Twitter and the Power of Keeping Things Simple

Sunday was Twitter’s fourth anniversary, according to a tweet from co-founder Jack Dorsey (his first tweet ever is here). Just four short years, and already Twitter has become a significant part of our lives — to the point where people increasingly learn about news events first via the social network, and if a celebrity doesn’t have a Twitter account it seems unusual. The tweet clock recently clicked over the 10-billion-tweet mark, and about 50 million of them are posted every day. I don’t remember exactly when I first discovered Twitter (although according to this service, my first tweet was March 9 of 2007) but Om recalls that he first posted about it in July of 2006, after someone showed him a cool new mobile SMS service then called Twittr — a side project from the guys behind Odeo (a podcasting service that was later shut down sold).

Om said it was cool but also looked like it could be really annoying, and that it was really simple, and appeared to be going viral. All of those observations turned out to be fairly prescient: Twitter was cool but could also be annoying, was really simple and eventually went viral. But I would argue that of all those things, the most important by far is that Twitter was — and still is — incredibly simple. Simple to sign up and simple to use (I think being annoying also helped, but that’s an argument for another time). It’s true that there was some initial confusion around whether users should use text-messaging on their phones, and the whole “short code” thing was kind of a blind alley for some new users, but people figured it out pretty quickly, and most eventually used it through the website or through a Twitter app for their iPhone or Blackberry.

Simplicity is one of those things everyone says they really admire and respect and strive for, but very few really do — particularly when it comes to a new product or service. Gmail creator and FriendFeed founder Paul Buchheit hinted at this in his post about not letting “the good become the enemy of the great.” With a lot of new things, there is relentless pressure — in many cases from designers and engineers — to add features. After all, it has to have as many as those other services out there, or users will think that it isn’t as good. More features makes it better, right?

This is wrong, of course. In most cases, the best thing to do is to focus on what you think people might do with it, and then make it the best at doing that specific thing, and nothing else. Whether by design or by accident, or some combination of the two, Twitter did this brilliantly (Biz Stone talked about the process in this interview). In fact, the service was so simple that it was almost hard to explain to a non-user what the big deal was about this Twitter thing. “What do I do with it?” Type into the box. “But what should I say?” Whatever you want to say. “I don’t get it.” And so on.

Twitter is simple in much the same way that email or the telephone or the television is; so simple, and at the same time so broadly expandable in all directions that it almost defies explanation. And just as important, the company was also open to allowing its users to help determine what shape the service should take — and as a result, many of the things we associate with Twitter were developed or pioneered by users and third parties (the @ message, the re-tweet, and so on) and then integrated into the service itself.

Obviously, the fact that Twitter has become such a force in the lives of so many Web users is a sign that the service fills some fundamental need — a hole that existed between email and IM and blogging — and that explains a lot of the company’s incredible growth, and the influence it has even outside the geekosphere. But the company also kept things simple, and resisted what must have been pretty intense pressure to add features along the way (I know I’ve said many times when discovering new third-party services: “Why doesn’t Twitter do this itself?”). And I think that’s a key aspect of what allowed the company to make it to its fourth birthday.

Happy birthday, Twitter. Thanks for reminding us to keep it simple.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user arquera.