Twitter founders: Grow biz, 'Be helpful'

Twitter co-founder and CEO Evan Williams (L) and co-founder Biz Stone at Twitter headquarters March 10, 2009 in San Francisco, Calif.

Kai Ryssdal: OK, so now we're at the point in the broadcast where I eat a little crow. I haven't been shy about saying on the program that I don't really get Twitter. Other social media, sure. Facebook? I'm right there with you. But 140 characters worth of "Here's what I'm doing right now?" To be honest, I needed some help with that. And you know what the really interesting part is? So, too, as you're about to hear, did the guys who started Twitter in the first place.

Usually when we talk to CEOs as one of our Conversations from the Corner Office, it's actually from their corner office or at least the conference room next door maybe. Today, though, something a little different. Evan Williams and Biz Stone, the Twitter guys, are here in Aspen this week for the Ideas Festival. They did a couple of panel discussions on innovation. Small things, like, I don't know, 140 character messages turning into big ideas.

Evan Williams says that nine months after Twitter launched, it was still mainly used by web types, until the South by Southwest conference in 2008.

Evan Williams: It's a very special conference, so there's panels and there's content and people would talk about what panel they were at. But they'd also talk about what parties they're going to. And that was the critical piece of information, and you could see we put some screens up in the hallways that showed who was there and what people were saying, and it just energized this event, and it brought this whole new layer of information and richness to it.

Ryssdal: So you get out of SXSW in 2008, Biz, and then what do you do? You come home and you say, "You know what? We got something."

Biz Stone: Yeah, we were certainly renewed and excited about what we were working on. And it was starting to grow faster, because we got a lot of attention out of that festival. And so we started to grow pretty good in 2008. Other things started happening around the world that, again, were just affirmations of our work. A student from U.C. Berkeley traveled to Egypt to photograph activism, and he kept missing the protests, and he asked his friends in Egypt "How do you know where the protests?" and they said, "We're using Twitter." So he gets on it, and he makes the next protest, but he gets arrested by Egyptian police. He managed to tap out a one-word tweet, which was "arrested." And when that information got back to his friends in Berkeley, they took it seriously, went to the dean, dean went to the lawyer, lawyer went to the consulate. A few hours later, another one-word tweet, "freed."

Ryssdal: All right, so let me ask you this though: For all the real tangible news and information and good that comes out of this system that you guys created, what do you do when 99 percent of what's on there is, "My cat just coughed up a hair ball," right? I mean, what do you do?

Williams: Sure. There's two parts to that: One, "My cat coughed up a hairball" was important to someone, the person who wrote it, and maybe they'll occasionally write things that are important to more people. But the real answer is, if you listen to 100 percent of the phone calls that went on, you'd find out that people talk about what seems like pretty trivial stuff amongst themselves. And unlike the telephones, because the vast majority of tweets are public, you can derive really interesting meaning out of these what individually look like trivial mutterings.

Ryssdal: Biz?

Stone: Yeah, that's another answer to your original question of "How do you get to this good information that's certainly in there?" And that falls on us to create discovery mechanisms, filtering mechanisms, way of surfacing information that's relevant to you, where you are, when you need it.

Ryssdal: And it also helps, not coincidentally, to play into the business aspect of this thing, which is how you guys make money. Because, you know, for all the fun and good you're having, you're not in this for nothing, right Biz?

Stone: That's right. Yeah. We certainly believe that the open exchange of information can have a positive global impact and sometimes, we're looked at as like hippies. But we...

Ryssdal: Which is funny, because you don't look like it.

STone: We believe that's true, and we also believe that you can make a great business out of it. So we've just recently begun launching our monetizing platform -- promoted tweets and promoted trends, which allow businesses to surface their tweets in front of more people.

Ryssdal: So, promoted tweets and promoted trends, is that another way of saying "search on Twitter," Evan?

Williams: Yeah, it's part of search, and that's where they surface. So, promoted tweets is simply a tweet that would surface in search, and we take it out of the chronological order and put it on top. And trends is a feature on the site where we surface what a lot of people are talking about. The first one we did was for "Toy Story 3." Obviously, big event, a lot of people are talking about the movie. Disney/Pixar wanted to make sure people really saw that it was up there, so they promoted "Toy Story 3" as a promoted trend. People click on it, they get search results and see what everybody's saying about this movie.

Stone: By the way, not a bad box office opening. Hello?

Ryssdal: I would say, right? You guys picked a good thing to...

Stone: Or they did!

Ryssdal: Ah yes, it was Twitter. I mean, that brings up another way that this thing gets huge, right? Not only is it news, and not only is it social events and stuff like that, you guys can play a hand in the fortune of movies, right? Somebody sees a movie, it's a dud, you pull out your phone, you tweet that this thing stinks and then it eventually gets out there, and you guys have killed Hollywood.

Williams: Well, we haven't killed Hollywood. This is the thing that people have dubbed the "Twitter effect," and all it really is doing is speeding up what's been happening forever, which is word of mouth.

Ryssdal: Isn't that the last thing we need, today? Life is busy enough and fragmented enough that really, we can just all do a step back.

Williams: I think we do want to address that. We have an explicit goal to make Twitter an antidote to information overload, not a source of it. And it's not there yet, but that's one of our big, long-term technology and product challenges, is how to make it so you feel like Twitter is helpful to you, not missing the information you care about in the world. And that should allow you to step away for a few hours and come back and find out what the most important stuff is.

Ryssdal: Sounds a little bit like the mantra of a company that you guys both worked for, Google, "don't be evil." I mean, that's kind of the way it rings.

William: More like "be helpful."

Ryssdal: All right. Fair enough. Obviously did a lot of research getting ready to talk to you guys. One of the things I read was in the New York Times -- they had that Sunday Styles thing, they were out to dinner with you guys or whatever it was. And at the end of the piece, one of you says to the other one -- and I can't remember what it was -- "Man, you write really boring tweets."

Stone: Yeah, that was Ev to me. He's been busting my chops for years.

Ryssdal: Which brings up this question: Writing good tweets in this -- and this sounds stupid -- but writing good tweets is hard work.

Stone: It is.

Ryssdal: I mean, you've got 140 characters. You can't really say a lot.

Williams: Yeah, it's an art form. Some people have really taken to it, and other people not so much. But, you can tell when a tweet has been expertly crafted.

Ryssdal: Evan Williams and Biz Stone from Twitter. Thanks a lot guys.

Stone: Thank you so much for having us.

Williams: Thanks, Kai.

Ryssdal: One more thing about that interview. Before I sat down with Ev and Biz, I can use their first names now. I tweeted a request for questions you'd like asked. By far the most popular one was about scalability, how to keep the service reliable as it gets bigger -- something they've had problems with and they admit that. To sum it up in 140 characters or less: They're working on it. The whole interview can be read here. Browse our past Conversations from the Corner Office

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Google long ago abandoned it's "do no evil" motto when it started down the road of acquiring everyone's information in order to sell it. I don't use Google. I don't use Twitter...I don't find it helpful or interesting for my purposes. I don't care what cat is being bathed or gum is being chewed or who follows Lady Gaga. I really don't care if everyone else does, and they have a right to waste time anyway they want, but I do despise the fact that there is an assumption that everyone uses Google, Twitter, Facebook and owns an iPhone or other expensive electronic toys. It is very alienating to know that I am discriminated against for no good reason than I actually have other things to do with my time and money. It's okay....I will happily be the last Luddite if it means I don't have to have an electronic gadget strapped to my head.

Hi Kai:
I will, in the name of Twitter, make this brief. I don’t “tweet.” I am a Diplodocus when it comes to social networking, a purist when it comes to communicating. However, I admire the skill of brevity – beautifully honed writing (as opposed to “R U OK?”) Your story sparked my interest in Twitter. I will check it out; maybe find a gem in the “I’ve got nothing better to do” world of social networking.
Great story. Great Show.

Thanks for this interview Kai. And by the way, I just learnt how to spell your name correctly today! That said, I am an internet guy, and I actually own a web design and internet marketing business here in Los Angeles (more like from my tiny studio apartment lol). When I first heard of twitter, I was very skeptical as to how this was going to be a useful tool. Matter of fact, I shunned it for more than 6 months. I just didn't get the whole thing. Later, I had many clients asking me about integrating twitter into their websites so I had to delve into it and find out what it was all about. And I must say, I am glad I did. Now, I leverage the potential of twitter for numerous clients, creating targeted twitter accounts to interact with their existing customers/clients and also, actually more importantly, scouting for and attracting prospective customers/clients. Granted, there are lots of useless tweets out there, but for some of us in the industry, we are able to weave through and get our message across. By the way Kai, I will be adding you on twitter. Cheers!

As an independent musician, I have battled with record labels for several years now.  

As twitter begins to seek ad revenue, how can you guarantee that your editors will not begin to supress information that damages your advertisers?  

YouTube has surely instituted policies which grant indemnity to politically damaging news content citing that it's journalistic importance overrides the priority of decency standards and youtube's increasingly partisan stance.  

To the contrary however, YouTube has been almost unbelievably un-fair when it decides to arbitrarily remove content which may be contrary to the interest of some of their entertainment advertisers, such as musicians and tv shows.

As advertisers flock to a new service, they often bring with them a set of expectations of what content can be displayed next to their ads.

I can understand Twitter's interest in filtering out certain types of blatant abuse, but How will twitter maintain an impartial stance on the opinions of it's users.

With almost 10,000 followers so far on my @jbigga twitter account, twitter has become a valuable tool for me to drive traffic to my songs and videos.

What would happen if I were to express a negative opinion about a movie that you were being paid to promote?

I feel it is inevitable that twitter will join the rest of the social networks in bowing to political and economic pressure.

Might I suggest, that if a tweet contains any sensitive material, that the tweet be subject to editorial approval BEFORE it is made public?

I have become afraid to speak my mind on Facebook, myspace and YouTube.  However twitter still gets my real opinions.

I suggest you do not to follow suit with the rest of the social networks.

To aid you in your fight to maintain decency, safety and profitability, I have invented a concept that will change social networking forever.

Force your advertisers to set up their OWN FILTERS and make them publicly viewable.

If twitter desires to allow an advertiser to appear as if they have a perfect product, give them the tools to do so using booleans, word matches, phrase recognition and other logical tools.

When someone violates a commercial or decency filter notify them PRIOR to tweeting.  Violators will be allowed to view the logical filter they violated.  If the user decides to edit and re post she may do so.  Or, she may post subject to the rules built into the filter.

Not only is this methodology scalable, it is a form of censorship that truly does no harm.

It exposes the censored logic before people post making them aware of the exact penalty associated with posting negative messages.

Most of all this methodology has integrity because it keeps people from moving towards a type of "Double Speak" that comes from the fear of saying the wrong thing instead of the desire to speak your mind.

Another huge benefit is that the work load for advertising poor products is is far greater on the shoulders of the advertiser.

How much more compelling Is a promoted trend that can appear filter-free then one who's tweets have been heavily censored to remove bad reviews.

I hope that in your hearts is good intent, and I hope that you will be the first social network to employ open-source censorship.

Please spread the good word about my music and have a great day!

RE: the art of tweeting: "I didn't have time to make it shorter." H.L. Mencken

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