Early Twitter Team Member Dishes On Service's Origins

Dom Sagolla talks about Twitter's origin, as well as Twitter creator Jack Dorsey's payment service, Square.

July 2, 2012

8 Min Read
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Dom Sagolla thinks he's the John Muir of electronic frontiers. He participated in the birth of blogging while he was in college and the birth of social media while he worked at Odeo.

But he was kicked out before Twitter officially became Twitter. Sagolla was head of quality at Odeo, the place where Twitter was conceptualized. While Sagolla was let go before Twitter officially launched, he later wrote a style guide on how to use the microblogging service called 140 Characters. Sagolla kept in touch with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and became an early user of Dorsey's second company, mobile payment firm Square, which he uses to sell 140 Characters.

Sagolla tells us what it was like being an early user of Twitter and Square.


Dom Sagolla

The Brainyard: How did it feel to be part of the initial team that came up with Twitter?

DS: I'm a writer. Helping to build Twitter felt just like writing. It felt like something I've always done: surround myself with people who are faster, more talented, and trustworthy.

The Brainyard: But you never got to stay, right?

DS: I was kicked out of Odeo before Twitter shipped to the public. Along with the lead engineer, the director of engineering, and our bizdev guy, I was head of quality and we were let go on the same day. Later they even kicked out Noah Glass, the guy who named it "Twitter."

The Brainyard: How has Twitter evolved?

DS: No one from the original team now remains, except Jack. You can read the introduction to my book for free online: 140 Characters. It contains this story and the early history of Twitter as a service and a company.

The Brainyard: What was it like thinking about Twitter in its early days?

DS: Cocreating Twitter is an American story of epic proportions. Hackers, activists, idealists we all were. It was a time of protest against the Iraq War, early adoption of smartphones, and the rebirth of short-form communication in the U.S. Our company was on the brink of dissolution, and the heat of that proverbial frying pan brought out the best and worst in each of us.

You know that feeling, when you've had an idea for a decade, and then you meet someone with that exact same idea only better? And then when you combine great ideas with 12 other entrepreneurs and actually build it? In like three months? But then it's so radical and precious that you have to keep it to yourself for a while? You know? And then you ship it, but no one understands you at first, because the idea is like so ahead of its time? I am so familiar with that feeling. And then the feeling of trying to get everyone to love it as much as I do.

The Brainyard: How did you know that Twitter would impact how we communicated with each other?

DS: I knew Twitter's power right away, and I said so. My research at Swarthmore College, then at HP Labs, and later at Harvard and the MIT Media Lab pointed in Twitter's exact direction. It's hard to describe what it's like to watch the future unfold right in front of you, but I'm used to it by now.


Twitter: The Early Team

I've participated in the birth of RFID and near-field communications, the tabletop quantum computer, and open standards like Ruby on Rails and PDF. Since Twitter, I've helped nurture Square and countless other social networks, but nothing has taught me as much as that time at Odeo thinking it all up with Jack, Noah, and the gang.

The Brainyard: With your friendship with Jack, you got to see Jack show you his new startup idea: Square. What was it like selling your books, music, art, and services on Square?

DS: I use Square to sell copies of 140 Characters.

I'm one of the first merchants on Square, way back when it was called Squirrel in 2009.

I believe I'm also the first user to operate Square outside of the U.S., both in Central America and The Netherlands. Square is a revolution in payments, which I could see as soon as Jack made me pay him back for breakfast the first time he demonstrated to me at Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco.

I introduced Square founders Jack and Tristan [O'Tierney], recruited their first server team, and alpha tested the hardware. When it came time for Sundance in 2010, my friends at Tweet House arranged for actor/director Adrian Grenier from HBO's Entourage to make his first live tweet. Immediately following that, Levar Burton and I talked Adrian into donating a record amount to Yele Haiti on stage for the quake victims, using Square.

The Brainyard: How did that go down?

DS: We used the black and silver prototype. I had to swipe twice. As we completed the transaction, Levar said, "That's some Star Trek [stuff] right there, man."

I'll never forget that.

It was the first time anyone had created a secondary Square account.

This was back in the beta days when there were no transaction limits. There were also no geographical limits then.

The Brainyard: What's the value in social media? And what do you use social media for?

DS: I believe value of any network is measured in compassion. With Twitter we are all writers now, but who is truly listening? With Square we are all merchants now, but who is truly improving lives?

I use social networks to galvanize communities around events. We built the largest independent developer community in the world for iOS using Twitter in 21 days--from first tweet to first seat--in 2007. It's doubled in size every year since then.

We are together because we've come to care for each other, and we've learned to care by listening to each other every day on the network.

The Brainyard: Can you be more specific about the advice?

DS: Limit yourself to one thought, one sentence.

Don't worry at all about the number of people following you.

Consider instead who are they? Do they click on your links, share your content, or show up at your event? Think about it like this: if you were to make an app that sold for a dollar, would you be content if people merely downloaded it but didn't use it? Sure you've made your 70 cents, but what good is a user without use? Similarly, what good is a reader without action?

Our Official Obama '08 iPhone App had over half a million downloads in total, but that number doesn't impress me even though it was a very large percentage of app users at the time. What's more important is that we achieved over 42,000 phone calls to people in swing states using the most vital, private social network of all: the individual contact list. Measure not followers, or reach, but engagement.

Remember: you don't have to tweet about everything. Cherish your privacy, that most recent of human conventions. I don't suspect it will last very long at the rate people publicly discuss their lives.

If you do write, be original, be yourself. Try to fit your speaking voice into your writing, because everyone's way of speaking is distinctive.

The Brainyard: How has social media changed since you started building Twitter and where do you see its future? What's its value add to businesses?

DS: The term "social media" wasn't in parlance when we started. Even now, I prefer the term "information network" or "social network" because really these systems are about people connecting with people and it's not always about content.

Twitter has gone from being nearly invisible, to being everywhere as a story in itself, and has now become a part of almost every story. I look forward to the day when it is invisible again, a utility like gas and water, electricity and sanitation. The network must always be on, and as close to real time as possible.

The simplicity of 140 characters of immutable hypertext is its own reward. The fact that Twitter is a public commons also has intrinsic worth. The value in Twitter itself to businesses is the same value as to the individual: transparency. It's very difficult to hide inside 140 characters. Authenticity is king.

What Twitter does is remove barriers individuals and the products or brands that they choose. It holds the same promise for citizens and those who govern us. We now have the common denominator back.

The Brainyard: Are you and Jack close?

DS: Jack and I are close, I'd say. I talk with him about once every other month. He's full of great advice.

I first met Tristan the week he was hired as I was consulting for Tapulous during the pre-App Store days. I made sure Jack attended iPhoneDevCamp 2 at Adobe, and introduced him to everyone I could.

Tapulous was a major sponsor of the camp that year, and they brought everyone. Each engineer or designer from that company ended up at Square eventually. It began when Jack said, "I was impressed with that fellow Tristan, an engineer who really appreciates design."

A month later, I recruited Tristan to help us with the Obama '08 app. Jack saw his work and hired Tristan immediately following Evan [Williams'] coup at Twitter that Fall.

As soon as Jack got kicked out too, we reconnected. That's how I ended up testing Square before anyone else. I have a ton of stories about that.

I also participated in the birth of blogging at Swarthmore College in 1995, but that's another tale for another time.

Boonsri Dickinson is the Associate Editor of BYTE.

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