How An Earthquake's Tweets Helped Shape Twitter's Trajectory

One day, a 15-year-old in Chile plugged seismograph readings into a Twitter account--and that changed everything. Glenn Brown tells Fast Company how user innovations are driving marketing and monetization at Twitter.

Cecil B. DeMille once gave a word of advice to aspiring filmmakers: “Start with an earthquake, then build to a climax.” Glenn Brown doesn’t make movies (though his job often does involve short videos). Nevertheless, Brown’s team, whose job is to help monetize Twitter, took an almost literal cue from DeMille.

As he explains below, it was an earthquake that led to some of his team’s cleverest ideas on how to help brands leverage Twitter (a recent, successful example: a Ford-sponsored instant replay deal with ESPN). We caught up with Brown to learn more about his team's unlikely sources of inspiration, the rise of video on Twitter, and how the future is already with us--if only we can spot it.

FAST COMPANY: What do you do at Twitter?

GLENN BROWN: I work on a small team on the revenue side of Twitter called promoted content and sponsorships. We come up with ways for media companies and other creative folks to monetize their experience on Twitter.

You do some high-concept stuff.

We worked with the NBA to hook up backboard cameras from its slam dunk contest last year, so you’d have the backboard tweet out getting dunked on.

Where do you get these ideas?

One big moment for sparking a lot of ideas that then followed was the East Coast earthquake last year. People were hearing about the news on Twitter before they actually felt it. That got us interested in different usages of Twitter by objects. We found a seismic alert Twitter account in Santiago, Chile, created by a 15-year-old who’d hooked up seismograph readings directly to a Twitter account. We started thinking about how to translate this idea of a tweeting object to our world of media advertising, and came up with the idea for the backboard camera. We also worked with the Olympics 2012 committee to create a series of accounts, including a pool camera and table tennis camera. So basically we started with a fairly abstract concept, the idea of objects that tweet, and that set off a chain reaction of creative ideas.


Video is central to a lot of your ideas, and video has a greater presence on Twitter now with Vine.

I encourage people to think about these mini-instant replays in life in general. Obviously it’s applicable in sports, but it can work with plain old entertainment on TV, showing reminders of what you’re missing, or what’s coming up. Whether it’s video or not, in a way that’s what Twitter is: instant replay. Basically, it’s what’s happening. I think we’re just barely starting to see how creative people are going to get with Vine, and with video on Twitter in general.

What are some other ways people might use video on Twitter to make money?

Any kind of timely video content: breaking news, short news clips happening around the world. We already worked with the Weather Channel during Hurricane Sandy, using targeted tweets to push out live weather maps to people on the East Coast--bite-sized video specifically designed for the second screen experience. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit. It’s up to the imagination of our users and partners. A lot of our best ideas have not been our ideas, they’ve been from users and media companies and advertisers. We stand back and admire, and then adopt them. The idea of the retweet was a user innovation we took up. Hashtags, the same thing. How people will use video on Twitter is probably already out there in some form. Twitter moves too fast for it not to be.

So the future is now?

William Gibson writes about predicting the present. In Spook Country, for instance, he would look out for trends already out there in the technology, and explore them like an investigative journalist. I like to think we do the same thing, seeing what’s out there already, and then figuring out how to make it work for our clients and our fans.

So your job is as much as anything else to basically listen to Twitter?

Yeah, it’s definitely as much about listening as trying to come up with things on our own. It’s about seeing what’s great out there.

[Image: Flickr user Marcin Wichary]

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