Six Ways Twitter May Reach its Big Hairy Audacious Goal of One Billion Users

Twitter has a big hairy audacious goal of reaching one billion users by 2013. Three forces stand against Twitter. The world will end in 2012. But let's be optimistic and assume we'll make it. Next is Facebook. Currently Facebook is the user leader with over 400 million users. Will Facebook stumble or will they rocket to one billion users before Twitter? And lastly, there's Twitter's "low" starting point and "slow" growth rate. Twitter currently has 106 million registered users and adds about 300,000 new users a day. That doesn't add up to a billion in three years. Twitter needs to triple the number of registered users they add per day. How will Twitter reach its goal of over one billion users served?

From recent infrastructure announcements and information gleaned at Chirp (videos) and other talks, it has become a little clearer how they hope to reach their billion user goal: 1) Make a Big Hairy Audacious Goal 2) Hire Lots of Quality People 3) Hug Developers and Users 4) Drive the Technology Out, Up, and Forward 5) Ride the Farmville-like Network Effect 6) Ubiquity.

Make a Big Hairy Audacious Goal

Twitter wants to be the first application to reach a billion users. They want to be the pulse of the planet. They want to rule the world. Twitter has a Big Hairy Audacious Goal and that makes all the difference.

Google started  small, incrementally proved themselves, and then exploded on the  back of an unprecedented  emphasis on competition crushing infrastructure. Would Google have innovated to the same degree without a BHAG: Organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and  useful? I don't see how.

A BHAG gives you permission to make harder decisions, take bigger risks, and invest more. It makes you think many orders of magnitude into the future. You just can't mess with  incremental improvements in SQL queries anymore. You have to  be more thoughtful, more professional. You have to invest in tech, build platforms, automate, and think quality matters.

We've seen this evolution with Chirp  Conference and their technology choices. Twitter has switched from Mongrel to Unicorn for more efficient HTTP request handling. Twitter has created FlockDB, their own graph database to handle relationships. Twitter is using Hadoop for large scale analytics that are use to monitor and improve the system. Twitter has created Gizzard, a framework for sharding data across multiple data-stores. Twitter is switching to Cassandra for more scalability, easier operations, and cross data center functionality.

Clearly this is a Twitter that has gone far beyond tuning ActiveRecord SQL queries and is now swinging for the fences on their infrastructure and their vision. Exactly as one might expect if you are driven by a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It's an attitude.

Hire Lots of Quality People

You may have noticed the Twitter Fail Whale visiting a lot less lately. Twitter is now more reliable than Facebook and had a 99.91% uptime in April, 2010. It's no coincidence that Twitter has also been hiring a lot of very competent people. It may be trite, but good people build good stuff, and as Twitter has been hiring good people Twitter has been getting better. You see their impact up and down the stack. Without these changes Twitter may have already swan dived into the dead pool. Their infrastructure has matured, which provides a solid base for building the next generation of user attracting features, without having to fear the great white whale.

Hug Developers and Users

The overall impression I get watching the Chirp conference videos is that Twitter really wants to wrap its ever lengthening corporate arms around developers and users in a big giant Bear hug. Twitter acts as if they love developers and users and they are banking on that love being reciprocated.

Twitter repeatedly talks about wanting to help their developers build great stuff and enable innovation. They say Twitter is the ecosystem, so the healthier they can make the ecosystem the more they will grow. But talk is cheap and money is often the best form of support. Developers need to make money, so showing some concern over how developers put food on the table is a nice touch. Promoted tweets are how they want to share revenue with 3rd party apps. That's love.

Twitter has an actual goal of making developers happy. Not kidding, it was in the power point. Who knows how successful they will be, but by having developer happiness as goal it should mean something.  Part of that is making Twitter reliable and expanding capabilities. They want to support, fulfill, and make sure developers have all the tools they need to make great products. They are asking for help to give them feedback. They think there's plenty of opportunity in the platform and they want you to think big and build big. So the story with developers is good.

Historically, the story with users has been not so good. The hug style with users has been more A-frame than Bear. Twitter has had a pretty bad UI and is quirky to use. New users are often bewildered by Twitter. Traditionally Twitter has counted on 3rd party developers to fill in those holes. Now they are trying to create a more unified experience by creating their own UI and focussing more on the user experience, making it "friction free." This prong of the strategy seems to have the most risk, but there is evidence of concern and effort. Will this be enough to reach the one billion user payday?

Drive the Technology Out, Up, and Forward

We've already talked about all the major components of their infrastructure Twitter has open sourced. They are pushing the technological envelop. According to Alex Payne, Twitter has made a conscious effort to stop thinking of their architecture as a Rails app and start building isolated services that cooperate over a messaging backbone. We've seen the result of this realization. The site is more reliable, performs better, and is now primed for more user growth.

Twitter is also getting their operations act in good order. Part of that massive effort is bringing more under their own control by moving into their own data center.

Twitter, the ultimate API driven product, continues to innovate their API, adding new features like User Stream, Places, Annotations, and @Anywhere.

When you take a look on all these fronts there's no sign of slowing down, Twitter is actually speeding up. Will more users want to hop aboard?

Ride the Farmville Network Effect

One of the most mysterious mysteries of the universe: why is Farmville so popular? Hundreds of millions of people play a game that seems pretty boring and requires a large commitment of work to play. What gives?

A. J. Liszkiewicz in Cultivated Play: Farmville has an interesting explanation: people are playing Farmville because people are playing Farmville. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity.

Twitter benefits from this same effect. People join Twitter because people are joining Twitter. I've seen this process over and over in the non-geek tech world. People go from thinking Twitter is silly, to seeing their friends and peers joining Twitter and benefiting, to then joining themselves. Once they figure out Twitter is a new way for people to pay attention to each other and interact across space and time, they get it. They'll have conversations like "Hey, did you see my tweet on X? I sure did, it was great, did you see mine on Y? Sure did. Loved your take. It reminds me of what Frankenstein9 said on his stream. I noticed you tweeted you'll be doing such such, I got some ideas on that..." If you aren't in this game you'll miss out on what your friends, colleagues, and persons of interest are doing.

There's a sort of social self-reinforcing game being played where people make social moves and Twitter is the game board. That kind of social obligation creates a viral loop engine for generating new players. Will that be enough of a driver to reach a billion users? Not on its own, but without at the aspect of game dynamics there wouldn't be much of a chance.


If your goal is to be the pulse of the planet that means you have to be everywhere, in everything, you have to be ubiquitous. Towards that goal Twitter follows a different strategy than most websites who want to drive traffic through their front page. Twitter does nearly the opposite by giving users a choice of how they consume and use Twitter. The result is about 75 percent of traffic comes from third-party services over the Twitter API. Surprisingly, only 25 percent comes from the web site. With this strategy Twitter:

  • Is now the 12th most popular web site.
  • Grew 752 percent in 2008.
  • Grew 1,358 percent in 2009.
  • Has 105 million users who send 55 million tweets a day at a peak rate of 1,000 messages per second.
  • Handles over 600 million searches a day.
  • Sees 3 billion API requests per day.

Some may think Twitter, with their recent moves, has drunk the kool-aid, taken the blue pill, and gone to the dark side. Twitter's Evan Williams counters saying Twitter Is the Ecosystem:

We’ve always believed in openness. we believe in an open system and the power of ideas. And that is not changing. Twitter is truly a collaboration and that is not changing.

One could argue by creating their own consistent UI presence and with strong competition from third-party UIs, Twitter will pull in even more users, not fewer. So even though Twitter has taken steps to control more of their own destiny, their strategy of being everywhere still seems firmly in place.

Will Twitter be First to One Billion Users?

You may read this article and think it's way too fluffy and optimistic towards Twitter. That's not my intent. There are plenty of people talking about how much Twitter sucks. Yes, Twitter could stumble. They could kill their ecosystem. They could do a lot of things. What I've been trying to do is identify the positive forces I see that could help Twitter reach a billion users. That's quite a milestone in the very young history of the web. What will it take to reach the goal of serving 1/6th the population of Earth? It's a fascinating question.

Twitter's efforts seem genuine and they've made substantial progress. They seem honestly interested in talking with people, learning, iterating, creating a culture, and spreading their tool. If their plan works it will encourage developers, which brings in users, which will then attract more developers. A virtuous circle which could substantially jump that growth rate and might make it possible for Twitter to reach their audacious goal of being the first to one billion users.

How possible? A billion users is a lot of users. Not unthinkable, but unprecedented. What is clear is Twitter has a vision, a set of goals, and the will to make it happen. That's a hard combination to bet against. Having said that, the smart money is still on Facebook to reach a billion users first. Facebook is already nearly half way there and Facebook is harnessing many of the same wild forces as Twitter. It would be a fun proposition bet, if any casino is feeling creative.