MoJo Interview: Biz Stone

Twitter's cofounder chirps away about Obama's social media savvy, what makes people popular, and why we're like birds. With audio.

| Fri Mar. 6, 2009 11:53 AM PST

Click here to listen to the podcast of this interview.

Just three years ago, Twitter was merely a dream of a few social media techies. Today, the online juggernaut has an estimated 4-5 million users, and as President Obama can attest, has become one of the most powerful communication tools to hit the web.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone spoke with Mother Jones about how Twitter has evolved into an AP rival and why people seeking information are like a flock of birds.

Mother Jones: Biz stone, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Biz Stone: Thank you.

MJ: So what are you doing right now?

BS: What I'm doing right now is just finishing up a half day's work at Twitter. Just left some interesting conversations with Ev [Evan Williams] and the team about product stuff, and now I'm talking with you.

MJ: Are you tweeting this?

BS: [Laughs.] No.

MJ: How would you describe Twitter to my grandmother?

BS: That's a good question. I think we're entering a new phase, so the way I might describe it to her now is as a very simple communications network. Something to think about would be the telephone or the telegraph, something that's very utility-like in her life. So from her perspective, something that's very simple to stay in touch with her grandchildren.

MJ: It seems like Twitter has been criticized somewhat for being the ultimate example of a narcissistic age. Now that we're moving more into an age of shared sacrifice and sobriety is the Twitter theme still going to be in the zeitgeist?

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BS: I think what we're actually seeing is humans as a species evolving the way they communicate. We're moving away from more traditional forms of electronic communication like email or instant messaging. We're moving into a space where we communicate openly because there's a lot more value in it. And frankly we're just catching up to other species that have been doing it for millions of years, and doing it really well to their advantage. And so what I see over the last ten years is—and it's not just Twitter, although Twitter is a very sort of perfect example of it—but over the last ten years with the evolution of blogging and Flickr and MySpace and Facebook and all these services, we're seeing people move their communications from this 'one-to-one' scenario to this 'one-to-many' scenario and ideally letting others in on the conversation, attracting others to themselves, and in many ways just creating value out of this.

MJ: Last year Twitter helped Barack Obama get elected President, helped the LA Fire Department communicate endangered residents, helped many people deal with getting laid off in the recession, helped connect concert-goers at South by Southwest music festival, helped protestors follow the Olympic torch through San Francisco, helped a UC Berkeley graduate journalism student get himself out of an Egyptian prison... What can't Twitter do?

BS: Well I think the bigger question is, 'What can't people do when they can collaborate in real time and network in such a way?' Twitter is really just about unlocking the value of human spirit really. What you see when you look at Twitter during and after an earthquake, what we're really seeing is people helping one another, coordinating in real time using a tool that didn't exist before we made Twitter. It's the ability to essentially move just like a flock of birds can move around an object in real time, and it can look very choreographed and beautiful. They are really just basing that moving off of a set of rudimentary communications and feedback. And that's what Twitter provides. It's this very simply utility that allows people to very quickly communicate with one another in these short bursts, and in such a way coordinate themselves in real time so they can move as one like a flock of birds. So when you talk about all these different scenarios you're really just talking about people doing what they would natural do but using this new tool that gives them an enhanced form of communication.

MJ: Twitter is free and it is open to the public, I wonder have there been occasions when you've felt that Twitter as a platform was being used inappropriately?

BS: Certainly, there's inappropriate uses of any tool. They range from fairly insignificant, you know, squatting on a company name, or impersonating a company or another person, which we put very clearly in our policies that we're against those and we go ahead and fix those when they come up to us. As a unique and powerful tool, it's possible that it can be used inappropriately as well as appropriately, and we tend to see in networks such as Twitter, we tend to see when inappropriate use… and then there's spam, which is an issue for us ongoing… when there's inappropriate use on a network tool such as this, we tend to see a lot of self policing and self correcting which is one of the benefits of such a system.

MJ: Do you have any doubt that intelligence agencies monitor Twitter activity?

BS: Do I have any doubt? I don’t know a lot about those industries. I would imagine that they would try to gather as much information as they could, being intelligence agencies, that they would want to gather information from everywhere. So, yeah, I would assume that they would look at Twitter and Twitter Search to type in key words of interest and see what people are saying about them.

MJ: Have you ever assisted an intelligence agency in looking at a Twitter account?

BS: I'm trying to remember. We have an obligation to assist, there are certain legal obligations that I can't really recall. I usually have to look them up during these times. Certainly police and fire department and things like that, there's certain public issues, there are certain protocol to follow in those cases when you operate a network like Twitter. I actually can't speak about intelligence agencies because I can't think of a time when I've actually interacted with them.

MJ: Recently the Israeli consulate in New York used Twitter to hold a "citizen press conference," in which they answered people's questions about a complicated, age-old conflict in 140-character responses. Do you expect to see more governments using Twitter?

BS: Oh yeah. I definitely do. There's already over 40 members of the US Congress on Twitter. The candidates were on Twitter. Protestors are on Twitter. Other governments are using Twitter. Like I said, I think we're evolving the way we communicate; so it's not just governments, it's organizations like NASA, and companies like JetBlue, and Whole Foods and Starbucks. They're realizing the value in this form of open and short communication, and so I think we're naturally going to see them moving to it. As long as it provides value to them and to the people who are consuming this information and using it, I think we're going to see them moving toward it, and that includes governments.

MJ: Is this the future of PR?

BS: Well, I think the future of PR is listening and becoming part of the conversation. In as much as Twitter allows communication specialists to really participate and listen to what their customers or consumers, or what have you, are saying and feeling about issues and products, then yes. I think as PR gets into this realm where the specialists become more a part of this conversation, then it is the future.

MJ: It seems like some techies and new media junkies have really embraced Twitter and use it all the time, while others don't understand it and never touch it. What do you think separates the users from the non-users right now?

BS: I think that's the way that we position the product. What we did was we had this concept in 2006, which we took two weeks to build out, and introduced to some of our friends, who are of course the geeky, techie types who are compelled to try a new form of communication just because. And they invited their like similar-minded friends. And we positioned the product as such: As this cool new way to stay hyper-connected with friends, family or organizations that you care about and thus we've become sort of the pulse for those things. What got promoted a lot was, 'Oh isn't this fun, small, short tweets and you can stay hyper connected in real time.' I think that's kind of a divisive way of presenting the product because there's going to be plenty of people saying, 'I don't want to stay that connected,' and that's absolutely fair to say. But when you look at it differently, when you take into consideration Twitter Search—which is sort of the better half of Twitter and will become a lot more important as it is better integrated into the overall product experience of Twitter—when you take into consideration that we have updates coming in from all around the world from eyes and ears everywhere on the planet telling us what they're seeing, what's happening with them, what going on around them, and this is all coming in through one magnificent real time feed, and you have the ability to filter in real time and say, 'OK, just give me updates where people are talking about earthquakes' or iPhones, or things that are relevant and interesting in my life. When you begin to position the product as something that can bring more value and relevance to your everyday use-case—there was a loud noise outside my house, ask Twitter what it was—then I think you get a broader appeal, as opposed to 'stay hyperconnected to your nerdy friends.' So I think the answer to that question, 'How do we cross that chasm?' is really a simple matter of being more effective with our communication on our website, and in the way we present what we've built.

MJ: The Twitter responses to the Mumbai attacks really showed off the serious crowd-sourced journalism side of Twitter. How do you recommend professional US journalists use Twitter to enhance or report international stories?

BS: Well that is an interesting question. I think there's a lot of inventive use cases from reporters and journalists, but one of the things that's recently occurred that's sort of piqued my interest is CNN declaring that they were cutting themselves off from the AP and that they were going to start their own newswire. This industry is something like 175 years old, I think it started with Agency French Press, and it hasn't really changed that much. I mean it's gotten faster and it's gotten more electronic, but what else has happened? I don't think a lot. And I'm admittedly not an expert there. But when you take into consideration this massive feed that I talked about that's coming in in real time through Twitter, I think there's a compelling complementary arrangement there with the idea of a newsfeed. To answer your question, I think reporters should take advantage of the fact that Twitter has sort of brought the pace of news into real time, away from several minutes and into instantly. And to take advantage of that they should look at what's coming through Twitter, and they should use it to do what they do best, which is to put some perspective and some framing around that information and then tell the story as they see fit. That's really the most compelling way I can think to use it, now there are a lot of other use cases I'm sure, but that's a good place to start.

MJ: Should print journalists who don't have a Twitter account yet be freaking out? I mean are they too old school to survive the 'new media showdown' of 2009?

BS: No definitely not. I mean, for one thing they don't even have to have a Twitter account to go to search.twitter.com and immediately begin to investigate what's happening in real time in their area. For example, I live in Berkeley, if I want to know what's happening in Berkeley, I can ask Twitter search to just give me the trends, the most talked about things in the last 30 seconds in my town. And we do trend analysis on all the incoming tweets. You can look at the front page of Twitter Search, just look at it, that's not very high tech, and say, 'What's trending that's interesting? Why do I see this name?' You're going to see some obvious ones like 'happy new years,' but then you're going to see a name or a location or something like 'Mumbai' that's going to peak your interest and you're going to say, 'Why is Mumbai suddenly on here? Why are people suddenly talking about Mumbai?' And you click through and you access the real time stream of what's going on in Mumbai right now. So I think even people who have a very limited technology sense can visit a webpage and look at what the top issues are and I think that’s a compelling enough reason to get involved.

MJ: I've read that Twitter has grown 600 percent over the last year and is expected to grow 10 times it's current size in this next year. The Financial Times has reported estimates of 4-5 million users. But you've repeatedly declined to discuss numbers publicly. Why is that?

BS: We made the decision early on that it didn't really benefit our users or us to publicly disclose data such as the total number of registered users or the total number of tweets going through the system per second, and things like that. I mean we regular share relative data, we just don't feel the need to disclose absolute data. That was primarily early on, for a variety of reasons, really. While reporters and competitors are very interested in this data, we couldn't see a direct benefit to us or to our users. That being said, we thought relative data would be of enough interest to reporters and users that we could go ahead and release that. But we just made it a communications policy that we are a private company and therefore some of our information, you know we have a right to keep that private, and so that's what we've been doing.

MJ: Twitter is still privately funded, is this because you prefer the simplicity and freedom of private investment, or because you haven't yet developed a viable business model?

BS: It is privately funded at this point. We built this very conceptual form of communication, we weren't sure how it was going to go, when it started to take off and get popular we new we were on to something so we wanted to kind of double down on it and keep working. The best way to do that the best way to add more people to our team and to grow the service was to raise money so we could fuel that growth and build that team and the company. The plan is to make a sustainable business out of this new communication system. So the private funding is to get us through the technology phase where we're rock solid and very performing, then into the phase where we are developing business products so that we can emerge from that venture capital phase and into a phase where we're growing on our own. That's primarily why we did it. It's not too strange of a plan.

MJ: There's plenty of speculation about what Twitter is worth, but what's your guess?

BS: Those numbers are traditionally calculated by the amount of money we raised and the percentage of equity in the company that we've exchanged for that money combined with other factors like growth and things like that, and since those are figures we don't give out, I'm not at liberty to take a stab at the valuation.

MJ: Twitter started as a way for friends to communicate with each other, but more and more companies and organizations, not to mention journalists, are using it these days. Do you think Twitter is used now more for personal or professional purposes?

BS: Well that's a good question too. It's interesting, some refer to Twitter as a social network, but I really think it's more of a communications network that has very social elements to it. It's different from a social network because, just think about the way you use a social network, you get a friend request and you approve the friend and now you're friends. But on Twitter it's the reverse. You look through Twitter and you try to find compelling sources of information that you'd like to receive and be updated about. And those sources are increasingly a mix of friends, family, coworkers, brands, companies, organizations, and the like. It has definitely turned into something that you make of it. For example I follow Whole Foods, JetBlue, a bunch of friends, this guy that posts the funny cats because he makes me laugh. In a way it's kind of a different approach, and like I said a very open form of communication, and that's what it's become.

MJ: So you're 34 years old. A lot of tech 2.0 stuff has come from people in their young 30s or even under 30. Is this a young person's game?

BS: You know, I don't think it is. I think increasingly, the tools that we use to build things like social networks and in particular Twitter have taken an innovative approach because we've combined the mobile texting world with the web world. But increasingly the tools you can use to build these sort of systems are not, in and of themselves, that innovative or that outrageous. You can just find them and you can put them together. So I think this game, as you put it, is something that is going to come increasingly from folks who are more like artists or humanities type people who say, 'How can we make people better? How can we make the world better? What can we add? What do we have already that we can just combine and create more efficient ways of communicating or helping one another?' So I don't think it's young person's or even a technologist's realm. It's the realm of anyone who has a dream of making things better, or improving things, or adding something to the world.

MJ: Is it a young man's game?

BS: I think traditionally when you isolate the realm of technology companies in Silicon Valley, there are a lot of men in the workforce. But there's a very conscientious attempt to increase the number of women who are in the business. I would wager a guess that at least a quarter of Twitter employees are women. Like I said, I think as we move forward in this, it's going to be less about technology for technology's sake, which may very well include a lot of men, and it's going to be more about people who really want to contribute to making the world better and that certainly would be much more inclusive.

MJ: Twitter was getting a lot of flack a few months ago because the site kept crashing, mostly because the number of users was growing faster than Twitter's infrastructure. The site doesn't seem to be crashing too often these days, but are you still having growing pains?

BS: I think we're still scaling, yeah. And that word applies not only to the technology but also to the company itself, and it's an important thing to be wary of at this stage. We have made hugely significance progress from a performance or reliability standpoint, consistently coming in at 99.99 percent up time, but yeah we were certainly having trouble early on because popularity caught up with use quicker than we were ready for it. We were in firefighting mode for a while which is a horrible place to be in because we were losing the trust of our users and just morale and everything was not great. We were able to take a deep breath and find the right path out of that situation and toward a stable performance system which has been a very inspiring thing for us. That word 'scalability' also applies to a company, a growing company, and we can look to the successes of our engineering and operations department and say, 'What was it that actually worked there? What was it that made that work?' It's not necessarily just a technology thing, it's a matter of leadership, it's a matter of communication, and it's a matter of identifying the weakest points and making them no longer the weakest points. That can also be said about growing a business and a company. So that's the point we're at now. The answer to your question is I don't think we'll ever stand up and declare 'mission accomplished' because I think it's an ongoing thing. You always want to become more efficient, more reliable, more scalable. Obviously you reach a certain point where you're pretty happy with the system, and we're getting there, but I don't think it'll ever be over.

MJ: Obama ran a very tech-savvy campaign, and he really embraced new social tools like Twitter and Facebook. Did anyone from the Obama campaign contact you about using Twitter?

BS: We were in contact with both camps, just about small stuff like questions about how to do certain things. The Obama folks were on it much, much earlier, so they had a head start in terms of growing their base. I think it was actually us who reached out the McCain folks, and said, 'You should really… you know, Obama's got this great account with all these people on it…' We actually were building a special view on the election, so we had to put out a call to the McCain folks and say, 'You should get out here so we can put you up on the top of the page along with Obama.' So they did that, but they did it a little late in the game.

MJ: Do you think Twitter influenced the course of public debate during the presidential election? Or maybe even its outcome?

BS: I would love to say yes. I wouldn't want to take credit for it. Where we were able to help was we certainly raised a lot of eyebrows and people said, 'Huh, maybe the pace of democracy now is operating in real time and maybe tools like Twitter are something to be considered very seriously as we do this.' I think in other elections, smaller elections, and even in the next presidential election, Twitter will be an obvious go-to tool, where if you're not on it you're making a big mistake because you need the tools to let you make smart decisions in real time. You don't have the luxury of mulling things over for as long as you're used to now. When there are people operating in real time out there you need to jump in and be at that same pace.

MJ: What makes somebody popular on Twitter? I mean, how can I make my Twitter feed popular?

BS: I think there are a few ingredients. First of all, being an active user. Having something compelling to say, and that doesn't mean it has to be this genius content because it really depends on who is following you. Like I said, the other day I heard music outside of my house and so I typed 'music, playing, concert, Berkeley' into Twitter Search and I got an update that was a minute old from someone who said they were at a Radio Head concert at the Greek Theater which is near my house. So I said, oh ok, question answered. But all they wrote was 'listening to Radio Head at the Greek in Berkeley' which in and of itself isn't that compelling of an update, but at the same time it was very meaningful to me. So you want to be a fairly active user. And you want to engage a little bit with other people. So if you see that you're getting '@replies,' which are just a public way of addressing another Twitter user so that others can see you've addressed them, if you see you're getting these in your replies tab, occasionally to respond to them in kind. That usually shows signs of life activity. Once you create that engagement you start creating feedback loops which make the whole experience more compelling and attracts more people to follow you. And then all that being said, it also helps if you happen to be a celebrity in the first place.

MJ: Twitter updates are known for their creativity. What's the most poetic tweet you've encountered?

BS: It's hard for me to remember exactly the most poetic one, but there's a whole group of people insist on Twittering in Haiku form, and those are certainly poetic. There was contest early on on Twitter where folks were asked to write their, I think it was either five word or six word memoir, and this one in particular was 'If I had more time I would've…' and that was it. I thought it was a really clever one.

MJ: That's great. So is it fun being a web celebrity?

BS: Web celebrity… I don't know that I'm a web celebrity. I'm more of a servant of the people who use Twitter. It certainly is fun. The ability to communicate with a lot of people, I think, is what's very fun because it means that you basically have a leadership position. You have an opportunity in that case to set a tone and to lead by example and to show character. Even though it's weird, I'm especially fond of those times when things go horribly wrong and I have the opportunity to show a character and leadership in those times to demonstrate to others, 'This is how I think we should all behave.' So it certainly is fun in that respect to be able to communicate with a lot of folks instantly.

MJ: Biz Stone is a great name. Is it short for anything?

BS: Yes. It's short for my own ineptitude. I couldn't say my full name, which is Christopher Isaac Stone, I said Bizaber instead of Christopher when I was very young. My parents and friends starting calling me Biz because of that. I tried to tell people my name was otherwise, but they wouldn't have it. They insisted on calling me Biz Stone. I used it on the web a lot when I started blogging and things, and then when I started writing books I used it as my name. So now it's pretty much it. Everyone just calls me Biz. I think there's some people at the bank who call me Christopher Isaac and I don't even turn around when the say the words, but I'm trying to pay attention a little bit more.

MJ: Biz Stone, thank you very much for speaking with us.

BS: Thank you for having me.

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