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kottke.org posts about Evan Williams

Medium’s pivot and the inherent instability of new businesses

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2017

From this piece by Evan Williams, it sounds like Medium is still trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.

So, we are shifting our resources and attention to defining a new model for writers and creators to be rewarded, based on the value they’re creating for people. And toward building a transformational product for curious humans who want to get smarter about the world every day.

It is too soon to say exactly what this will look like. This strategy is more focused but also less proven. It will require time to get it right, as well as some different skills. Which is why we are taking these steps today and saying goodbye to many talented people.

I like Medium and read thoughtful & engaging stuff on there daily, including articles by the many publications that moved their entire publishing operations to Medium and who were caught off-guard by Williams’ announcement:

As part of the strategic pivot, Medium will lay off 50 staffers and close its satellite offices in New York and Washington. It will also stop selling “Promoted Stories,” its native ad unit, and distributing revenue from those sales to publishers.

Medium’s exit from the online ad business was news to some of its publishing partners, many of whom have come to depend on the publishing platform as a key source of revenue. More than two dozen publications are members of Medium’s revenue beta program, which allows them to sell paid subscriptions to readers and to receive a cut of Medium’s native advertising revenue.

Five members of the revenue beta program told POLITICO that they did not receive any advance notice of Medium’s change in strategy before Williams’ public announcement. One publishing partner only learned about the pivot after reading an article about it on the tech news site Recode.

Over the past year, when I was thinking about how best to steward kottke.org into a financially stable future, moving to Medium was definitely an option. But never, in my mind, a very serious option. It was just too many eggs in one basket for a small publisher like me, especially when Medium is still obviously trying to figure out if they’re even in the egg-carrying business. New businesses are unstable…that’s just the way it is.1 In Silicon Valley (and in other startup-rich areas), these unstable businesses have lots of someone else’s money to throw around — which makes them appear more stable in the short term — but they cannot escape the reality of the extreme risk involved in building a new business, particularly a business that needs to grow quickly (as almost all VC-backed startups are required to do). All of which can make it difficult to enter into a business arrangement with a startup…just ask publishers working with Facebook or businesses dependent on Twitter’s API or Vine or Tumblr, not to mention the thousands of startups that have ceased to exist over the years.

With kottke.org, even though it hasn’t been easy, I’ve opted for independence and control over a potential rocketship ride. Instead of moving the site to Medium or Tumblr or focusing my activities on one social network or another, I use third-party services like The Deck, Amazon Associates, Stripe, and Memberful that plug in to the site. Small pieces loosely joined, not a monolithic solution. If necessary, I can switch any of them out for a comparable service and am therefore not as subject to any potential change in business goals by these companies. Given the news out of Medium, I’m increasingly happy that I’ve decided to do it this way (with your very kind assistance).

  1. I will add that new services by large companies are unstable as well. They need to reach scale just as quickly as VC-backed startups or they don’t stick around that long or pivot to something else.

We Work Remotely

The real Twitter story?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 14, 2011

Business Insider has a pair of articles about what they say is the real story about the founding of Twitter. The first is a general outline of the unofficial history of the company versus what you generally hear from the company and its founders.

Glass insists that he is not Twitter’s sole founder or anything like it. But he feels betrayed that his role has basically been expunged from Twitter history. He says Florian Webber doesn’t get enough credit, either.

“Some people have gotten credit, some people haven’t. The reality is it was a group effort. I didn’t create Twitter on my own. It came out of conversations.”

“I do know that without me, Twitter wouldn’t exist. In a huge way.”

The second is an interview with Noah Glass, who many people who were there at the beginning of the service consider one of the true cofounders of Twitter.

Jack [Dorsey] was someone who was one of the stars of the company and I got the impression he was unhappy with what he was working on. He was doing a lot of cleanup work on Odeo. He and I had become pretty close friends and were spending time together.

He started talking to me about this idea of status and how he was really interested in status. He developed this bicycle messenger status system in the past. I was trying to figure out what it was he found compelling about it. At the same time, we were looking at ‘groups’ models and how groups were formed and put a couple things together to look at this idea of status and to look at this idea of grouping and it sort of hit me - the idea for this product. This thing that would be called Twitter, what it would look like. This ad hoc grouping mechanism with non-realtime status updates all based on mobile phones.

There was a moment when I was sitting with Jack and I said, “Oh, I do see how this could really come together to make something really compelling.” We were sitting on Mission St. in the car in the rain. We were going out and I was dropping him off and having this conversation. There was a moment where it all fit together for me.

We went back to Odeo and put together a team. A very separate working team, mostly it was myself, Jack, and Florian [Webber], a contractor. [Florian] was working from Germany at the time.

See also Trouble @Twitter. (via @anildash)

Growth of Twitter vs. Blogger

posted by Jason Kottke   May 08, 2007

Important update: I’ve re-evaluated the Twitter data and came up with what I think is a much more accurate representation of what’s going on.

Further update: The Twitter data is bad, bad, bad, rendering Andy’s post and most of this here post useless. Both jumps in Twitter activity in Nov 2006 and March 2007 are artificial in nature. See here for an update.

Update: A commenter noted that sometime in mid-March, Twitter stopped using sequential IDs. So that big upswing that the below graphs currently show is partially artificial. I’m attempting to correct now. This is the danger of doing this type of analysis with “data” instead of data.

In mid-March, Andy Baio noted that Twitter uses publicly available sequential message IDs and employed Twitter co-founder Evan Williams’ messages to graph the growth of the service over the first year of its existence. Williams co-founded Blogger back in 1999, a service that, as it happens, also exposed its sequential post IDs to the public. Itching to compare the growth of the two services from their inception, I emailed Matt Webb about a script he’d written a few years ago that tracked the daily growth of Blogger. His stats didn’t go back far enough so I borrowed Andy’s idea and used Williams’ own blog to get his Blogger post IDs and corresponding dates. Here are the resulting graphs of that data.1

The first one covers the first 253 days of each service. The second graph shows the Twitter data through May 7, 2007 and the Blogger data through March 7, 2002. [Some notes about the data are contained in this footnote.]

Blogger vs. Twitter cumulative messages (first 253 days)

Blogger vs. Twitter cumulative messages

As you can see, the two services grew at a similar pace until around 240 days in, with Blogger posts increasing faster than Twitter messages. Then around November 21, 2006, Twitter took off and never looked back. At last count, Twitter has amassed five times the number of messages than Blogger did in just under half the time period. But Blogger was not the slouch that the graph makes it out to be. Plotting the service by itself reveals a healthy growth curve:

Blogger cumulative posts

From late 2001 to early 2002, Blogger doubled the number of messages in its database from 5M to 10M in under 200 days. Of course, it took Twitter just over 40 days to do the same and under 20 days to double again to 20M. The curious thing about Blogger’s message growth is that large events like 9/11, SXSW 2000 & 2001, new versions of Blogger, and the launch of blog*spot didn’t affect the growth at all. I expected to see a huge message spike on 9/11/01 but there was barely a blip.

The second graph also shows that Twitter’s post-SXSW 2007 growth is real and not just a temporary bump…a bunch of people came to check it out, stayed on, and everyone messaged like crazy. However, it does look like growth is slowing just a bit if you look at the data on a logarithmic scale:

Blogger vs. Twitter cumulative messages, log scale

Actually, as the graph shows, the biggest rate of growth for Twitter didn’t occur following SXSW 2007 but after November 21.

As for why Twitter took off so much faster than Blogger, I came up with five possible reasons (there are likely more):

1. Twitter is easier to use than Blogger was. All you need is a web browser or mobile phone. Before blog*spot came along in August 2000, you needed web space with FTP access to set up a Blogger blog, not something that everyone had.

2. Twitter has more ways to create a new message than Blogger did at that point. With Blogger, you needed to use the form on the web site to create a post. To post to Twitter, you can use the web, your phone, an IM client, Twitterrific, etc. It’s also far easier to send data to Twitter programatically…the NY Times account alone sends a couple dozen new messages into the Twitter database every day without anyone having to sit there and type them in.

3. Blogger was more strapped for cash and resources than Twitter is. The company that built Blogger ran out of money in early 2001 and nearly out of employees shortly after that. Hard to say how Blogger might have grown if the dot com crash and other factors hadn’t led to the severe limitation of its resources for several key months.

4. Twitter has a much larger pool of available users than Blogger did. Blogger launched in August 1999 and Twitter almost 7 years later in March 2006. In the intervening time, hundreds of millions of people, the media, and technology & media companies have become familiar and comfortable with services like YouTube, Friendster, MySpace, Typepad, Blogger, Facebook, and GMail. Hundreds of millions more now have internet access and mobile phones. The potential user base for the two probably differed by an order of magnitude or two, if not more.

5. But the biggest factor is that the social aspect of Twitter is built in and that’s where the super-fast growth comes from. With Blogger, reading, writing, and creating social ties were decoupled from each other but they’re all integrated into Twitter. Essentially, the top graph shows the difference between a site with social networking and one largely without. Those steep parts of the Twitter trend on Nov 21 and mid-March? That’s crazy insane viral growth2, very contagious, users attracting more users, messages resulting in more messages, multiplying rapidly. With the way Blogger worked, it just didn’t have the capability for that kind of growth.

A few miscellaneous thoughts:

It’s important to keep in mind that these graphs depict the growth in messages, not users or web traffic. It would be great to have user growth data, but that’s not publicly available in either case (I don’t think). It’s tempting to look at the growth and think of it in terms of new users because the two are obviously related. More users = more messages. But that’s not a static relationship…perhaps Twitter’s userbase is not increasing all that much and the message growth is due to the existing users increasing their messaging output. So, grain of salt and all that.

What impact does Twitter’s API have on its message growth? As I said above, the NY Times is pumping dozens of messages into Twitter daily and hundreds of other sites do the same. This is where it would be nice to have data for the number of active users and/or readers. The usual caveats apply, but if you look at the Alexa trends for Twitter, pageviews and traffic seem to leveling out. Compete, which only offers data as recently as March 2007, still shows traffic growing quickly for Twitter.

Just for comparison, here’s a graph showing the adoption of various technologies ranging from the automobile to the internet. Here’s another graph showing the adoption of four internet-based applications: Skype, Hotmail, ICQ, and Kazaa (source: a Tim Draper presentation from April 2006).

[Thanks to Andy, Matt, Anil, Meg, and Jonah for their data and thoughts.]

[1] Some notes and caveats about the data. The Blogger post IDs were taken from archived versions of Evhead and Anil Dash’s site stored at the Internet Archive and from a short-lived early collaborative blog called Mezzazine. For posts prior to the introduction of the permalink in March 2000, most pages output by Blogger didn’t publish the post IDs. Luckily, both Ev and Anil republished their old archives with permalinks at a later time, which allowed me to record the IDs.

The earliest Blogger post ID I could find was 9871 on November 23, 1999. Posts from before that date had higher post IDs because they were re-imported into the database at a later time so an accurate trend from before 11/23/99 is impossible. According to an archived version of the Blogger site, Blogger was released to the public on August 23, 1999, so for the purposes of the graph, I assumed that post #1 happened on that day. (As you can see, Anil was one of the first 2-3 users of Blogger who didn’t work at Pyra. That’s some old school flavor right there.)

Regarding the re-importing of the early posts, that happened right around mid-December 1999…the post ID numbers jumped from ~13,000 to ~25,000 in one day. In addition to the early posts, I imagine some other posts were imported from various Pyra weblogs that weren’t published with Blogger at the time. I adjusted the numbers subsequent to this discontinuity and the resulting numbers are not precise but are within 100-200 of the actual values, an error of less than 1% at that point and becoming significantly smaller as the number of posts grows large. The last usable Blogger post ID is from March 7, 2002. After that, the database numbering scheme changed and I was unable to correct for it. A few months later, Blogger switched to a post numbering system that wasn’t strictly sequential.

The data for Twitter from March 21, 2006 to March 15, 2007 is from Andy Baio. Twitter data subsequent to 3/15/07 was collected by me.

[2] “Crazy insane viral growth” is a very technical epidemiological term. I don’t expect you to understand its precise meaning.

It’s sad that the Silicon Valley tech

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 26, 2006

It’s sad that the Silicon Valley tech scene and press is so fixated on building companies to flip that people need to write about sustainable companies as “a new and better model for Internet startups”. Good luck, Ev and company, in finding success on your own terms.

Early photo of Pyra Labs, circa 1999

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 12, 2006

Early photo of Pyra Labs, circa 1999. Ev was on the startups panel this morning at SXSW, which was excellent.

Casual content creation

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2005

Over on the Odeo blog, Ev talks about a potentially different type of podcasting, casual content creation:

But, personally, I’m much more of a casual content creator, especially in this realm. The other night, I sent a two-minute podcast to my girlfriend, who was out of town, and got a seven-second “podcast” back that I now keep on my iPod just because it makes me smile. I sent an “audio memo” to my team a while back for something that was much easier to say than type, and I think they actually listened.

A blogging analogue would be Instapundit or Boing Boing (published, broadcast) versus a private LiveJournal[1] (shared, narrowcast). It’s like making a phone call without the expectation of synchronous communication…it’s all voicemail. I thought about doing this the other day when I needed to respond to an email with a lengthy reply. In that particular instance, I ended up sending an email instead because it was the type of thing that might have been forwarded to someone else for comment and returned, etc. But I can see myself using audio like this in the future.

[1] Integrated podcasting tools within LiveJournal would be huge, methinks.

You can now post from Microsoft Word

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 18, 2005

You can now post from Microsoft Word to your Blogger blog. More interesting to me is how former Pyra folks remember this old idea. Matt says it was “something we talked about building back when the blogger api was brand new” and that Anil Dash, then a Blogger enthusiast, knocked up a working prototype (which I also remember). Ev says it’s “a product that I first thought about five years ago”. Both accounts are no doubt accurate, but how they’re remembered is interesting.