Q&A: Twitter's Biz Stone talks search, favorite Tweets and changing the Internet

Twitter co-founder discusses advertising possibilities, Facebook and haiku Tweets

Twitter Inc. is arguably changing the way people socialize and communicate online.

When Lance Armstrong's bike was stolen, he put out an APB to the "twitterati." When NASA scientists make a discovery about Mars, they turn to Twitter to get the word out to avid space enthusiasts. And when average, everyday people have good or bad news to share, they alert their friends and family, not always by telephone or even e-mail, but by Twitter.

Biz Stone, a co-founder of the company that offers a mixture of social networking and microblogging tools, says Twitter has the potential to significantly expand the Internet and the way we use it. Twitter, he says, is about connections and information. But he also goes so far as to say that San Francisco-based Twitter is also about the "triumph of humanity."

In a conversation with Computerworld, Stone talked about extending Twitter's search capabilities, his favorite Twitter topics, making Twitter more mobile and the company's commercialization plans.

How many times a day do you Twitter? I only do it two to three times a day. If I'm doing something out of the norm, and I think, 'Oh, this is interesting.' I'll twitter about it. But on a day-to-day basis, I do it less.

What do you generally Twitter about? Sometimes I Twitter about what's going on at the office. Every Friday, we have a meeting and then we watch a movie or play a game. I let people know what's going on in the office. If I'm traveling or visiting a friend, I'll say where I'm headed. And then sometimes I'll do something silly like a pun or a joke. I just go on and do it and if it's not a great one, it'll get washed away with the next ones.

Biz Stone
Biz Stone

A lot of what people Twitter about is how good their morning cup of coffee was or if they got a great parking spot at work. Why are we so interested in that stuff? When we first got started and we didn't know where we were headed, we positioned it as a way to stay updated on seemingly insignificant updates about the day. But it's become the pulse of what's happening in the world. It can be as big as terrorist attacks in Mumbai or as nano as eating a sandwich. But your mom might want to know that you're eating something good. But you can also tune into Twitter to find out what's happening with some major event by using search. You can throw some friends in there along with an airline and a news agency and then you'd get a pretty interesting timeline going. You can look at it as trivial or as a pulse of information. It depends on how you customize it.

Do you have a favorite Twitter topic? I've seen a bunch of stuff, like people twittering in haiku form, which is interesting. I see emergent patterns, like people playing games on Twitter. A bunch of folks played a War of the Worlds type of game. Somebody started it, saying, "Space ships are landing outside my house" and it turned into this massive pickup game. I think the answer is: My favorite topics are those that emerge.

What has been most surprising about Twitter? There are a lot of things that surprise me... like the growth of the platform. There have been thousands of really impressive add-ons to Twitter that enhance functionality. It's the adoption of the platform by outside developers. Some of my favorites are the iPhone applications. I'm using one called Tweetie. It just simplifies Twitter and makes it look and feel like SMS -- but you see people's faces. There's another that I really like. It's for doing real-time search with keywords.

When you guys were first dreaming up Twitter, what did you want it to be? And how different is the reality than what you had envisioned? It grew much bigger, much faster. But it's fairly close to what we had envisioned. We envisioned being able to, at a glance, see what friends and colleagues were doing. We wanted it to be a freeing way of communicating. This way of being able to communicate is like watching birds flock together in flight. It feels choreographed. We thought this technology would allow people to communicate in that way.

We were actually inspired by looking at an AOL IM buddy list. If you just look at the status messages, they're like 'Out getting coffee', or 'Out sick' or 'Too busy to talk'. We were thinking about that simple information, and our co-founder Jack Dorsey had a history in dispatch for ambulances and such. He had an interest in at-a-glance knowing where people were and what their status was. We knew there was a benefit to putting this information together. We also knew that having access to these seemingly trivial bits of information was not trivial. Each bit of information is kind of insignificant, but having access to it all is a powerful tool.

A lot of people say Twitter has radically changed the Internet. What's your take on that? I think it does have the potential to really expand it. What inspires me... is to expand the power of a real-time network to the weakest of signals around the world. We've had these great user cases, like this guy who got himself out of jail in Egypt. Farmers checking in and saying, "This is what price I'm getting for my grains. Is this a good price?" I think we can extend this a lot more and build it into mobile in a unique and compelling way. SMS is on every phone and is super simple.

How do you plan on making Twitter more mobile? Right now, anyone in the world can update their Twitter through SMS [Short Message Service], but we only send out updates on SMS in the United States. We receive them from everywhere, but we only send them in the U.S. because of cost. We need to one by one, go to each country and negotiate a deal that makes sense for us. That's one way we're going to expand the mobile aspect of Twitter.

I recently heard someone say that Twitter guides his life. What do you think about that kind of devotion? I think people refer to Twitter, but I really think that the better we are about creating a stable, useful communication platform, the more we can just get out of the way. I don't know if Twitter guides his life as much as the connections and the information. It's about the triumph of humanity. If we can create a great, robust platform and then get out of the way so people can help each other after earthquakes or help each other during gas shortages. When I hear that, I think it's all about people just being able to communicate with people.

What new features would you like to add in the next few years? We want to bring search in a lot more. Make it a lot more evident. It's sort of hiding out in its own little subdomain. We want to bring it to everyone's attention. And people are asking for lists and ways for people to form groups.

Where do you see Twitter in 2020 or 2025? The goal is to really build a robust and reliable network that can be built upon and can enable people to do everyday things great or small. If we do our jobs right, it becomes an important utility. By 2020, maybe people won't realize they're using Twitter but they're using it every day. I want it to be a successful, sustainable company.

Why did you choose 140 characters? Why not 135 or 17? SMS has a limit of 160 characters and we wanted to save 20 characters so you could see the name of the person who wrote the update.... We wanted you to be able to read the update on any device and not have the piece cut off partway.

Will there be ads on Twitter? There will be some form of commercial usage, but I don't think we're looking at traditional Web ads, like banner ads. We're not heading in that direction right now. There's a lot of commercial use on Twitter already, like JetBlue and Whole Foods and Dell. There's more validity in introducing more commercial usage other than ads. The short answer is no. No ads on Twitter; not right away, anyway.

What do you see as the future of your relationship with Facebook? I'm not sure exactly just yet. We really like what they're doing over there. Some of the more obvious stuff is to take advantage of Facebook Connect and put that into Twitter. You could be on Twitter and see who on Twitter is also on Facebook, so you could follow people that you're friends with on Facebook. We're working on it now, but I don't actually have a timeline for when it will be launched.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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