Didn't work Wednesday: Conversationlist

A few years ago I was playing around with the Twitter API and building a bunch of little projects.

As I was doing that, I would often bounce the ideas off one of my friends, Whitney McNamara who would usually give me lots of friendly suggestions and encouragement on how to make it more interesting (and useful).

In the course of one of those conversations, Whitney pitched me on an idea he had been bouncing around. Twitter had just released a new ‘list’ feature and Whitney sent me this email:

“…and a pretty straightforward one, to boot. What do you think of this:

Thus far I’m not a big fan of the Twitter lists functionality (I’m not convinced that the topical groupings do much for the experience, among other things), but a few minutes ago it occurred to me that one could do something kind of fun with it via the API–create conversationalists.

The basic idea is that these are dynamic lists, created based on who you’ve sent @replies to over the past n (30,60,90, whatever) days. Every time you @reply someone they get added to your conversationalist, and if you haven’t @replied them after n days they drop off the list.

The result isn’t a list of who you think is coolest, or music people, or programmers, but a list of the people that you’re interacting with consistently. So if you want a sense of who’s significant to Fred Wilson (to pick our favorite example), a conversationalist tells you that, and it’s current, rather than a slowly rotting point in time snapshot.

What do you think? Could be a nice little collaboration. How quick can you code? I know I can do it, but I’d definitely be slower, and it’d be sweet to release, say, early next week or something. :-)”

We ended up exchanging a few quick emails around what to call it and some specific implementation tasks…including this little snippet from me:

“Coding this up will be no problem (but I gotta get it done by tonight because I’m heading out to New Orleans in the morning and won’t be back until Wed.)…the only things I need from you to start are some ideas/answers to some basic questions (or psuedo-code):”

…and believe it or not we had a working version up and running before I left for New Orleans (#humblebrag).

Thanks mostly to Whitney’s great connections and efforts, the service got immediate attention and before we knew it Fred Wilson and even Ev Williams were making mentions of it on Twitter!

Also thanks to how Whitney had designed the system, it became fairly viral and our numbers just continued to grow (so much so that my initial hacky way of building lists started to break horribly and I had to re-write it a few times within the first month or two).

So we were off to the races on user adoption and we started thinking about what other tools and features we could build…could we/should we try and turn this thing into a business?

Honestly it was a lot of fun, and we ended up building some really interesting tools (none got as popular as conversationlist did – but all were very interesting in their own right)…but ultimately we did not build a company out of any of them.


Well looking back, I think the main reason was that we were really just having fun and playing with ideas…we weren’t *trying* to build a business or really solve problems. We were just doing things because we could.

When we sat down to think about if/how we could make money around it…we didn’t really have any good answers (at least no answers that fit with what *we* would want to do for a living)…and at the end of the day, we also didn’t like the idea of trying to build a business on top of Twitter (or anyone else’s platform really)…so ultimately we decided it wouldn’t work (for us).

However, we were having so much fun with it that even after we determined it “wouldn’t work” we did keep the service up and running for quite a long time (I eventually had to shut it down to reallocate funds/attention/resources towards my knowabout.it efforts).

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This is the personal blog of Kevin Marshall (a.k.a Falicon) where he often digs into side projects he's working on for digdownlabs.com and other random thoughts he's got on his mind.

Kevin has a day job as CTO of Veritonic and is spending nights & weekends hacking on Share Game Tape. You can also check out some of his open source code on GitHub or connect with him on Twitter @falicon or via email at kevin at falicon.com.

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