.
Several months ago I was attending the Techonomy conference, where wildly innovative people from around the world gathered to discuss using technology to solve big problems. I scraped their names off the conference web site, then paid Amazon’s Mechanical Turk $50 to find each person’s Twitter name, website URL, to determine their gender and whether they lived inside or outside the United States. With that information, I was able to assemble a Twitter List of International Women of Techonomy. It’s a great list to read in Flipboard.
I’ve used the tool Needlebase to discover patterns and benchmarks in social media activity by leading corporate practitioners around the world by scraping Twitter lists, and to scrape and map people who’ve been listed by other users as Journalists who have more than 2,000 followers and live in the South Eastern US. I used Needlebase to scrape the messages and locations of thousands of Tweets from Twitter staff members and find one needle in the haystack that indicated yes, the rumor that Twitter was opening a data center in Utah may have been correct, since an engineer Tweeted that he had begun work that day and geotagged the tweet from the area.
Those are just a few of the things I’ve been able to do thanks to Twitter’s clean URL structure and publicly accessible data. They say that Twitter offers a whole lot of value to those who mostly listen, not just for heavy tweeters. I hope my robots and I will always be welcome to listen in the ways we like to. There are more things we do inside ReadWriteWeb that I can’t discuss publicly and I’ve got some big ideas for things to do with Twitter in my head for the future.
I love Twitter. And I love blogging. I am amazed that Evan Williams has played such a vital role in the creation of both super-disruptive technologies. They are super-disruptive, too! Anyone can now publish at will! Instant global distribution – for free!
Publishing is now interlinked with trackbacks, comments, RSS feeds, @ replies, Twitter lists, profile URLs and so much more structure that lets us analyze it and discover new things! These are world-shaking technologies. Williams has paved the way, and for those of us who wanted to do crazy things with it – he and the company have mostly stayed out of the way.
Thanks for everything, Mr. Williams. Good luck with your next project. Millions of us are very excited to see what it will be. I hope it will be as hackable as the ones you’ve changed the world with so far have been.
Also, it would be cool if you’d follow me on Twitter.
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