Last week I met up with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone to discuss life at the company, and to find out what things are like inside the most talked-about startup in the world.
How strange is it to get contacted by the US State Department and have them beg to keep the site online?
Biz Stone: It’s not really that strange. We get tonnes of email all the time from all walks of life. Truthfully, something unbelievable happens every week. Once in a while my Sunday email will say that nothing happened — but people know that’s a joke, because I’ll go into some crazy thing that’s happened. Things do get increasingly weird as we become part of a global stage.
It’s intimidating, but it’s a great opportunity to advance the idea that we’re all earthlings.
But you’re being asked by a government to play a role in this enormous political event.
BS: There’s always something going on. I think you need to zoom out a little bit more and realise that communication and the open exchange of information in general has a positive impact in the world — and many companies are doing this. It’s becoming increasingly important and increasingly valuable for people everywhere.
We recognise that, we know that’s true. So our goal is just performance, reliability and service — when there’s a global event, when something big happens, that’s when there’s a lot of focus — that’s when you want to make sure the tool is working right because everyone’s going to be looking at it.
Specifically, in those moments, there’s a microscope on it. Is it working? You always want it to be working, but those moments put a fine point on it. I guess you do spend a little bit more time double checking.
One criticism that has been levelled at you is about the way the company’s employees use Twitter; that they don’t follow enough people or use the service in the same way as some power users. Do you think those criticisms are misplaced?
BS: We actually are representative of people who use it. Most people follow 10 people and are followed by 10, although that’s not necessarily a recent stat: but we’re all Twitter users and we all use it in different ways.
I can’t keep up with more than two or three hundred people. I think these folks who are following tens of thousands of accounts are just not really following anybody.
I think that comes from a training from a social network training standpoint that you have to reciprocate, but that’s absolutely not what Twitter is. It’s an information network, and you consume what you want. You don’t have to follow somebody back, just because they follow you. But people have different opinions on that, and that’s fine. Everyone here uses Twitter and loves it, and use it in different ways, and I think that’s why we’re representative.
But that doesn’t necessarily stop people being annoyed. Do you listen to those criticism from big names in Silicon Valley?
BS: I actually think about this stuff differently. I think it’s really important to get a variety of opinions. I spend a lot of time travelling around the world
It’s something to be concerned about when you work here. We’re in San Francisco, not Silicon Valley per se, so it’s already a little bit different — we’re in a loft in the city.
It’s important not to get swept up with a fraction of a percent of highly vocal people who say you absolutely need to do this. You need to listen to them, just like you need to listen to everyone else, but you have to balance it.
You just have to think: what’s obvious and what’s not obvious? What Twitter has taught us is that simple is great, and just adding something because it seems like a good feature, or because it seems like people would like it is not a good enough answer.
When is it good enough?
BS: One thing we’ve done with Twitter is that we’ve watched emergent behaviour come into the system and then turn it into a feature — just like the paving of the cow-paths; this is where people are walking, this is where the paths should be. You have to make sure you’re not in that bubble, because there’s strength in variety.
Is Twitter mainstream yet?
BS: I think we still have ways to go before that. I don’t even really know what mainstream means. I think our brand is certainly getting into the mainstream, but I think we still have a lot of work to do on our product.
But using a technology that most people can use — SMS — seems to pitch to the mainstream.
BS: That’s what we based the whole thing on — that’s the inspiring thing: there’s four billion mobile phone users in the world that are all carrying around with them Twitter-ready devices that are just as effective as the 1,5-billion people who have internet access. It can be very transformative when you realise that people can have access to this real-time network when all they have is a cellphone.
Take what you’re seeing with companies in the US and UK are raising the bottom line by telling people when the cookies come out of the oven; think about that with a street vendor in India, asking “if I get a watermelon, will you buy it?”. There’s a transformative power in SMS that’s extremely inspiring for us, and we’re going to bring that online worldwide.
Who do you admire? Where do you get your advice, or take your cues from?
BS: The folks that I look up to are folks that I know or that I worked with. I don’t pick heroes that I don’t know — although I mentioned President Obama before, just because of his one world philosophy.
I look up to [Twitter chief executive] Evan Williams — I’ve worked with him, and I quit Google at a time that it was crazy to quit Google just to continue to work with him because I felt like there was more to learn.
There was a guy I worked with early in my career, when I started out as a graphic designer, named Steve Snider [now creative director at St Martin’s Press]. I basically apprenticed with him; I quit school and worked directly with him and I really took advantage of it.
I didn’t just learn everything about design from him – I asked him every day: how did you know when it was the right time to propose to your wife? How much did you ask for your first job? He had all these great stories, and he didn’t even realise that they were great lessons.
It’s people that I work with who, when I recognise a good trait, I can steal it and take it as my own. If I look up to somebody I don’t really know, I’m just projecting.
I could say Steve Jobs — but I don’t really know Steve Jobs, so I can’t honestly say that. That’s the sort of thing you do over and over again with movie stars — you look at them and say ‘that guy’s a good guy’. But he’s playing a role. – guardian.co.uk