The Taming of the Tweet: Q&A With Twitter Cocreator Dom Sagolla
Dom Sagolla doesn't have to dig deep into his own Twitter profile to look back on his very first tweet. It just happened to be one of Twitter's very first tweets -- tweet #38, to be exact, appearing March 21, 2006.
"Oh this is going to be addictive," it read.
"It was so easy and simple that I felt that this was going to consume us if we're not careful," Sagolla told TechNewsWorld as he reminisced about the short messaging service's first days while attending the recent 140 Twitter Conference in Seattle.
As a former head of quality control at the podcasting company Odeo, Sagolla, a developer, was present at Twitter's birth and helped breathe life into it, along with fellow Odeo developers/entrepreneurs Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone. And he has indeed seen Twitter consume an awful lot of technology and mainstream press oxygen since its coming-out party at the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive conference. For those media types, it's certainly been addictive to write about Twitter's impact on journalism, media relations, entertainment and business.
Sagolla has watched all this and sees larger potential for Twitter's impact on the dissemination of information. It's one of the reasons he wrote 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form, which was published in paperback by Wiley Press last October.
"My response was the book," Sagolla said. "I wanted to see how we could tame it and see what it could be used for. The short form is perhaps the oldest form of communication. Back in the day, we only had the ability to express ourselves quickly. You can look at the origins of language -- the sentence. Now (with Twitter) we have this constraint which requires efficiency and succinctness. It taps into a very basic human communications channel, which is short-burst, both for production and consumption of information. So we're geared to consume these things quickly and evaluate them quickly."
Tweeting the News
Yet that development goes against several aspects of modern quality journalism. Yes, information must be passed along quickly, but it must also be evaluated, vetted and contextualized to present the full picture of an event or pattern of events. How, then, to explain Twitter's impact on newsgathering Sagolla argues that it began with the "Miracle on the Hudson" plane landing and continues with recent disasters in Haiti and Chile.
"When Jack first described it to me, it said it was essentially a dispatch from friends and family. But that can mean almost everything. To me, dispatch means emergency or immediacy. Interesting stuff happens to all of us all the time, we just can't report on it. But Twitter really does allow any one of us to become a journalist."
While "140 Characters" offers advice to anyone wanting to master the specific, cruel brevity of Twitter's 140-character message limit, Sagolla's book offers special advice for journalists. A few examples: "Get your own mobile device with a great set of apps," Sagolla said. "The power is in mobility -- wherever you are. Also, make sure your company has a social media policy. If not, author one and submit it. And think twice about what you tweet -- once for your source, and once for your editor. What we see on Twitter now is people operating without an editor, which can be dangerous. An editor can think for the audience and keep you out of trouble. It's not simply about being a rogue reporter, it's about having a reputation behind you."
The Tweet Smell of Success
When it comes to businesses searching for a social media strategy -- and finding Twitter's place within that -- Sagolla adds his voice to the chorus of those saying that your customers are talking about you anyway in the Twitterspere, so you might as well chime in. "It's important to be there in the conversation, not to dominate but to be there listening, to talk to people. Even if you're not providing information, at least you're providing presence. The fact that you're listening means a lot to people."
Sagolla cites Comcast as a company that was a pioneer in using Twitter to engage its customers and help quench service-issue fires. Local, state and federal government officials -- leading up to the White House -- are also exploring the short-message phenomenon to help get out their messages.
Every major growth spurt in Twitter has been because of some event or feature-set expansion, Sagolla said. Breaking news draws more media-types to the fold; user requests begat hashtags, retweets and @ replies. Now Twitter as a company is branching out into local trending topics and location services. But what helped launch Twitter on its path to social media success -- letting people know what you are doing, wherever you are -- will be the dominant force impacting the service for the next few years.
"It becomes a service that is entirely about mobile. That's the future," he said. "It will be things like Twitter, if not Twitter itself, reaching places that have no Internet to begin with -- places we can reach with cellphones. Now we'll look in places that have a need for people to express themselves, like disaster areas such as Haiti, and we see how it's affecting their lives."
The search for mobility is certainly affecting Sagolla's life. He is now the CEO of DollarApp, which makes iPhone and iPad software, and he created the iPhone Developer Camp, a worldwide, Web-enabled contest to see who can create the best Apple phone application over a three-day period. The next iPhoneDevCamp is set for April 16 through 18.