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An Interview with Biz Stone of Twitter

  • April 21, 2009
  • By Bradley L. Jones
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"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.

Tags: Twitter, social networking, Web 2.0, IM, Web 3.0

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