SAN FRANCISCO -- Chris Messina illustrates why Twitter has gotten this far -- and why it faces one of its biggest challenges now that it has gone public.

Messina, who never worked at Twitter and doesn't own any stock, is the guy who came up with the # symbol used to organize tweets about a common subject (#TwitterIPO identifies tweets about, of course, the IPO). And he's not alone -- he's among a cadre of Twitter fans who helped come up the features that define the social media site.

On Thursday, I chatted with Messina about how the company will now balance the needs and interests of its very devoted user base with its need to please a new set of followers: shareholders.

"With outside money comes outside influence, especially people who don't understand social media," said Messina, now head of community and growth at NeonMob, a San Francisco startup, where he went after leaving Google (GOOG).

The fear among passionate Twitter users and developers is that if the company becomes too protective and proprietary of the service, in order to further its business interests, "it may alienate them for good," he said.

All public companies face the challenge of keeping and attracting customers and still making shareholders happy. But Twitter is different. Its users have a unique sense of ownership even if they don't own TWTR shares.


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When Twitter's founders haphazardly created the format, they argued about how or why people would use it, according to several recently published accounts of the company's formative years.

But then people took to the platform and helped develop its unique identity. They created Twitter's language of hashtags, the @ symbol and the idea of retweets. They surprised the company by flooding the site during major news events, causing it to crash repeatedly with its famous "Fail Whale" image.

They, to a larger degree than just about any other social media site, helped make Twitter what it is -- a global communications platform used by presidents and pop stars, one where tweets about today's breakfast and tweets about the Arab Spring both find a place.

But starting today, the company has shareholders to please, not just users. That puts the San Francisco company in a tricky position. Its users will be scrutinizing every change, and every change risks mutiny.

So far, it's managed adjustments to the site without serious problems.

But that could change. Take, for instance, the company's decision to offer more media-rich postings like video clips, TV ads and big images in a person's Twitter feed. That may appeal to users -- time will tell -- but it is really appealing to advertisers. And the company will have to make all of its future decisions with both constituencies in mind.

It will be an extraordinarily tough balance. Cyberspace is littered with companies that didn't get it right -- hello, MySpace! -- and examples of companies that did.

Google's home page is probably the most expensive piece of real estate in cyberspace -- but it's not for sale at any price. Its founders have made the choice to sacrifice short-term profits for the long-term interests of its users and the value of its brand.

What choice will Twitter's executives make? (And remember, Google has an unusual share structure that gives Larry Page and Sergey Brin control of the company, so they can worry less about Wall Street. Twitter doesn't have this cushion.)

A New Hampshire native who came to Silicon Valley after attending Carnegie Mellon University, Messina was a social media consultant when he suggested using the hashtag symbol, At first, it did not take off. But eventually, hashtag use picked up, first during the San Diego fires of 2007 and then by political leaders during a battle in Washington, D.C. Now the hashtag is a key part of the Twitter language.

Messina is optimistic about the company's future and what the IPO signifies. "So long as Twitter protects the integrity of its brand, continues to fight for being an open platform to all comers, and strives for it to be defiantly inclusive, it should do fine, post-IPO," he said.

The danger is that the more Twitter tries to appease the quarterly demands of Wall Street, the more it risks losing the passionate following of developers and innovators it has attracted.

The company should celebrate today's success. It's earned it, and it has its users to thank. But after today, the really hard work starts.

Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and mquinn@mercurynews.com Follow her at Twitter.com/michellequinn.