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Q&A with Biz Stone

He's on a mission to prove that Twitter is more than just a quirky text message toy or a dead-end variation on the blogging phenom

Globe and Mail Update

What are you doing? It's a simple question, and it's the only one that microblogging site Twitter.com asks its users to answer. But as the service enters the mainstream, it's now the one question that co-founder Biz Stone can't seem to escape. Twitter users are allowed 140 typed characters to answer the question, "What are you doing?" and can send out new posts, or Tweets, via text message or on the service's microblogs. The free service has been adopted by technophiles to update their online status, while political activists are using it as a key organizing tool. Investors, meanwhile, have given the San Francisco-based company a valuation of $100 million.

Frequent blackouts and a vague business plan, however, have called into question the long-term viability of the service. Now Stone and his team are on a mission to prove that Twitter is more than just a quirky text message toy or a dead-end variation on the blogging phenomenon.

Stone, a former creative director at blogging site Xanga, helped Google develop the Blogger.com platform. He is also the author of Blogging: Genius strategies for instant Web content and Who Let the Blogs Out: A hyperconnected peek at the world of weblogs.

Can you tell us a little about what Twitter is and how it works?
At its most basic level, Twitter is a communication utility, something akin to the telegraph or telephone. But because it is such a simple utility, it has many uses. The application we promote on our website is the idea of updating your friends with what you're doing in the moment so that they can immediately find out what you're up to. Your friend could be on a bus when their mobile phone vibrates in their pocket. They look down and it's you, and you're having a glass of wine somewhere. In this way, people can stay in touch socially.

Where did the idea come from?
The idea came from my colleague [Twitter co-founder and CEO] Jack Dorsey, who had long been fascinated with the idea of dispatch. He used
to write software for taxicabs and ambulances and bike messengers. He's also a big fan of social journaling sites such as LiveJournal. But he wasn't so sure that he loved the long format that those services asked people to participate in. He wondered if the simple concept of "status" that is so prevalent in dispatch could be applied in a social way.

Evan Williams [another co-founder] and I had been thinking about ways we might be able to attach SMS or mobile texting to the Web to create some interesting application. When Jack brought up this idea of a social-status sharing service, we merged it with the idea of mobility and thought it was
worth pursuing. That was how the chocolate and peanut butter came together.

Are you surprised that Twitter has grown to be this popular this quickly?
It did catch us by surprise. We thought this was a fairly new idea, and when we explained the idea before we built the prototype, people didn't seem that interested in it. So it was a real shock when we built it and people gravitated toward it very quickly. It was a happy surprise, but it was an unknown at first.

One of the most common complaints about Twitter is that it is prone to downtime and disabled features. Has Twitter grown too quickly for its own good?
I think that's a factor of being taken by surprise. Twitter is now a worldwide messaging platform, and that's really what the architecture calls for. Where we run into trouble is in treating Twitter as if it is some kind of content-management system instead of this message-routing system. While we get a handle on the popularity of Twitter and keep it running, we're simultaneously re-engineering it so that it's more in line technically with what it actually is.

Twitter utilizes an open-source application programming interface. How has that affected the business?
We built the API very early on. It has four functions, and it is very simple, like Twitter itself. Because of that simplicity, developers were able to get started on it very quickly. They could build an application for Twitter in an afternoon. That turned out to be a very important decision for us because the API consistently does 20 times more traffic than the website, which means that because we built this platform in such a way, other people could develop interesting and innovative ways of interacting with the platform...so it becomes a growth strategy for us, as well as a way of engendering a developer community.

How does Twitter compare to Google, your former employer, as a workplace?
Twitter is still a tiny little startup. We only have 17 employees. So it's a much smaller, more intimate environment, where every single employee has a really huge impact on the product—not only the product, but also the culture, the business and the work environment.

It's almost as if Twitter hasn't fully defined its own culture.
Yeah, the culture of Twitter is definitely being defined right now. Twitter was based on this idea about mobility, so when you write a Twitter message it can only be 140 characters or less because of the constraint of SMS. Those constraints and that limitation have trickled into the culture of Twitter as a company.

We like to think that constraint creates creativity, simplicity is significant, and craftsmanship builds character. Those are things that start with our product but have made their way into our culture. I'm not sure how that differs entirely from Google, because I'm sure they share
a lot of those sentiments.

How do you encourage innovation among your employees?
It's a way of thinking very simply: What can you develop on Twitter, and what can you come up with that is at once super-simple, but also really great and useful for folks? One of the things that has been a challenge has been to act with restraint when it comes to developing new features. That's a place where the API has really come in handy. While you may want to build a feature for Twitter, you can go ahead and build it using an API instead of actually putting it into the Twitter code base or making it a part of Twitter.

There's no advertising on Twitter and no subscription fees. What plans are there to monetize the service?
Right now all the plans to make the business sustainable are based on having a very large and reliable network...and that speaks to what you said before about people complaining about downtime. We don't believe that there is a sustainable business model to be pursued until we have a reliable network. At this time, we aren't making money; we're just spending it and concentrating our resources on building that network.

But have you investigated the possibility of adding advertising to Twitter?
Yes—but we have looked into a lot of different models. We launched a translated service in Japan that experiments with advertising...and the ads are all for Twitter accounts. One links to a Toyota Twitter account
that users can follow. They don't go offsite right now but there is that experimentation. Other than that, we haven't really been spending a lot of time on anything but the reliability.

When the earthquake hit China in May, many survivors used Twitter to get the word out. How do you see tools like Twitter helping in emergency situations and facilitating activism around the world?
The standout point for Twitter is the urgency and the timeliness of the updates, and that they can be transmitted from an IM or the Web or a mobile phone. So you can imagine how in certain cases of activism or urgent events, a tool like that would be useful because of that real-time distribution.

For Twitter, it really allows a group of people to move as one in a fluid way that you only see happening with flocks of birds, schools of fish and colonies of ants. From an outsider's perspective, it looks like magic.
I don't know if you heard about the recent case of the student in Egypt who used Twitter to save himself from prison (see "Who's using Twitter"). I'd heard of these reports coming out of Egypt for some time. Twitter and other tools, where you're allowed to exercise freedom of speech and you're allowed to communicate openly with other individuals in a way that allows you to get things done and express your thoughts,
I think they're all important.

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