By Chris | June 14, 2009
The Freakonomics blog periodically solicits questions from it’s readers to ask prominent and interesting people. Most recently, Biz Stone, the cofounder of Twitter and entrepreneur responsible for Blogger and Xanga was featured . I submitted a question that was included in the interview. Below is my question and his response:
How do you consistently get the ball rolling when starting a new social media site? How did you convince people to join Twitter when there were only a few hundred or thousand users? — Chris Y.
Answer: We never convinced people to use Twitter — we simply provided a tool they didn’t know they needed until they tried it. When Twitter began to emerge as a useful system, more and more people joined, which in turn made it more valuable.
While I appreciate his response, he doesn’t really address the heart of my question. My full question was edited for length by Freakonomics. In it’s original form I asked:
I was in awe when I learned that you also played a large part in creating Blogger and Xanga (similiar to facebook) in addition to Twitter. All of these services are valuable because of network externalities, every additional user makes the service more valuable to everyone else. The flip side is that in the early stages, when these sites don’t have many users, their value is much smaller. How do you consistently get the ball rolling when starting a new social media site? How did you convince people to join Twitter when there were only a few hundred or thousand users?
Okay, so “in awe,” might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but I was thoroughly impressed. I think that sucess with network sites such as Twitter and Xanga has to do with the first-mover advantage and getting influential people to use the site. Twitter has become immensly popular since celebreties like Ashton Kutcher and Oprah have promoted it. I doubt that Facebook would have been successful if the network didn’t start with a group of Harvard students. Lets face it, knowing someone from Harvard is kind of cool. Everyone likes to have smart and sucessful friends. Facebook spread to college campuses so quickly because college students wanted to join the service and “friend” their Ivy League acquaintences. This allowed Facebook to beat out other social networking competitors. It’s long-term success wasn’t initially apparent. I remember when Facebook was so small that it didn’t even own the “facebook.com” domain (it was “thefacebook.com”). Anyway, marketing in the early stages matters for these network sites.
As long as we’re talking about Twitter, and who isn’t nowadays, will they ever be profitable? I think they will be profitable, but I don’t see them growing as large as a Google, or even a Facebook.com. I think there is a place for microblogging. I would have a lot more posts, if I could share my thoughts in 140 character spurts. My guess is that Twitter will team up with Google and use contextual ads along search to monetarize its site. We’ll have to wait and see.