Twitter’s First-Mover Advantage and Disadvantage

August 2nd, 2008

Fred Wilson’s tumblog pointed me this morning to a post about why Twitter has been so successful and is so well loved despite all its problems and downtime.

Why Twitter Still Wins |

Chris makes the point that Twitter’s openness has saved it.  He says:

One way to win in software is to make your application fertile for building upon. Open your API. Give people tools to build an ecosystem around it. And it becomes a lot harder to pull away and go elsewhere.

Unfortunately, in Twitter’s case the last sentence should be followed by the phrase “no matter how badly the service behaves”.  Twitter has definitely become successful despite itself.

A commenter on Chris’s blog made an even better comment.  Michael Durwin points out that Twitter created something completely new. This struck a chord with me.  I attended a social web event put on by Niall Kennedy in late 2006 or early 2007 where Twitter presented.  The company was still focused on Odeo, the product it launched around.  Biz Stone talked about staffers inside the company thought it was funny when people posted clever notes in their IM status- “hung over” or “shouldn’t have eaten the whole burrito” instead of merely “busy” or “available”.

The point is that Twitter arrived on the scene when the idea of micro-messaging was embryonic at best. (On hearing Biz’s talk my own response was that Twitter sounded like the dumbest, most narcissistic thing imaginable, and I continued to feel that way for about 8 more months until I completely fell in love with the service)

The title of this post is about Twitter’s advantages and disadvantages as a first mover.  As Michael Durwin points out, Twitter created a new genre of communication.  its advantage is that it is the first and best known product in its category and has the most users.

On the other hand, Twitter’s problem is that its developers had no idea how micro-messaging would grow.  Its architecture was apparently not designed to accomodate many of the things people would like to see, like threaded messaging, photos, video and comments.  Newer entrants in the field such as Friendfeed can use all this knowledge to build more flexible platforms (taking note as well of why rivals such as Jaiku and Pownce have largely failed to captivate). 

So to sum it up, Twitter’s situation today is basically this:

Advantages: best known, well developed community/social graph, lots of great third-party extensions

Disadvantages: needs to rebuild platform now that we know what people want from micro-messaging platforms

I’m rooting for Twitter.  I sure hope they can rebuild fast enough, but people aren’t going to wait forever.

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  • mdurwin

    Thanks for the quote. I agree. It defined it's niche and others are only copying. They do need some stability with their back-end (to avoid the dreaded Fail Whale) and new features (as soon in piggy-back products like Twitteriffic), and they need to create a structure that can grow. Otherwise they will choke on their own success.