We Ask a Twitter Co-Founder, What's Up With Fail Whale?

Q&A: Former Quality-Control Engineer on How Twitter Can Make Money, and Why Biz and Ev Send Such Boring Tweets

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Twitter was the brainchild of Jack Dorsey, but it was birthed in 2006 by Mr. Dorsey and 13 others assigned to a team within a failing podcasting startup, Odeo. What if you were on that team, contributed materially to the development of the microblog service, only to get laid off, by Odeo? It happened to Dom Sagolla, (@Dom), who develops apps for iPhones today (including one for Barack Obama '08), but has oddly made a career as a Twitter outsider, including a book to be published by Wiley, "140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form."

Dom Sagolla
Dom Sagolla
Ironically, Mr. Sagolla's job was quality control when he worked on the Twitter project and he's watched as the "Fail Whale" has become as synonymous with the service as its massive growth. Twitter has certainly achieved Next Big Thing status, but will it live long enough to fully grow up?

Ad Age: The first tweet, sent by Jack Dorsey, said simply, "inviting co-workers." What was yours?

Mr. Sagolla: "Oh this is going to be addictive."

Ad Age: What was it like to be fired from Odeo and, by extension, from Twitter?

Mr. Sagolla: Because we had this service that connected us, what may have been a harsh departure really was softened by the social web we created. I still am friends with all the original 14. We were all there to begin with and that can't be taken away. In a sense this tool we created while it did divide us at the company, it kept us friends.

Ad Age: How did you react?

Mr. Sagolla: It was hard for me at first. I spent a summer surfing. My conclusion was it's a small town and a small community and it does me no good to hold a grudge. My reaction was that if I can't be a developer or engineer on the system I am going to be the best user. I have 50 accounts. They are really little brands that I manage, like @work, @surf, @dollarapp, @iphonedevcamp, @thebook.

Ad Age: Why do you think the three most famous co-founders, Jack Dorsey (@jack), Biz Stone (@biz) and Evan Williams (@ev) are so boring on Twitter?

Mr. Sagolla: I think the short format requires skills and discipline. Jack is the most adventurous. Once you get to about a million followers, the impulse to talk about every little thing is reduced. There is a shyness when you reach celebrity. Ev and Biz in particularly are reacting to that celebrity.

Ad Age: You charge a dollar for your iPhone apps; how do you think Twitter should make money?

Mr. Sagolla: You might start by charging people addicted to updates; give them 10 free per day and charge [a subscription] for more, and also provide statistics or aggregate information on their followers. I would consider charging people to become "verified." [Twitter currently offers a free-of-charge service for high-profile users.]

Ad Age: How do you think Twitter users would react to traditional advertising?

Mr. Sagolla: I would consider doing a trial for ads in the tweets just to see how people react. When you have an ad in your stream it needs to be tailored and sound like it's coming from you. They have a search engine, and that is a natural place to put advertisements on the side or interspersed in the results. The audience for search is much larger than the user base. Going forward, it's going to be increasingly valuable to provide data visualization or data mining. Research or financial institutions would pay for that.

Ad Age: Has Twitter missed any opportunities? If so, why?

Mr. Sagolla: They've taken a little while to grasp geo-location functionality in the service. I think they've been preempted by Foursquare and other geo-specific applications. I think they will eventually eclipse Foursquare, but I think they're behind the ball there. Early on, it was designed as a dispatch service, or a blogging service. The effort to get it to scale properly took time and took away time spent on features.

Ad Age: You were in charge of quality control at Twitter. Why is the Fail Whale such an intrinsic part of Twitter?

Mr. Sagolla: There are 500 tweets a second. If you think about it, for each message, decisions have to be made: who does it go to and is that person public or private? Multiply that by the number of users. The math gets pretty complex. It's a Google-like problem without Google's massive resources. I don't know if focusing on scalability or performance would have enabled the kind of growth we've seen.

Ad Age: When do you think Twitter's reliability will improve?

Mr. Sagolla: We didn't know how important 99.9% uptime was for tweets until Barack Obama started using or firehouses started using it. The priorities have changed and I think they're adjusting for that.

Ad Age: Who's awesome on Twitter we don't know about?

Mr. Sagolla: You can't hide your intellect in 140 characters. Look at people who are great writers. Kevin Nealon is great on Twitter.

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