First things first: we are expanding the Design Studio at Twitter! A few days ago, I opened 8 new positions, which can be viewed here. If you have fantastic design, production, or research chops and you love Twitter, we’d love to talk to you.
Secondly, below is a not-so-brief update on how things have gone in my first month here.
Working at Twitter is a lot like using Twitter. You have to get comfortable with how much information you miss every day.
— Mike Davidson (@mikeindustries) November 29, 2012
So far, San Francisco has outperformed my already high expectations. It’s an even more enjoyable city to live in than I imagined. The only thing that’s been a bummer is housing selection and pricing. For a 1300 square foot place, I am paying about 2.5-3x what the same place would go for in a nice neighborhood in Seattle; and Seattle isn’t exactly cheap either. I thought I would just have to overpay a little down here in order to get into a decent place, but the reality is that the city is littered with apartments as expensive as $6000 a month that you wouldn’t even want to live in. Thankfully, we got a place on a great block in Noe Valley so at least the neighborhood is perfect for us, but man is it pricey for what it is.
The food in San Francisco has been predictably terrific, and I will just come out and say it: the coffee is better than it is in Seattle. Between Ritual, Philz, Martha’s, and Blue Bottle, just about the only place in Seattle which can compete is Uptown Espresso. That has surprised me a bit. It’s also nice being this close to In-N-Out Burger, which helps (almost) make up for the lack of Skillet down here.
People keep telling me the weather is supposed to turn to shit any day now, but it’s the middle of December and it’s been sunny and mid 60s for most of my time here. I could really get used to this, although I’m sure the summers won’t be nearly as nice as they are in Seattle. I still plan to fly up every couple of weeks during the summer and throughout Husky football season.
It seems like Seattle underindexes just a bit on the “outgoing” scale, while San Francisco overindexes. My theory on this is that since so many people in Seattle are from the region, went to school there, and have such comfortable living situations, they are less likely to seek interactions with strangers. San Francisco, however, much like New York, is more of a melting pot. People come here from all over, don’t have high school and college friends to congregate with all the time, and live in tiny matchboxes, so they are more likely to go out and meet new people.
The effect isn’t dramatic, but I notice it almost daily. More people make eye contact, more people say hello, and more people go out at night. It’s a nice change of pace.
The Design Community
I never really felt like part of the Seattle design or tech community, despite having been a de-facto member of it since about 1997. Perhaps it’s for the reasons listed above. People in Seattle generally seem more content to just do great work as part of their jobs, and then spend nights and weekends doing other things entirely, with other people entirely. The parties I usually attend in Seattle have very little to do with my profession or my colleagues.
In San Francisco, it seems like there’s a much tighter social relationship with one’s contemporaries. Some people don’t like to talk about work outside of work, but I’m not one of those people, so I quite like this dynamic. A lot of what I’m noticing could be self-fulfilling, however, as I’m new here and I may be subconsciously seeking out more community interaction than I did at home.
Where do I start!?
This place is amazing in so many ways, and perplexing in plenty of others.
Let’s start with the really good stuff: I’ve never worked around this many supremely talented people in my life. If you have a great idea here, not only can you find people willing to build it, but you can often find people who have already built parts of it. I feel like I have to preface each sentence I say with “Someone’s probably already thought of this, but…”. It’s a really great feeling knowing there is enough intellectual horsepower and willpower in this organization to envision and create the previously impossible.
The Design team in particular is one of my favorite things about my job so far. We are a diverse group, all having arrived here by wildly different means, and often with wildly different skillsets and perspectives on design. Since the company is so young and the team has exploded from a small handful of people to almost 40 in such a short period of time, most of us have been here for only a few years at most. Having been at Newsvine/NBC for almost seven years and ESPN for 5 years before that, I’m still getting used to the concept of a two-year employee being a “veteran”. In any case, I love my team and we’re about to go through a really great stretch.
Twitter’s new building is pretty amazeballs too. The space is beautifully designed, the food — complete with round-the-clock unlimited bacon — is fantastic, and it’s very conveniently located as far as public transportation goes. The only bummer is there is this annoying air horn at the construction site across the street that goes off incessantly.
On the perplexing side, I am amazed at how much happens here every day that I am completely unaware of. Perhaps it’s just the combination of me being new and the company being so big, but I feel like I know about 1% of everything that goes on every day. It feels like getting dropped blindfolded into downtown Tokyo. I fear that at any moment, someone could ask me a very basic question about something going on in the company and I would have no idea what they were talking about. I’ve been spending much of my first month learning everything I possibly can about all corners of the company in order to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The other interesting thing is the reshaping that’s going on right now as a result of how quickly the company has grown over the last two years. Increasing your staff 20% every year for five years is a growth plan most companies can easily manage, but increasing it something like 700% in only a couple of years creates all sorts of entropy. In the face of this sort of hyper-expansion, it can take awhile for people and even entire departments to find their sea legs. With such a dramatic influx of talent, however, also comes the opportunity to extend the product and the business into new areas, and that seems like what’s happening right now.
The other thing, of course, is managing technical and design debt effectively. If you’re like me, there is no shortage of things you wish Twitter would change, eliminate, add, or improve, and all I can say is: your lists are probably very similar to ours. I know this because I talk to critics all the time, and I was one before joining. Still am, actually:
Worst Twitter feature ever: twitter.com/mikeindustries…
— Mike Davidson (@mikeindustries) November 30, 2012
The great news is that we’re on the same page, and we’re excited about moving Twitter forward as quickly as the universe allows.
If you want to be part of the team and you’re interested in working on a product that, on any given day, has the potential to save actual lives, we’d love to meet you. We don’t care where you went to school or how big your previous gigs were. All we care about is how talented you are and how fun you are to be around. If you fit those two qualifications, please join us in helping shape the future of Twitter.
Over five years and exactly 10,000 tweets ago, when I first tiptoed into the lonely textfield that was Twitter’s “What Are You Doing?” box, I typed the following:
Current thoughts: This could get extremely noisy.
— Mike Davidson (@mikeindustries) December 17, 2006
It was a reaction to many things, good and bad. The ease of publishing messages. The prevalence of insignificant breakfast trivia in the public feed. The lack of any filtering controls. The growing number of my friends becoming instantly addicted to it.
Since then, Twitter has gone from quirky little internet CB radio to exploding social upstart to what I now consider one of the most important information platforms in the world. At its best, Twitter is an international treasure.
As both a user and an information designer, I’ve grown to love Twitter more each year, and so it is with great excitement that I’m happy to announce I have agreed to move down to San Francisco and Join The Flock™ in the newly created position of Vice President, Design.
I couldn’t be more thrilled to help lead an already world-class team of designers working alongside all of the other great people in the company to make Twitter a positive force in as many people’s lives as possible.
I can’t speak too much about strategy yet, especially considering I don’t even start until the end of the month, but I will just say this:
I’ve always viewed Twitter as a personal information agent, and I think as we work to make it both smarter and more responsive to what people want from it, it has the potential to be the most useful connected service in the world.
I hope to be able to post more thoughts in the coming months, but it’s probably wise to wait until I’m at least on the payroll before saying something that might get me fired.
On a personal note, I will say that I’m heartbroken about leaving both NBC/Newsvine and Seattle. NBCNews (and MSNBC.com before it) has been an outstanding parent since they acquired my company five years ago, and Seattle is the only city in the United States I like more than San Francisco. This was literally the only position at the only company in the only city in the world that could have gotten me to leave.
And so with that, I look forward to improving your experience on Twitter starting October 29th. If you’re a news organization, a designer, a technologist, a sports fan, an early Twitter user, or just someone who wants to see Twitter be as good as it can be, you’ve got a friend on the inside.
The concept was simple: license the same content that anchored the majority of most major news sites — specifically the Associated Press newswire — and marry it with original contributions from citizens around the world, all in an editorless environment controlled entirely by the community. Mainstream journalism and citizen journalism would stand shoulder to shoulder on the same stage for the very first time.
It was only the second startup I had been a part of, but the first I had founded and the first I had run as CEO. Together with my four colleagues, Lance Anderson, Mark Budos, Calvin Tang, and Josh Yockey (in alphabetical order) we set off to change journalism and show how lean a news organization could be run if given the right automation, the right strategy, and the right amount of support and passion from the community.
After two quick and productive meetings with Mike Slade and Nick Hanauer of Second Avenue Partners, we closed our Series A, left our jobs, and jumped off the cliff together.
The first year — from August 2005 to August 2006 — was one of the best times of my life. We raced into private alpha within a few months, then into private beta, and opened the gates to the world on March 1st, 2006. Nowadays, timelines are even more compressed because of mature frameworks like Django and Rails, but back then, we built everything from scratch.
There are lots of stressful moments at startups, but the biggest underlying fear you have in the earliest stages is: will anyone use this? Watching the first people come through the turnstiles those initial few weeks was fascinating. People came to write about politics. People came to write about religion. People came to write about chips and salsa; all on a little site that was originally intended to be a people-powered version of ESPN.
Most of all, people were coming.
There are many wonderful things that have been created because of Newsvine, including 1,238,468 original articles, 4,651,414 seeds, 33,161,638 comments, at least one marriage (my own!), and at least one baby we know about (wasn’t me), but the earliest achievements are what I still remember with the most clarity and awe:
… when Corey Spring snagged an interview with Dave Chappelle.
… when Killfile first broke the news of the Virginia Tech shootings.
… when Old Fogey got his name on the ballot for Congress in Ohio and documented the entire experience, providing a civics lesson for conscientious citizens everywhere.
When you create something which directly inspires and enables so many others to create even better things, you feel like you’re doing your part to improve the world.
Year two was also quite fun, and together with our 6th employee Tom Laramee (now of Zulily tycoon fame), our marketing lead Jim McGee, our engineering intern Eric Glomstad, and our design intern extraordinaire Bobby Goodlatte (now of Facebook tycoon fame), we grew the site past the point where it could be sustained by such a small staff and such modest financing.
In May of 2007, as we set out to raise a Series B, a funny thing happened.
We suddenly started getting calls from large news organizations. First MSNBC.com across the water in Redmond reached out. Then several others did. Then one night, I had dinner with Charlie Tillinghast, MSNBC.com’s president.
The following day, Charlie notified us that he was interested in acquiring Newsvine. Then I traveled across the country and had more dinners. More acquisition offers followed.
The whole acquisition process is an entire post in itself, so I won’t get too deep into it here. It involved one of the worst days of my life and several of the best. Let’s just say that MSNBC.com was our first choice from the start, and when we signed their official Letter of Intent to acquire us on August 1st — two years to the day after beginning work on the site — the entire team couldn’t have been more excited. Joining a world class organization like MSNBC.com, which was then owned by two other world class organizations, Microsoft and NBC, would allow us to positively affect even more people on a daily basis as part of one of the most respected news companies in the world.
I was excited about joining my friend Rex, my then internet buddy Jim Ray (who would later become a great friend and officiate my wedding ceremony), and all of the other people I had met in Redmond while giving controversial speeches to the newsroom about audience participation.
When the transaction closed on October 5th, 2007, the team began a long, successful journey helping modernize an already modern news organization. While we continued to maintain and improve our own product (although admittedly not to the extent we may have wished for), we provided many important services to our parent: registration, single sign-on, trackable threaded discussions, interactive polls, a full content management system, and a large armful of other services. As of the date of this writing, the majority of stories viewed by the approximately 50 million people who visit NBCNews.com every month are served up either directly by the Newsvine platform or touch our software in other ways.
People often say that the majority of acquisitions don’t work out, but in this case, I can say with certainty that both the acquiree and the acquirer have been extremely happy with how things have worked out. We have been so happy with NBC that we’ve stuck around long past our contract dates, and NBC has been so happy with us that they’ve treated us excellently and made it enjoyable for us to stay.
It’s been seven years, however, since beginning work on Newsvine, and when the opportunity to join Twitter in the newly created VP of Design position came my way, I was forced to think about where I could make the most positive impact on the world.
Twitter is at a crucial moment its own life, as well as in the evolution of information and media. It is not perfect, but it represents a new approach to information production, aggregation, and discovery. It’s the best window into how we will consume information in a society dominated by the computers we keep in our pockets and on our bedside tables. It already reaches over 140 million people in the world, and it’s only scratched the surface of what it could be and what it should be.
There are more thoughts on joining Twitter in the companion post to this post, but I can’t close without mentioning three things which I am very sad to be leaving:
- Seattle. I’ve lived here all of my adult life, and until being offered this position, I never thought anything could have gotten me to leave this city. This is quite literally the only position at the only company in the only city that could have done it. I love everything about Seattle (except the Autumn, when all the days start getting shorter and all of the incorrigible Autumn lovers can’t shut up about how beautiful the soon-to-be-littering-my-yard leaves are) and I will be back to visit plenty of times each year. I’m keeping the house I’ve built, keeping my Husky football season tickets, and keeping Seattle at the top of my list of greatest cities in the world. It hurts like hell to leave all of our friends and family up here, but we rationalize it by remembering we’ll only be a 90 minute flight away at any given time.
- My co-workers at Newsvine and NBCNews. To all past and current members of the Newsvine team, thanks for being the greatest group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I will miss the Wall of Shame, the never-ending supply of prop bets, the walks to Skillet, the impossible hypotheticals, and everything else that makes our office atmosphere great. To my friends within the larger NBCNews organization worldwide, thanks for being such an excellent partner. I will certainly miss being able to say I am a part of the larger journalistic mission we serve every day, across the world, often in the line of fire.
- The Newsvine community. This is probably also an entire post in itself, but let me just say that the entire team at Newsvine could not be more thankful and more humbled that so many people choose Newsvine as their home online to discuss issues of importance. Newsvine has never been a place to have your opinions reinforced by your existing social graph. Nor has it been a place for drive-by one-liners. When we show off comment threads with 5000 word well-constructed arguments, some people think our users are crazy. We’ve always just considered them passionate. Newsvine at its worst is much like many other online discussion forums, but Newsvine at its best is one of the most amazing places in the world to expand your perspective. Its promise today is the same as it was when we launched it: Get Smarter Here. To all of those who have done just that, thank you so much for participating. I’ll be looking on fondly from afar to see how the site evolves once I’m gone. It’s in good hands.
I’ve been a huge fan of Hi-Ball caffeinated mineral water for a few years now. It’s a crisp, light, sweetener-free way to get a little bit of caffeine in your system on a hot day. In addition to the virtues of the product itself, I was initially drawn to this beverage because of its beautiful packaging. Below is what the the bottle looked like when it debuted a few years ago:
A compact, easily resealable 10 ounce bottle with a very reasonable 80mg of caffeine in it.
Then, a couple of years ago, the folks at Hi-Ball decided to change up the bottle design and go with a taller, skinnier variety:
I didn’t have a huge problem with this change, although I was unclear how it qualified as an improvement. If anything, it was worse than the original since it’s much harder to reseal a glass bottle with a metal cap than with a plastic cap. Still, at least it was in that nice, convenient, 10 ounce size with only 80 mg of caffeine.
Fast forward to 2012 though, and Hi-Ball has completely dumped its beautiful glass bottles in favor of gigantic 16 ounce cans. These things are monsters:
Furthermore, the cans have that gimmicky Coors Light feature where parts of it turn blue when it’s cold as the Rockies. You know how else I can tell a beverage is cold enough for me to drink? Because I keep it in my refrigerator.
Hi-Ball is pitching this change as better for its customers since the can holds more beverage, but that’s actually my least favorite part of the entire redesign. I don’t want 16 ounces of energy drink, and I definitely don’t want 160mg of caffeine. And you know what is really hard to reseal? An aluminum can.
People have suggested just drinking a portion of the beverage and then throwing away the rest — which is what I have been doing — but there’s just something unsatisfying about buying more than you want and then dumping the rest down the drain.
It seems clear to me that Hi-Ball is now trying to compete with the Red Bulls and Monster Energies of the world by offering their 16 ounce can, but even those companies offer smaller alternatives.
I find myself buying less and less Hi-Ball now that they’ve forced this super-size on everyone. I wonder if I’m alone or if others are abandoning ship as well.
Self-portraits from an artist under the influence of 48 different psychoactive drug combos.
David Pogue proposes to his girlfriend by creating a fake movie trailer about them and then getting a theater to play it before a real movie. Beautiful and totally awesome.
If you’re wondering what a excellent blueprint for a modern media company looks like, look no further than Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti’s latest email to his employees. In it, Peretti explains a lot of his company’s virtues, the most important being a relentless focus on always providing what’s best for the user. Vox Media (operators of The Verge) is the only other company I can think of which approaches this level of reform and execution.
I love this so much: a cross-referenceable database of cover songs, searchable by song or artist. Slowed down, acoustic covers — no matter the song — are so enjoyable to me that I wish it was a requirement to play one at every show. If you like them as much as I do, make sure to check out M. Ward’s Let’s Dance or Sun Kil Moon’s entire album of Modest Mouse covers.
If you’re like me, you’re both particular about who you follow on Twitter and perpetually in search of more entertainment in your feed. The problem with following everyone who belches out a random good tweet is that you then have ten more ho-dum tweets a day from them in your feed. The disincentive to follow people on Twitter has never been higher than it is now, despite the fact that the service hosts more great content than it ever has.
I have a few ideas for fixing this problem, but one of them came to me a few months ago as I was using Jason Kottke’s excellent Stellar.io service (pronounced “Ste-LAH-ree-oh” by everyone except Jason). Stellar.io is a fantastic web-based service that lets you follow interesting people and receive a feed of all the tweets, Flickr images, YouTube videos, and other content they have faved on other services. In Twitter terms, imagine a feed that doesn’t contain your friends’ tweets, but rather the tweets that your friends have faved. In other words, one degree of separation away from your current Twitter stream.
Stellar is a great way to assemble this sort of feed, but if you’re like me, you’d rather see its output merged into your existing Twitter stream. To put it differently, when I open up my Twitter client, I want to see tweets from the few people I follow (as I do currently) and tweets from people I don’t follow which have been marked as favorites from people I do follow. Have I lost you yet?
To create this experience, I wrote a PHP script I call Stellar Tweetbot which runs every 5 minutes via a cronjob that checks my Stellar account for new faved tweets, and then retweets any new tweets to my zombie Twitter account @mike_stellar. Then, I follow @mike_stellar from my normal Twitter account @mikeindustries and I magically have a more interesting Twitter stream.
To see what sorts of things now appear in my Twitter feed, without having to follow any new people, peep the image below (or just follow @mike_stellar):
The first tweet is Rob Delaney making sure a can of Pepsi gets home safe. I don’t follow Rob so I would have normally missed this tweet. However, since I follow some people who faved it, I now see it in my Twitter stream.
The second tweet is to a really interesting article tweeted by Rob Pegoraro. I don’t follow Rob, but I do follow the person who faved it: Tim Carmody (not to be confused with Tom Carmony, who I also follow, but let’s not even get into that).
The third tweet is by the funniest person on Twitter, Ken Jennings. Since I already follow him, I won’t see this as a dupe in my feed. Magic.
So that’s it. The Stellar Tweetbot. I’ve opened sourced it on GitHub, and it’s the ugliest designer-written PHP code you’ve likely ever seen, but it works, yo! If you’re one of those propeller heads who writes much better PHP, feel free to rewrite it, and merge it into the GitHub Branch Repository Chamber Fork Commitment Thingamajigger.
Otherwise, feel free to do what I do and just use it. It will make your Twitter feed more interesting.
Take your pick of about 20 great quotes from this Daring Fireball article. My personal favorite:
The iPhone is not and never was a phone. It is a pocket-sized computer that obviates the phone. The iPhone is to cell phones what the Mac was to typewriters.
Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror
The precision and innovation that is required for space exploration just blows my mind. I did not realize that Curiosity will have to basically land on Mars completely unaided by man, but it’s so much more complicated than that.
Everyone has their favorite album that never appears in any famous “Top 10 Albums of All Time” lists. That album, for me, is Blood Sugar Sex Magik, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. To me, Blood Sugar is the greatest rock album of the last 25 years or so, and it is by far the best album the Red Hots have ever released. Much like U2, their commercial success continued long after their seminal album, but they were never able to match the energy, originality, and overall “breakthroughness” of their early work.
I have a theory that everyone’s all-time favorite album is one they heard during their formative music listening years (usually between age 15 and 25) and Blood Sugar falls right in the middle of that zone for me. There’s just something about how your brain works when you are that age which you can never reproduce later in life. You enjoy music now, but you were shaped by it then.
I remember reading an article (in Rolling Stone, I believe) 10 years ago or so about how this fantastic album was produced. It turns out instead of recording it in a studio, the band camped out in Harry Houdini’s old mansion and laid down each track in low-fi fashion using tools like metal pipe and an empty oil drum. I was amazed to find out how sophisticated of a sound they were able to produce with such a higgledy piggledy setup. The only modern musician I can think of who succeeds at this breed of music production today is Jack White.
So tonight, when one of my favorite cellists, Nick Ogawa (a.k.a. Takenobu), tweeted that he was researching how his favorite bands of old recorded their music, I asked him if he had heard the story of Blood Sugar. He said he hadn’t. I pointed him to a 60 minute documentary on the making of the album which he then discovered existed on Google Video here:
It’s a great documentary to watch if you enjoy this album as much as I do. It’s even been listed in some Top 20 Music Documentaries of All Time lists. It’s a bit NSFW at times, but it’s a great look into how great albums are created: with volatile personalities, at volatile times, in volatile surroundings.