Twitter co-founder Biz Stone

Twitter co-founder and creative director discusses the monetary and social value of the site, which turns five this week, boasts 200 million accounts and employs 400 people.

Twitter co-founder and creative director Biz Stone has also helped build other popular social media services, including Xanga, Blogger and Odeo, and published two books on blogging. Recently, he accepted the role of Strategic Adviser for Social Impact at AOL, working on cause-based initiatives. Stone is a native of Boston, MA and developed his entrepreneurial spirit early, mowing lawns and producing, directing and acting in his own high school plays. He later moved to Berkeley, CA, where he advises other start-ups, including Trazzler and Square.


Tavis: Biz Stone is, of course, a successful entrepreneur who five years ago this week joined forces with two partners to form something called Twitter. Five years later, the social networking site is one of the most influential and widely used forms of communication in the world.
Recently, he signed on as a strategic adviser with AOL and the new Huffington Post media group – more on that in a moment. In conjunction with the fifth anniversary, Twitter has just released a new video featuring users from all around the world. Check it out.
[Begin video clip]
“Hillary Clinton:” People can exchange ideas and information instantaneously. Countries and cultures are brought together like never before.
“YELLEtweets:” (Speaks in French.)
“Juanes:” (Speaks in Spanish.)
“John Boehner:” I want to listen to the American people, so I follow thousands.
“Martha Stewart:” I use Twitter to keep in touch.
“Gary Vee:” Really, I use Twitter to listen.
[End video clip]
Tavis: There are a thousand thoughts I had just watching that tape. The last one was that Twitter may be in the only thing in Washington these days that’s bipartisan. Didn’t I see Democrats and Republicans in that piece?
Biz Stone: Yup. Yes, you did.
Tavis: Everybody using Twitter?
Stone: Yup.
Tavis: Did you imagine this five years ago?
Stone: I want to say yes, but absolutely not, no. The only thing that we had imagined was that working now in over a decade and creating blogging platforms and other ways of expressing yourself, we had a hunch that there could be something potentially valuable. But at the very beginning it was about fun. It was about scratching an itch and it was about building something that we really wanted to be building.
Tavis: Since you say valuable, I’ll ask question and we’ll move on, because I know from talking to you in the past this is not one of your favorite subjects. But you can’t turn five and have numbers thrown around like 3 billion up to 7 billion and not comment on it. So how does one calculate what Twitter is worth five years later?
Stone: I still think that’s a bit of a mystery. Like you said, the numbers are so wide-ranging. The way that we really calculate the value is the value we’re generating for our users. That’s the way that we measure it. I think down the line when we get more sophisticated with the revenue products we’ve launched, the promoted products, the promoted tweets, accounts and trends, I think once we get further along with those, we’ll be able to more accurately predict the true value of the business.
Tavis: What do you think of the fact that there are people – Kim Kardashian, for example, comes to mind – people who are being paid significant sums of money to shout things out in their tweets? Did you have that in mind five years ago?
Stone: No, never imagined that. That emerged on its own, and I think my thought there is that if it’s working for them, if it continues to work for them, if people continue to follow them and enjoy their tweets, then I think that’s probably okay.
Tavis: Should Twitter be entitled to some of that cash?
Stone: I think we have our own plans for how we’re going to make money, and we’re very sensitive to how users are going to react to the ways that we make money.
We want our revenue products to be as meaningful and as relevant as the rest of our products. That’s why our promoted tweet is really just a tweet that a company has paid for other people to be able to see it more often and it’s native to the system. It’s all about a good user experience.
Tavis: I’m going to press this one more time, respectfully, because I can’t imagine that this trend will continue and Twitter won’t have something to say it maybe down the road. But literally if people continue to get significant sums of money for using your product while they shout other things out, that could become a pretty significant revenue stream in and of itself for your users, but not necessarily for Twitter.
Stone: Well, we’ll see. I think the stuff that we have in mind, and the way that we plan on opening up the revenue system –
Tavis: That Kardashian money is peanuts, in other words.
Stone: Yeah. I think (laughter) over 200 million accounts and growing, I think the way that we end up rolling out our sort of very open revenue strategy is going to be a lot bigger.
Tavis: I was thinking before I came on the set today that you went to Google in 2003.
Stone: That’s right.
Tavis: Left in 2005.
Stone: Yeah.
Tavis: What’s funny about that story for me is that when you left with your partners you left to work on another project.
Stone: Right.
Tavis: Twitter was really just a side idea.
Stone: Yeah.
Tavis: Whatever happened to the other project?
Stone: Well, we eventually ended up selling it to I think a New York-based firm who took it over. It exists today. It was a podcasting or audio on the Internet company, but we weren’t emotionally invested enough, really, to continue working on it, so we started the side project, as you said.
Tavis: What made you set – I hear your point, you weren’t emotionally invested – what made you set that aside and bet everything that Twitter would be better received?
Stone: Well, I had become friends with – I left Google with Evan Williams, my other cofounder of Twitter, and I had become very friendly and a tight collaborator with Jack Dorsey, the other cofounder of Twitter. We started talking about SMS and mobile texting, and could we build something on top of this very fundamental but worldwide technology?
We got very excited about it and we were given two weeks by Ev, who was the CEO of this other company. He said, “Why don’t you guys just take two weeks and build a prototype?” It was during building that prototype that I really realized that this was something I could work on for the next so many years, and it turned out to be five years so far.
Tavis: How did – and maybe there’s a technological answer to this that I don’t understand – by why 140 characters?
Stone: Oh. Well, the international limit on mobile texting or SMS is 160 characters. We wanted Twitter to be entirely readable and writable on every single one of the over five billion mobile phones on this planet, because they all have SMS built in. So we said it has to be within 160 characters, all the tweets.
What we did was we standardized on 140 so that we’d have room for the name of the author of the tweet to be included in the tweet. That way, in its entirety, no matter where you are, you see who wrote it and what the content is on the most rudimentary of mobile phones all the way up to a fancy Web connection, you know, on a broadband Web connection.
Tavis: Five years later, I’m curious, Biz, as to whether or not you think that decision was a good decision, and I ask that because I realize what – now that you’ve answered the question – I realize what the limits are. But when I tweet sometimes, one of the things I personally find frustrating is that to your point about content, if I can sound like Jesse Jackson for just a second, content without context is pretext.
The content is nice, but in 140 characters, if you’re trying to put some content out, that doesn’t give you much room to provide context. Before you can even get to the second part of what you’re trying to say, people are jumping on you, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, because you can’t tell the full story in 140 characters. But you don’t care about that, do you?
Stone: No, I actually completely agree with that. What’s beautiful about what’s been going on in journalism, for example, over 25 percent of every single tweet contains within it a link. Most often, that link is to a longer-form article or a photo or a video or something like this.
So that’s where a lot of the context comes from, and that’s what’s so interesting about this. You can provide a short-format content and it can grow and it can spread virally across the entire Twitter system and it can contain within it a link to something that’s much longer, that’s a long essay or that’s a video.
In fact, we started showing videos, pictures and other forms of content on the website of Twitter. If it was linking to them, we went ahead and brought it in, in a side detail pane.
So I very much agree with you that while news and information can travel very quickly through this network, sometimes it’s very important to add context to that.
Tavis: While we’re talking about my own personal issues with Twitter, (laughter) let me get one more out the way.
Stone: All right, a little therapy session.
Tavis: Yeah, a little Twitter therapy session with the founder. (Laughter) So one more, then I’ll move on to some other stuff. So that’s what troubles me about Twitter; I can’t get it all out in 140 characters. What I love about Twitter is that I’ve been fortunate, and I don’t know how, so I’m hoping you’ll explain this to me, I’ve been fortunate now four times to be the tweet of the day.
Stone: Oh, top tweet.
Tavis: Yeah, top tweet.
Stone: Yeah.
Tavis: I’ve had that four times. I don’t know how it happened, but it happened four times. So how does one become a top tweet of the day?
Stone: Essentially you become a top tweet because so many people are engaging with that tweet. They’re either retweeting it or they’re favoriting it, they’re doing one of many things to indicate to us that that tweet is interesting and engaging to users.
So what we do is we go ahead and we surface that tweet at the top, because we figure if you’re searching for one of the terms that’s located in your tweet, you probably want to see this top tweet that everyone else is finding to be interesting.
Tavis: Yeah, so I get turned on now when my staff tells me that I’m the top tweet of the day, and I’m trending, whatever that is.
Stone: I don’t think I’ve – I’ve never been a top tweet and I’ve never trended, so (unintelligible). (Laughter)
Tavis: I got something on Biz?
Stone: Yes, you do.
Tavis: Wow. I would much rather trade positions and be the founder of Twitter and give you a –
Stone: And I’ll take over your show. I’ll take over your show.
Tavis: You can have it. I’ll trade places any day, any day. Five years ago, when you said earlier you wish you could have predicted all this was going to happen, speaking of predicting, I can probably predict what part of your answer is to this question.
I want to ask you what has been most rewarding for you about the Twitter experience and the thing you have found most challenging about how the process, the application, is actually used. So if I were guessing, there’s so many examples around the world where Twitter has come to – we’re talking Iran and Egypt, you tell me in a second. I can guess the good, but what’s been the bad for you?
Stone: Well, like I said, I wish we could have predicted it, because we weren’t ready for the growth. We weren’t ready for the number of people around the world who would find Twitter so useful and so relevant to their daily lives.
So for many years we struggled, from an operational standpoint, keeping up with this growth. It’s only until now that we have a robust infrastructure and we’re able to actually deal with all these global events that Twitter gets involved with every single day, unexpectedly, all the time. We have to be ready to deal with those at all times.
So like I said, one of the biggest disappointments is that we didn’t – we weren’t ready for that growth, and so we could barely keep up with it and the service went down a lot as a result. Nowadays it goes down very infrequently and we’re able to support the massive amount of growth that comes when there’s a world event like the World Cup or when there’s a global disaster and people really need to communicate with one another.
The most rewarding thing for me has been this affirmation for me that people are basically good and smart, and if you give them a simple tool that allows them to exhibit that behavior, they’ll prove it to you every single day.
That’s what they’ve been doing on Twitter for so many years – organizing awareness for money for charity, helping one another during disasters, coming together as one during political strife, all of these things, and we see this happening and this is the kind of thing that’s just incredibly motivating to me to be part of my work, and I think to all of the folks who work at Twitter, we honestly believe that this is some of the most meaningful work we’re going to be doing in our lives.
Tavis: Speaking of which, how many people are employed at Twitter now versus five years ago?
Stone: We just crossed 400 people, and five years ago we had eight. Even two years ago we had as little as I think around 100 or 150. So we’ve been growing very rapidly to meet just the demand that the world has been asking from us.
Tavis: How much larger do you think Twitter will be in terms of followers, subscribers?
Stone: Well, we’re over 200 million accounts now. I think you can get into very, very high numbers when you think about Twitter has in its DNA mobile from the very beginning. The 140-character limit is meant to work on mobile phones. Like I said earlier, there are five billion mobile phone accounts activated in the world, and there’s only two billion people with access to the Internet.
So the potential growth scenario for Twitter into that mobile phone market, as well as into the Internet, I think can potentially, if we can do things right, get into the billions. But that’s something that we want to reach for. That’s not something that we’re guaranteed to have.
But we want to be able to bring the power of this real-time information network to even the weakest of signals around the world, where they don’t have access to the Internet, but where a simple SMS message carrying a piece of integral information just at the right time can change everything for people.
Tavis: You said something now, Biz, that makes me ask what the goal of the Twitter founders – what the goal is at this point. You’re five years old; you’ve got all these people using Twitter around the world. We talked earlier about valuation of the company. What’s the long-term goal here? Is it to get to a billion users? What’s the goal at this point, five years later?
Stone: I think if we zoom out and we look at what our goal is sort of in life with Twitter, our goal is somewhat threefold. It’s to have a positive global impact, it’s to build a very successful business on top of that, and it’s to have a lot of fun along the way and make sure that the work we’re doing is something that we’re, as I mentioned before, emotionally invested in and just thrilled by and excited to come to work.
For us, that’s the definition of success. For many companies, you get two of those ingredients and you have a successful company. For us, all three is key, and that’s kind of our mission at this point.
Tavis: So where is the fun for you? Five years ago the fun was getting this thing started.
Stone: Right.
Tavis: So at the five-year mark, where is the fun for you in the process?
Stone: The fun for me now is a couple of things. One is continuing to foster and grow this culture of a company that has woven into its very core the idea of trying to do good for the world, and a lot of that comes from what people are using the service for.
They’re doing wonderful things around the planet with Twitter and we follow that up with a culture inside of Twitter of giving back. We associated ourselves very early on with Charity Water, with Donors Choose, with Room to Read, helping with Malaria No More, helping with earthquake relief efforts in various countries.
We’re very invested in that work and that idea of Twitter being a force for good, so that’s something that I’m very much excited by – a culture of doing good. I think by extension that idea of – the idea that altruism has a kind of a compound interest, the earlier you get involved in helping people, the more impact you have over time.
If companies can weave that into their very core and more and more companies decide to do that, think of the real global impact we could have when it’s not just one company with that kind of attitude, but hundreds of companies with that kind of attitude. That’s the kind of thing that gets me very excited about the idea, that industry could actually have a real positive impact on the world.
Tavis: Altruism is one thing, and I don’t know who in their right mind would argue against a company that is being altruistic in the way that Twitter is. The flip side of that, it seems to me, is that Twitter is becoming more political. Now, the stories that tend to get written about Twitter are good stories, that it’s used on behalf of people who want freedom and democracy, et cetera, et cetera, but certainly, Twitter could be used by evil forces just as well.
Your thoughts, if you have any, about the nature of Twitter being used for political means and ends, whatever they may be?
Stone: Yeah, one of the core tenets for us is that the open exchange of information can have a positive global impact, and you have to accept the fact that if that’s what you say, then Twitter can be used for both good and for ill.
It’s our basic belief, like I said earlier, that people are basically good, overwhelmingly good. So when people are using Twitter for ill, they’re outnumbered by those who are using it for good. One of my personal beliefs is that I would rather have people using a system like Twitter that is completely open and viewable by all to do whatever bad things they want to do, because we can track it, we can see it. It’s happening in the light. It’s not festering in the darkness.
I think that’s a good thing. So it has become a tool for any and all people who use it, but you have to remember it’s just that – it’s a tool. It’s something that people will use to do things, and it’s not the technology itself. The technology itself is neutral and it’s up to people to behave accordingly.
Tavis: So eBay, some years ago, as you well know, had to put some new rules in place, and we all know the story – things that were being auctioned off that didn’t have any place there. So they had to get involved. Even though the technology, to your point, is neutral, people are not.
Stone: Right, yes.
Tavis: Ebay had to get involved to stop some of the madness happening on that site, as we all know. Would Twitter ever feel a responsibility, since you started out for altruistic purposes, is there ever a scenario you can imagine where someone doing the worst kind of evil, mobilizing people – if Hitler were – it’s an extreme example, but if Hitler were around today and using Twitter, what would Twitter have – what would you guys feel obligated to do about that?
Stone: There’s a lot of stuff that we actually do now, already. One of the biggest teams in Twitter is the trust and safety team, and this team is saddled with a lot of duties, including shutting down applications that are creating spam or tricking people into downloading malware and this sort of thing. They’re constantly shutting down hundreds of applications a day or a week; I forget which it is, but constantly sort of keeping the quality under control.
There’s also a set of policies we have in place for when people are breaking the law or doing these very specific things that we follow where we suspend the accounts for that.
Now, that being said, we also err on the side of freedom of speech, so even things that are hurtful or hateful sometimes are left up on Twitter for all to see. But things that are specific violent threats and things like this, these are things that are removed, and you can read about all that in our privacy policy and our user policies that are very clearly written in plain English. Actually, I participated in writing them because I never read those things, so I tried to write them so people can understand them when they read them.
Tavis: I assume, though, back to your earlier point, that five years later, even though the technology is neutral, anybody can use it for any end or aim, your sense is, though, that five years into this you still get the sense that people basically around the world are good-natured.
Stone: Yeah, and these systems tend to be self-policing. Like I said, they’re more good than they are bad, and when people try to spread misinformation, for example, it usually gets debunked very quickly, and the truth comes out very soon. So that’s what we’ve learned, not just with Twitter, but in over a decade now of creating these large-scale systems that allow people to express themselves and communicate – Blogger, at Google, and before that another social network that I started in 1999.
So it’s been almost 11 years now of seeing how these systems behave, and they behave generally like societies.
Tavis: We’ve talked around the edges of this a little bit. I want to go right at this now. I had a conversation on this show not long ago, and I’ve had many over the last few years on my radio and TV show about technology and what it’s doing to us.
Stone: Right.
Tavis: I deliberately don’t want to color the question any more than this, but there are those who are concerned about technology; Twitter obviously a huge part of that conversation now. What’s it doing to our brains, what’s it doing to our social interaction, our face-to-face time, our family time?
So without coloring it too much, what is Twitter technologically doing to us, for us, with us, against us? You tell me.
Stone: Well, I think that is a bigger question, and I think what’s happening is society is figuring out the best ways to use these tools in order to enhance our lives and make us smarter and more efficient and do better things.
I think the key with Twitter is very early on – I’m overwhelmed by things like email. I get way too much email. We designed Twitter to have a different set of expectations on something like email. When people tweet at replies to you, it’s not expected that you reply back to them. It only is like a gift if you do. So it’s nice if you do, but you don’t have to.
So right off the bat you remove the stress of answering all the questions in your inbox, or all the tasks in your inbox. The other thing about Twitter is I think the way that we define engagement is glancing down at Twitter on your mobile phone whenever you want to find out something that’s happening in your world or the interests that are most interesting to you, and you do that several times per day but you don’t get completely sucked into Twitter so that you’re staring at it for eight hours a day.
You access it when you need to, and I think that’s important. I think ultimately, where I’d like to see technology go is I’d like to see it kind of melt away, and I’d like to see more social interaction among people, and I’d like to see tools like Twitter facilitating the meeting up of people in real life, the coming together of people when something’s important, that sort of thing.
I also happen to believe that the 140-character limit we’ve imposed on people, while it can sometimes be frustrating, I think is almost – that constraint sort of inspires a lot of creativity, and you’re forced to think how can I get this thought out in about two sentences?
Tavis: I’m a witness.
Stone: People get very creative with it. I think “The New York Times” even recently had an article about people writing poetry in tweets. I think that sort of thing is very inspiring to me from a perspective of technology impacting the way that we live.
Tavis: If it’s Twitter poetry, it better be a haiku.
Stone: Right, exactly. (Laughter)
Tavis: It can’t be very long.
Stone: Exactly.
Tavis: Let me close by asking this – we know full well five years later how your life has impacted us; that is to say, the life that you have given to Twitter has impacted our lives, but how has Twitter impacted your life?
Stone: Oh, it’s been a real gift, I think, for me. I’ve been able to work with some of the most special people that I admire. People ask me who my heroes are; I say, “They’re Jack and Ev, my cofounders.”
I think when you pick a hero that you don’t know, you’re just projecting onto that person. If you pick a hero that you know truly and work with, then you can actually learn from them directly. There’s been working with these wonderful people that we’ve hired at Twitter, and not only that, but the opportunities it’s afforded me and my wife, to be able to have access to all of this philanthropic work that I’ve been doing.
We started a small foundation and we get invited to a lot of really interesting philanthropy summits and things like that. The ability for me – in short, the answer is the ability for me to make even more of a positive impact on the world because of Twitter has been magnified, and for that, I’m truly grateful.
Tavis: Well, I’m grateful you came to see me. I always enjoy talking to Biz Stone. Twitter is now five years old. They insist on saying happy birthday instead of happy anniversary, since they’re still kids.
Stone: Yeah, we’re kids.
Tavis: So happy birthday to Twitter on their fifth birthday. I don’t know where they’ll be in five, 10, 15, 20 years, but I hope to be around here to talk to Biz about those dates and anniversaries as they come up.
Stone: I hope so, too.
Tavis: Biz, good to have you here, man.
Stone: Thank you so much, Tavis.
Tavis: Congratulations, happy birthday.
Stone: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm