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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