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An Interview with Biz Stone of Twitter


April 21, 2009

"The Web is increasingly a social environment and…
people are using it to communicate with one another, like they've always done—but now in such an open way."
—Biz Stone


This article is taken directly from Web 2.0 Heroes: Interviews with 20 Web 2.0 Influencers by Bradley L. Jones, published by Wiley.


What are you doing right now? What are your friends, co-workers, family members, or the guy down the street doing? If they belong to Twitter and are posting, you can likely find out. Twitter is a worldwide community where members send updates about what they are doing or thinking at any given moment. These updates are sent via text messages from the Twitter site or from a mobile phone, or via instant messages (IM) from Jabber, AIM, LiveJournal, or Gtalk.

As a member, you can post short (140-character) messages about what you are doing at any given time. All the other members can be doing this too. Of course, if you try to read all of these messages, it could get very noisy. However, if you subscribe to people that are interesting to you, then you can keep up with what they are doing by seeing what they post to their Twitter feeds.

Of course, you don't actually have to go online to use Twitter. You can send text messages from your phone as well as receive updates from people you are following on Twitter. In addition to the mobile-phone support, there are also desktop applications you can use to send and receive information fromTwitter.

Twitter is often described as a micro-blog because of its short-message format and its ability to follow what a person is doing. Regardless of how you describe Twitter, it has struck a chord with the worldwide community.

People Find Value in Openness

Biz Stone is the creator of a number of web sites. In addition to co-founding Twitter, he also helped with sites such as Xanga, Blogger, Odeo, and Obvious. He has shared his insights offline as well in books such as Blogging: Genius Strategies for Instant Web Content and Who Let the Blogs Out?: A Hyper connected Peak at the World of Weblogs.

I interviewed Biz for my book, Web 2.0 Heroes from Wiley publishing. I've included that interview here:

Can you tell a little bit about yourself and about Twitter?

I started a web service called Xanga.com. It's a Web log-in community that I started with some friends in New York in about 1999, and it's still pretty popular. It was kind of the predecessor to MySpace, except much more focused on blogging and catching up with your friends. I stayed there for a couple of years, then left and started doing a lot of thinking about social media and blogging, and wrote a couple of books.

In 2003, just after Google acquired Blogger, Evan Williams sent me an email asking if I'd be interested in joining the Blogger team to help Google. I accepted, and worked there for about two years before leaving in order to continue working with Evan Williams, because he wanted to try starting another company called Odeo, a podcasting company. It was while I was at Odeo that we created Twitter sort of as a side project.

Basically, Twitter was a simple idea that my friend, Jack Dorsey, had. He loved web-blogging, but he wondered if there was a very, very simple kind of stripped-down way to do that. He was kind of inspired by the concept of the status message, the instant-message application, kind of like AIM. The idea that you would say something very simple like, "I'm not feeling very well today," or, "Unavailable," or, "In a meeting," and that all your friends would know that and know that's what you are doing.

So he thought, what if you could merge that; take that simple concept of status, and make it much more social? He brought up the idea to Evan and me. We had been mulling over ways to merge SMS technology with the Web, and this seemed like the perfect thing. If you wanted to update your status, you could do that with a simple SMS; likewise, you'd get an SMS if one of your friends changed their status. All of that together sounded like a compelling little project to spend some time on.

So Jack and I went off in a little corner and built it (while still at Odeo) in two weeks' time, just to have a prototype to share with the rest of the team. Everyone was compelled by it, they thought it was fun, and they really wanted to use it.

What ended up happening then was that we formed a new company called Obvious. Obvious acquired Odeo and Twitter, and then separated them into two entities. We sold Odeo and its assets to another company. We were therefore able to focus all of our efforts on Twitter. We then spun Twitter out into its own company called Twitter, Inc.

Twitter is now growing based all around this concept of "What are you doing?" to which you answer—in 140 characters or less. This goes out to your friends so you all stay connected.

Do Twitter messages go to only your friends, or to everyone in the world on Twitter?

It's basically up to you when you're using the service; when you sign up for Twitter, you create your profile and there is a check box that says, "I want to protect my posts or my updates," or, "Don't check it if you don't want to protect." Around 90 percent of the people do not check that box; they want that public.

That's something that is not entirely unique to Twitter; it's something that's happening in blogging, MySpace, Facebook, etc. People are increasingly okay with others knowing what they're up to and hearing what they're saying. There seems to be a lot of value in keeping that openness out there on the Web because you never know when someone is going to come along and say, "I really like what you're doing; how'd you like to work for my company?" or, "I really like your posts; how'd you like to hang out?"— anything like that.

It's something I've been calling "social alchemy" because you put out these mundane updates that you're shopping for a sandwich in Berkeley, and that seems of little value until it happens to fall into the SMS of someone else's phone. A friend of yours happens to be in Berkeley and says, "Oh, I'm in Berkeley, too! Let's get a sandwich together." Suddenly you're having a more meaningful conversation or meaningful events occur because of a seemingly valueless update. It's kind of like the idea of turning lead into gold.

Do you end up having people worrying about publishing something to the public, or having them come to you after they have done so to ask how they can secure their feed?

We don't get a lot of people coming back to us. People may, on their own. I still maintain that about 90 percent of the Twitter population keeps their feeds open—that's not changing. But people do sort of find their own way to determine what they do/don't want to share.

Of course, the same kind of thing happened with Xanga, Blogger, and others. You're happily Twittering along and you may forget yourself because all of this stuff has been updated by Google for the past year, and everything is available.

It would occasionally freak people out when they would say, "My teacher read my Xanga page! I can't believe it—he's such a jerk!" It's just a page on the Internet; you can't really get too mad that he went and read it! It's funny how they feel that it's more of a "between them and their friends" and that others shouldn't be snooping around. But, in most cases, people find value in the openness.

How would you and Twitter define Web 2.0?

That is a good question. I think people have very specific definitions of elements that go into it.

For me it's this big, growing realization that the Web is increasingly a social environment and that people are using it to communicate with one another, like they've always done—but now in such an open way. All of these tools that you see emerging, that you would associate with Web 2.0, like tagging, where you can easily categorize a piece of media, you do all of this in an effort to express yourself and to share your thoughts with other people—that is, communication and self-expression. I guess I would define what is being called Web 2.0 as the public acceptance of the fact that the Web is a highly social utility.

Technology helps make this happen. Are technologies such as AJAX, Adobe AIR, or Microsoft Silverlight Web 2.0?

A lot of what people talk about when they talk about Web 2.0 is openness; I think the tools mentioned are tools that are freely shared, or the codes and ideas behind them are freely shared among developers, as well as being publicly available for free on the Web. The idea is that the more open these technologies and services are, the better.

I don't think there's a fine line where you could show me a flash-card deck of different things and ask me, "Is it Web 2.0, or not?" It's more like a gradient where I'd say, "That's pretty much Web 1.0…that one's more 2.0, etc." It's just easy to say something's Web 2.0 because people can understand what you're talking about.

Is there a feature or something that stands out more so than others in regard to Web 2.0?

I think it would be the open factor; the idea that the more you can open up your platform, your idea, or your concept to invite other people to build on top of it, and work within it, the better. It all goes hand in hand, realizing the Web is a very highly social utility. If we create more open systems, it will be even more social. I would guess that this openness in general is really the broadest definition.

Is there anything you would say that people are misunderstanding about Web 2.0?

For most people there is no Web 2.0; there is just the Web. So, I guess you're talking about a certain set of builders and people who work on the Web, who've decided to lump together a bunch of different aspects, trends, and technologies and say that they are Web 2.0 if they have these elements in them. I can't really think of something where there's a misconception right now.

It sounds like you are indicating that the term is a bitmisunderstood.

Yes. It's easy to call something Web 2.0, but when you have to dig in and define the specifics of it, things get kind of murky.

Is there anything that you have seen or that you have done at Twitter that you would say is really cool?

The fact that we built an API very early on with Twitter is one of those things that people might associate with Web 2.0 and with openness. You have to provide an Application Programming Interface so that other developers can build on your platform, and we did that because we thought "This will be great; this is a simple service and it's easy to make an API; at the very least we'll garner some good will from other developers and other like-minded people."

At the same time, we had no idea that the API would end up being a very central part of our strategy and our growth. We see 20 times the traffic through our API than we do the Web. So, suddenly, this thing that we thought would be just a good idea to have becomes a "must-have." That's sort of a key driver of Twitter.

Out of curiosity, what is the business model?

Our focus right now is on reliability and user experience. Before we go to the revenue model we have to have a compelling product and service. If we focus all of our time designing the revenue model in the beginning, then we wouldn't be as concerned about the product. It would kind of be like putting the cart before the horse.

Twitter's business model is going to be pretty diversified, because of the fact that we as a company are on pretty diverse platforms. We're on SMS, we're on the Web, we're on instant message, and the mobile web. We want to continue to be as agnostic as possible with regard to how people interact with Twitter. That means adding email support—emailing in and out of Twitter. It means continued cooperation with other big social networks, like Facebook and others where Twitter can come in and out. The business model is going to be something that is as simple as the concept of Twitter.

Do you recommend to other people to focus on the core site and concept and not worry about the business model up front?

If you're talking about new technologies, new ideas, especially on the Web, then I think it makes sense to really work on the concept, the product itself, and the reliability. If you're talking about going out and starting a bookstore and buying a building and things like that, there are some proven models and you know exactly what you want to do, within reason if you're experimenting and trying to think.

If you've invented a communication technology that you're not even sure people are going to want, use, or need, then you first need to focus on the product. Then when it gets popular, you need to focus on reliability so that you don't base a whole revenue model on something that isn't going to work. If someone is going down an innovative technology path, I recommend that they make sure they have a compelling product before they invest resources into the revenue model.

Stepping back to the Web topics, what are your thoughts on Web 3.0, the Semantic Web?

If your head is down and you're really working on Web stuff and you hear people talking about Web 2.0, then Web 3.0, you do see a lot of sort of eye rolling, because at a certain point, if someone is talking about Web 3.0, it means they're talking too much and they're not working on something. They've talked themselves all the way into a new term. So, I'm not entirely familiar with what people are associating with Web 3.0; I'm still catching up with what's supposed to be Web 2.0 and what gets added into that and what doesn't.

Some of the people talking the loudest are associated with publishing.

At least they're attempting to explain it to a bunch of people who aren't as familiar with it. It certainly helps to frame it. People are used to Microsoft Word version one as opposed to Microsoft Word version three.…

The idea of clumping together all the iterations that are taking place over four years—design trends, new innovations—you clump them all together and say, "This is the next version." Even if it happened gradually, it helps to explain to people who weren't paying attention every single new turn in the road to say, "Here's where I'm marking Web 2.0 and Web 3.0, so that you can understand that there have been major accomplishments. It's not that I'm against the concept of doing it; I'm just not maybe zoomed out enough to think about what is being called Web 3.0.

Software as a Service (SaaS) and Software plus Services (S+S) are being talked about a lot. Do you think these are fact or fiction? Do you see things moving off the desktop?

I think everything is moving towards this idea that you can add a lot of value to the Web. You mentioned before, Adobe AIR; now we're seeing a lot of fun, small, desktop applications that are interacting with the Web, so I'm not going to say that desktop applications are going to completely go away.

There's a desktop application that interacts with Twitter, and people love it. It's just a growing awareness of, "We can connect, we can make this software a lot more social, and we can bring a lot more value to it if we connect it to the Web and thereby connect it to other people."

Do you see connectivity being pervasive—i.e., always available?

That's the hope; that's kind of why Twitter is on mobile. We started off from the very beginning on mobile. The idea of connectivity with the Web is not something that should have to be tied to the PC. We've shown with Twitter that just through simple SMS you can connect similarly as you would on the Web.

That means that we really are bringing the social connectivity web style to every mobile, SMS-capable phone in the world, which is very, very simple technology. The hope is that anywhere there is a simple glimmer of connectible technology; we'll tie it to simple messaging.

What do you see as the next big change or revolution on the Web?

I guess what I just mentioned with the mobile combined with APIs and openness is also increasingly important to companies. Right now, Twitter is mobile over SMS. You never have to go to the web site. We also have an API, which means you can write an application that works over SMS (Twitter).

It's possible that we may see in the future something like farmers in India interacting with an application over SMS that helps them get a better price for grain, or something like this. They wouldn't be able to do this otherwise because they wouldn't have access to a PC or a Web connection.

We've seen it already—someone wrote us and told us about a simple SMS application where you send a text like, "In 15 minutes call Mom;" and in 15 minutes you get an SMS back that says, "Call Mom." That's an application written on our API that works over SMS. So now it's possible to do computing over SMS. I think that concept is sound and I'd love to see that flourish around the world and just see what people can do with it.


This article is taken directly from Web 2.0 Heroes: Interviews with 20 Web 2.0 Influencers by Bradley L. Jones, published by Wiley. This book contains interviews with other industry leaders including those from Microsoft, Sun, IBM, Adobe, eBay, Technorati, LinkedIn, Del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, Skype, Ning, Bloglines, and more.

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