Twitter founders seem to know very little about Twitter

If you missed Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone interviewed by Brad Stone from BusinessWeek on Monday — you were fortunate. The two executives spoke at a meeting of Inforum, which is part of the Commonwealth Club, focused on fostering discussion among people in their 20s and 30s.

The location was the stunning Julia Morgan Ballroom at The Merchants Exchange in downtown San Francisco (a building owned by Clint Reilly, one of California’s top political power brokers). And there was a huge fireplace, as advertised for the “Fireside chat”. But there was little fire in the conversation.

NY Times columnist Brad Stone was introduced as someone “known for asking the tough questions”. But Stone was reluctant to do much probing, preferring just to move on to the next question on his list.

Overall, I did learn something: About a “social mission” at Twitter which was a surprise; and that Ev Williams isn’t all that engaged with Twitter or knows much about his users. Biz Stone came across as much more tuned into Twitter.

Here are some notes from the evening:

– Is Twitter mainstream? Ev Williams came back with “what does mainstream mean?” Twitter has gone beyond pundits.

– How’s the new site going? Ev Williams said it was a great success, not even a single protest group. We expected pitchforks. Even Biz liked it.

(I have heard from many people complaining about the new site and loss of some features. It was a little shocking that the Twitter co-founders were so self-congratulatory on not being able to find critics. Scratch a little deeper…)

– Ev Williams said he goes to Twitter for news and Tweets maybe just once or twice a day. (Wow! That’s very low engagement.)

– Ev Williams dropped Conan O’Brien’s name, said he was talking to him and his writers and they like the 140 character constraint because it produces better jokes.

– Malcolm Gladwell’s recent post “Why the revolution will not be Tweeted” was politely received at first but then both founders laid into him. Williams said, “it was laughable” and that he confused Twitter with Wikipedia when he (Gladwell) complained about a lack of editorial control.

Biz Stone said that no one had claimed that the revolution would be tweeted in the first place. And that the Iranian political protests weren’t technically a revolution.

– They were asked about ads and they said all ads would be properly marked. They also mentioned a “resonance” algorithm so that if a major brand is Tweeting ads, and it doesn’t resonate with Twitter users, they will pull the ads and not charge for the ads.

(Will they use re-tweets to measure “resonance?” What else do they have to measure and why do they need an algorithm for that? How many people will gladly re-tweet an ad? Only if bribed.)

– They will analyse users and who they follow so for example, someone following lots of video game related people will be offered to Xbox if it wants to gain more readers for its Tweets, for a price.

– Asked about censorship they said they don’t want to moderate Tweets and that they have three simple rules, they will ban tweets that have specific violent threats; links to child pornography; and links to copyrighted content specified by takedown orders.

Biz Stone said it would take considerable creativity to be “super porny” in 140 characters, therefore it’s not a problem. They support free speech.

(If they had to moderate tens of millions of Tweets daily they would soon be out of business. It has nothing to do with standing up for free speech.)

– Twitter has a division that seeks to work with newspapers and other media organisations to see how “both can succeed.” (Good luck getting money out of hard hit media groups.)

– Asked about not having a business model Ev WIlliams said he didn’t like all the talk that they didn’t have a business model because they hadn’t been working on a business model in the first place(!) They wanted to take their time to eventually get to a point where they had a business model and try out different things that weren’t obvious, like using Google AdSense.

– They said Twitter would get to a billion users, just like Facebook but it would be a different billion users.

– The failure of Odeo was brought up, a search engine for podcasts that both were involved in. They said they weren’t emotionally connected with Odeo, and that they didn’t produce or listen to podcasts, which didn’t help. But it was easy to raise money for the venture.

(Ev Williams is not that engaged with Twitter, I wonder if that will be a problem down the line.)

– Not much interest in expanding into China, especially since Twitter is blocked. There are several thousand users in China using VPNs.

– They want Twitter to be relevant to users and connect with their information, they don’t have to Tweet much if at all (a la Ev Williams).

– They have a big design and engineering team working on new products.
(Look out Twitter ecosystem!)

– Both, especially Biz Stone, spoke about a social mission for Twitter and that connecting people around the world would make people empathize more with one another and people would realize they are citizens of the world.

(The “Social Mission” aspect of Twitter sounded contrived especially since we are just hearing about it now… Why not earlier? Sounds like it was bolted-on.)

– Biz Stone spoke about some educational philanthropic projects. “If you can’t read – you can’t Tweet.”

So the Q&A was lacklustre.

Foremski’s Take: Twitter is a “force of nature”. It became successful despite its founders not knowing much about what was happening. To hear the founders try to explain Twitter as a type of fait accomplis from the start was entertaining and ludicrous.

I would have preferred a more honest approach, something along the lines of:

“We tried Twitter as a side project, but we had no idea what it would do, or turn into… We thought about closing it down several times because people were Tweeting pathetic stuff and it was starting to cost a fortune in SMS charges … but then it took off.

Now, we are scrambling just to keep up with our users, and we are trying to make money copying the best ideas in our ecosystem of app developers. We have a kick ass team to do that.

Plus, we don’t really know what the heck is going on inside Twitter, we’re just trying to ride it and not get thrown off. It’s not like we spend that much time on Twitter anyway … we’re busy having a real life ; )”

Sadly, we didn’t get that. It would have been far closer to the truth if we had, and far more authentic.



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