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The team, which had grown to six, bitterly disbanded. Williams “just took the servers back to his house and kept it going, a one-man show, for a while,” says Hourihan. “Then things started to come back, and he was able to hire some people back and slowly get its legs under it again.” ­Hourihan stayed away, but Williams was successful enough to negotiate the sale to Google in early 2003.

After leaving Google, Williams took time off to find startup ideas. Instead, a startup found him. A friend, Noah Glass, was working on software to help people create, distribute, and search for podcasts, and he and Williams began to talk about the product. Williams started spending his days advising Glass, and eventually he invested in the new company, Odeo. At first, Williams wanted to maintain his distance in order to pursue other projects, but in February 2005, he was asked to unveil Odeo at TED, the yearly, invitation-only conference of technology, entertainment, and design. At TED, his name quickly got attached to the company. “I sort of had an ego thing going on where I was like, ‘This is my next thing.’ But that wasn’t my intention in the beginning,” he says. “I was excited and glad to help out, but I wasn’t ready to start a new thing, and it wouldn’t have been that.” There was a lot of excitement surrounding Odeo, Williams recalls, and he got caught up in it, against his better judgment.

Odeo had plenty of funding up front (after Blogger, it wasn’t hard for Williams to attract investors), but the company’s prospects weren’t really very healthy. No one had a clear sense of what its main product would be, and in June 2005, Apple released a version of iTunes, its audio software, that offered podcasting functions nearly identical to those Odeo was developing. “It sort of shocked us,” Williams says. “Apple did it all, and they’re on millions of desktops. All this stuff that we built was kind of irrelevant once Apple launched their product.”

The problem wasn’t just Apple’s beating Odeo to market, he adds. Odeo’s product demanded a more traditional approach to the media business, one that relied on distribution and media deals as opposed to viral growth, and that wasn’t the type of business model that appealed to Williams and the company’s engineers. “We just weren’t a company that was going to excel in those things,” Williams says. Realizing this, he went to the board in October 2006 and bought the company with his Google money. Among Odeo’s assets was an early version of Twitter–at the time, merely a side project.

Liz Lawley of the Rochester Institute of Technology was initially skeptical of Twitter when she started using it in February. “My first reaction was that I don’t need another place to post things, yet another user name and password to remember,” she says. “I have four blogs, and it didn’t seem to me that I needed to do anything different.” But by March, she was twittering on a regular basis. Now she tends to twitter mainly when she’s traveling, when something unusual is happening, or when a lot is going on in her life. “It’s easier to update people that way rather than figuring out who to send e-mails to,” she says.

Lawley represents only one type of Twitter user. Some people are hypergraphic, posting incessantly. Others rarely post but follow the updates of people they don’t know. A few writers are experimenting to see how storytelling changes when it’s produced in 140-character increments, while others are creating charming haikus. People are also using Twitter to send clues for scavenger hunts and other games. And individuals aren’t the only users. In fact, the service has proved useful for advertisers, news outlets, and even fire departments.

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Credit: Toby Burditt

Tagged: Communications, Twitter

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