“One lesson that has to be remembered in my line of business is that when an operation is over it is OVER.The temptation to stay just one more day or to cash just one more cheque can be almost overwhelming, ah, how well I know. I also know that it is also the best way to get better acquainted with the police. Turn your back and walk away – And live to graft another day.” The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison
Well, I wasn’t going to talk about Musk, but I’m a bit jealous. First he subpoenaed Stanford University about twitter’s 1995 origins — a university he claims he spent all of two days at in the materials science engineering PhD program at that time. Then he up and forgot he was going for an interesting Silicon Valley history lesson and decided to buy the company anyway. Sigh.
Perhaps he gave up because he skipped out on paying Stanford their exorbitant tuition and fees by not enrolling, and he’s worried they still have the bill. Actually, this is very possible — my own father attended Stanford and left with a $100 owed them. A generation later, when his son got admitted, Stanford still remembered. Academic debt is eternal. But the boring story is Musk got a better deal and frankly, I don’t remember twitter as an “item” at all. Go figure.
This was a heady five years for me and William: after writing the two year 386BSD series “Porting Unix to the 386″ in Dr. Dobbs Journal and the source code of 386BSD 0.0, 0.1, and 1.0/2.0 , and the DDJ 386BSD Release 1.0 CDROM with all the writings and annotations in 1994, by 1995 we were putting the finishing touches on the first volume of Source Code Secrets while inventing role-based security, polymorphic protocols and new approaches in high speed networking (these articles actually led to a rethink in high speed networking that birthed InterProphet in 1997), and tinkering with CDROM filesystems on a lark. So forgive me for missing the import of this crucial event.
Musk has an axe to grind. Actually, he has several axes to grind. Anyone who knows the history of SpaceX has seen his axe. I assume he was going to bury it right in Stanford’s backside by grabbing any info they have about Twitter and its hapless former CEO Parag Agrawal, but I suppose he’s now quite happy being Chief Twit (not my first choice for a moniker — I think Big Tweeter would be better) and chopping up anything that moves. My guess is he’s now looking for some confirmation of those darn bots popping up everywhere, like heffalumps and woozles. Are they real? Or just a fever dream? Who knows?
But 1995 does stand out in retrospect. It can be considered officially the year anti-innovation became the watchword in investment even as amazing technologies like open source came to the fore. The opportunities for grift on the Internet (don’t forget that “no one knows you’re a whatever” meme) was so compelling and sexy that *any* attempt to disrupt this was taken as a threat.
Limit the words. Limit the thought. The nastier, the better. No discourse. No remorse. Virality uber alles. (Haven’t we learned by now that virality leads to pandemics?)
Like crack, the unfiltered quips of just about anybody and their bot was addictive — especially to journalists. Gotta admit, it’s a lot harder to track down and interview people in depth, or attend press conferences, or sort through press releases, or travel to obscure places, or actually cross-check your sources first — especially if you’re not getting paid well for it. Twitter made all that stuff superfluous. What mattered was being the first. “Covfefe”, yeah baby! Deep stuff. Quit twitter? Forget it. They’re permanently addicted, and Musk knows it.
While twitter has an outsized influence on journalists who write about twitter, who else uses twitter, really? Politicians? Extremists? The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City? The most lucrative demographic from a marketing ad sales standpoint is young people, not these people. But most of the kids have migrated to other more trendy sites, like tiktok or instagram. Twitter usage declined 10% among teens over the last seven years according to Pew Research. Heck, even Facebook is doing better than them, and from my perspective it’s been getting grayer along with my cohort.
The problem with a cynical viral play is that things like “making money” or “building a product” are unimportant. We’ve seen that time and again, but twitter was the worst of the worst for lacking even a modicum of humor and humility. Even when they had a chance to build something sustainable for a younger target audience, their tendency to kill anything that smacked of building a real business was stomped on. Virality and viciousness don’t require innovative talent and product.
One example of their anti-innovation attitude was their acquisition of Vine, a trivial and frankly unthreatening six second video loop site. It was clear by the early 2000s that video was an interesting opportunity. Heck, I was pitching ExecProducer’s Massive Video Production strategy and online automated video production mid-2000s on Sand Hill Road. ExecProducer and CoolClip had much more sophisticated video server production than Vine, with a very different focus. So Vine should have been a no brainer to move twitter into a younger demographic, right? Uh, nope. After four miserable years, it was shut down. In the end, twitter acquired a potential rival — and killed it.
I wish the anti-innovation euphoria popular in the Silicon Valley investment scene would become tiresome. But it’s just too easy to make and lose money. Currently, venture capital investment is sitting on $500B of dry powder according to Pitchbook. Think of those numbers, folks. $500 BILLION DOLLARS, just sitting in accounts, waiting for the next six months flip unicorn. It boggles the mind.
Real innovation is risky. It takes time. We can’t flip a startup in six months doing real code, real hardware, real systems. It takes time to convince customers to try our stuff. It takes time to shake out the bugs. But it’s also a heck of a lot of fun and necessary.
Because sometimes the grift really does end. And you don’t want to be there when it does.