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Summary:

Twitter, which just celebrated its fourth anniversary, has grown to become a significant part of our lives online, with over 10 billion tweets posted and more than 50 million a day being added to that number. How did it get to this point? By being 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.

  1. Perhaps the biggest reason it scaled so fast and has become a utility is becasue it is simple to use and that’s it. By Being being so simple Twitter has been able to attract all demographics. What a brilliant idea to liite the characters to 140 and that is where I think their success lies. Congratulation Twiter on your fourth anniversary

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  2. [...] 5. Happy birthday to Twitter – 10 billion tweets so far. [...]

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  3. Twitter is a contraction of the two words, ‘Twit’ and ‘Witter’ and that is just you get: Twits wittering.

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  4. While I am a fan of Twitter and agree with your analysis, I suspect that Twitter will have to significantly evolve or may suffer in the long-term from being too simple. When one compares the 10 billion total tweets milestone, with the 5 billion shared items/week on Facebook (generated by less than four times the user base), – and even when one considers that each photo is probably counted as one shared item – one must conclude that people find the Facebook sharing experience even simpler. It remains to be seen whether the gap filled by (sigh) Buzz (http://j.mp/bKrodE) or some other similar system proves to provide a more popular mix in the long term. It’s also interesting to note that there are still around 100 billion SMS sent per week.

    References: http://bit.ly/amaPSe, http://bit.ly/ceED9T

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    1. That’s a fair point, Rolf — simplicity helped get the company to where it is, but the game changes to some extent when you have the kind of scale that Twitter does now.

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  5. (I really meant Twitter may find that it’s too ‘basic’)

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  6. Ricky Ricardo Tuesday, March 23, 2010

    With all due respect Matthew. I disagree.

    Twitter is not Simple. Twitter is Simplistic. (too simple)

    That’s why newbees “dont get it” and dont use it.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Ricky — not sure something can be too simple. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one :-)

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  7. Four years and I still can’t find a reason to use it. I guess I’m too busy living in the real world.

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    1. Anthony, I have found one: Advertize my soon-to-be-released iPhone app!!! So more generally, products/services advertising in a very interactive way. Twitter is a very good marketing tool when you think about it. You get to communicate with your customers and fans in real time. You get to know their opinion on what you sell them. The same could somewhat be said with Facebook groups, but not at the same extent. Clearly, that’s probably the only reason (aside from staying in contacts with friends and relatives) I’m using these tools.

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  8. [...] Twitter succeeded in large part by filling a niche and “keeping it simple.”  (GigaOM) [...]

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  9. [...] Twitter and the Power of Keeping Things Simple – GigaOM [...]

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