When the announcement came that incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had again won the Iranian presidential election in 2009, protesters took to the streets to denounce his regime, calling the election corrupt and a misuse of clerical power. Communication would have been near impossible for liberal demonstrators had it not been for the prevalence of social media, which was used as a uniting force, combating the censorship of traditional media.
While many of these non-conformists gathered in the battered streets of Tehran, many turned to Twitter, an Internet portal that allowed them to communicate with friends and family in 140 character posts. Though this use was not what the creators of the social media platform had in mind, it thrust the small company into the public eye, sparking an international “microblogging” movement.
A U.S. State Department official emailed one Jack Dorsey, co-creator of the small Internet start-up, asking to delay scheduled maintenance to allow the protesters to keep tweeting. Describing the important message, a spokesman said, “It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep that going?”
Jack Dorsey, simply a web entrepreneur from St. Louis, was suddenly playing an extremely important role in determining the future of international relations. Known as Twitter’s Mark Zuckerberg, Dorsey became interested in computers and communications at an early age.
Attending Bishop DuBourg High School, his fascination with the technological challenge of coordinating taxi drivers, delivery vans, and other vehicular fleets requiring real-time communication with one another resulted in his initial passion, writing dispatch software that is still used by some companies today.
After a perfunctory stint at the Missouri University of Science and Technology that follows in the tradition of many computer science entrepreneurs, Dorsey moved to Oakland in 2000, starting a company that offered his dispatch software through the web. Meanwhile, an idea sat in the back of his head, combining the broad reach of dispatching software and ease of instant messaging.
Dorsey took the idea to Odeo, a company interested in text messaging at the time. Biz Stone, a former executive at the directory website, paraphrased his pitch in an interview with Young Entrepreneur in saying, “He came to us with this idea: ‘What if you could share your status with all your friends really easily, so they know what you’re doing?”
Stone joined Dorsey and another entrepreneur, Evan Williams, in creating Obvious, a site that later would evolve into Twitter. Two weeks later, Dorsey had built a simple website where users could instantly post succinct messages of 140 characters or less.
The idea was rooted in the desire to create a service that would allow for a small group of people to receive updates via text message. The group codenamed the service “twttr,” a name inspired by Flickr and the five-character length of SMS short codes.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Dorsey recalled the brainstorming session that took place, which eventually determined the now-legendary name.
We wanted to capture that [SMS updates] in the name — we wanted to capture that feeling: the physical sensation that you’re buzzing your friend’s pocket. It’s like buzzing all over the world. So we did a bunch of name-storming, and we came up with the word “twitch,” because the phone kind of vibrates when it moves. But “twitch” is not a good product name because it doesn’t bring up the right imagery. So we looked in the dictionary for words around it, and we came across the word “twitter,” and it was just perfect. The definition was “a short burst of inconsequential information,” and “chirps from birds.” And that’s exactly what the product was.
On March 21, 2006, Jack Dorsey posted the world’s first tweet: “just setting up my twttr.” After inviting his coworkers and officially pushing the site out to the world, Dorsey was named the company’s chief executive officer.
The initial reception of Twitter resulted in rather turbulent times for the young social media genius, derided by some as a tool for narcissistic, shallow individuals to broadcast the minutiae of their lives to the world. Conan O’Brien featured a regular segment called “Twitter Tracker” that mocked users. However, the initial skepticism of some was unfounded as celebrities and CEOs began to tweet. Suddenly, Twitter was the forefront of the “microblogging” movement, becoming even more powerful with the 2008 presidential election. Both of the primary presidential candidates utilized the social network to connect with potential supporters on a more personal level. Twitter now had the critical mass it needed to succeed and Dorsey’s vision was becoming a reality.
But the 105 million users, tweeting 55 million times each day, were not an incentive to keep Dorsey solely focused on the social media venture, and thus he moved on. He invested in a new social networking company called Foursquare, a location-based service that has since become an Internet phenomenon.
Dorsey also began a new platform to accept debit and credit cards on mobile devices for small businesses called Square. Creating an inexpensive, small object that has the ability to be attached to devices such as the iPhone and iPad through the headphone jack, a mini card reader allows the for easy transfer of funds simply through a signature. Square facilitates the transaction, taking a portion of the funds along the way.
However, with Twitter entering its sixth year of existence, there is no doubt that it has been his most successful endeavor. Dorsey was replaced by his close friend, Evan Williams, in 2008 as the social media platform’s CEO because of his desire to focus on Square and Foursquare, but rumors have surfaced that he may return in the near future. Currently, he serves as a non-executive chairman, but he has become more involved in decision-making since Evan Williams stepped down as CEO last fall.
Twitter has been valued at around $4 billion, generating about $150 million in ad revenue last year. The company also receives millions every year in licensing fees from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, allowing search engines to return Twitter results. Jack Dorsey is currently worth over $200 million.
Dorsey has played an important role in developing Twitter as a mass-communication platform. While the social networking site may have revolutionized the way people communicate, that success alone will not stop Dorsey from seeking to provide everyone with a better, more immediate experiences in their everyday lives.