Twitter Co-Founder Ev Williams’ Opinions on Social Media

Twitter co-founder Ev Williams stepped away from the company to turn his attention to Medium, an online publishing platform designed to showcase longer, more nuanced content. Williams tells Walter that while Twitter needs to take responsibility for the quality of its content, it shouldn’t risk losing its role as a place for the exchange of important ideas.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Let’s now return to our main story, toxic politics and even street protests and the role social media plays. Ev Williams is a digital pioneer who co- founded the platform Blogger in the late 90s. He went on to co-found Twitter and lead the company as CEO, but the billionaire entrepreneur has since stepped down and his turned attention to Medium. That’s an online publishing platform designed to showcase longer and more nuanced content. Williams told our Walter Isaacson that while Twitter needs to take responsibility for the quality of its content, it shouldn’t risk losing its role as a place for the exchange of important ideas.


WALTER ISAACSON: So you do Blogger, which gets everybody easily onto the Internet with blogs. Then you do Twitter which becomes a great, new form of social media. And you used to say it was to connect us. If you gave people a platform to connect us, it would make the world a better place. Did that work out?

EV WILLIAMS, CO-FOUNDER, TWITTER: I don’t know if those are exactly my words, but there were certainly – that was part of the intention. I mean, when I got excited about the Internet in the late 90s, to me the exciting thing was exchanging ideas and knowledge with anyone in the world, and that still is the most exciting thing about the Internet to me. And so, I’ve basically spent my career building tools that help people share those ideas. And yes, so it was Blogger, and then Twitter we made it much, much easier. And we did have a belief and an ethos that more people sharing ideas and connecting means more better ideas succeed, we make better decisions, society is better. I would say part of that is true. I think we’ve seen a lot of evidence of that. I would say it turned out to be much more complicated as well.


WILLIAMS: We knew there were bad actors from the early days of the Internet. There was spam for instance and there was misinformation, but the idea was the crowd would overwhelm the minority and the crowd would be generally good. And there was value to debating things in public. I think the thing that was tricky is that a bad actor can overwhelm many, many good actors the way these systems are designed or have been designed. So that’s


ISAACSON: Wait, tell me the way they’ve been designed, do you think there’s something inherent in the algorithms that incent people to –


WILLIAMS: No, I think it’s actually – a ton of it is just human nature. I mean, we react to fear and threat and someone shouting fire in a theater and that – so that person can ruin the experience for everybody else. That part is just physics and human nature. And so, that – when you replicate that online and you give access to the whole world to ruin an experience with – for a group of people, turns out there’s enough bad actors in the whole world to wreak a lot of havoc.

ISAACSON: The anonymity by having that so embedded in the system of Twitter, did that help incent people to say things they wouldn’t say face-to-face?

WILLIAMS: I think the focus on anonymity is a little overblown actually. So if you look at – so Twitter is not by default anonymous. It’s bydefault you put in your name. It’s just that you’re not forced to put in your name, and turns out there’s a lot of really good reasons for that because one of the things we learned even back in Blogger days where there are places where freedom of speech is not a right and there are people who have things to say and they want to connect to fellow citizens, and if they do that in they’re name, they will go to jail. And so, Twitter was used early on by people in oppressive regimes to connect. And so that’s why it was always important to us not to do that. And most people used Twitter under their name, and most bad actors, people who are out there saying the worst stuff, I don’t think the majority of them, I don’t know the data on this, are saying it anonymously. They’re happy to be (bleep) under their own name. I don’t know if I can say (bleep) on here, but they’re —

ISAACSON: You can say it on Twitter, can’t you? Or did get some —

WILLIAMS: Yes, but I don’t —

ISAACSON: No, but the one’s that really driving the hate conversations.

WILLIAMS: I think it’s the lack of consequences more than — so anonymity is related to a lack of consequences. The point is, even if you’re in you’re — saying it under your own name, there are very little consequences to — to being hateful online and there are a lot of rewards, depending on what community you’re a part of. So that — I don’t think that’s the root of the problem.

ISAACSON: What is the root?

WILLIAMS: I think the root of the problem — it’s not an online thing. It’s — it’s humans can have trouble getting along, and when you detach —

ISAACSON: Yes, but — but we get — we get along fine when we’re together in, you know, a dinner.

WILLIAMS: In — yes, in dinner when you say who can be at the dinner. I mean, if — if you invite just anyone to stop by a dinner and — and then you will probably still have better behavior than online. I think the fundamental thing is when people are pixels on a screen, there is something innate about us that causes us to — the way we’ve evolved isn’t that, right? So, there are certain people who see the other people online as people and they feel an obligation to be — to treat them as people, and there seem to be people who don’t have that. I think that’s part of the of the challenge of these systems in general, and if we — all of the benefits that come with them come with that really big challenge.

ISAACSON: Is there someway we should be making people responsible for what they say on Twitter?

WILLIAMS: Yes, responsible. I don’t know what that means for sure, but I think there should be — you shouldn’t automatically have the ability to interrupt other conversations, and this is part of the, actually, the protections that are being built into Twitter currently. But, I think the whole idea of reputation is something that will — will come to the internet and I think that’s kind of important, because that’s how society works, is you build a reputation and if you insult someone, you’re no longer invited to the party, that sort of thing.

ISAACSON: But, you’re talking about the reputation of the user. You’re talking about the user taking responsibility. Do you think that the platform should have some responsibility for what goes on them?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely, the platform has responsibility. I think everyone at Twitter would agree that Twitter has some responsibility. I think when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of what they should be doing and the service that Twitter provides to the world, which I do think is important in being this open and free platform that where important ideas are exchanged and movements are created, you have to — it’s very unclear, to me as least, and a lot of very smart people are thinking about this all the time, how to maintain that. And as I say, and everyone should be nice and there should be no abuse and there should be no — like, I think people are messy and society is messy, and we have to take some good with the bad and we have to keep trying to make it good. But even the extreme of what’s — we’ll just go on there and police it, is — is just very naive and impractical. And it’s not a matter of, will they spend enough money. It’s not doable, in the case of Twitter, to police Twitter to the degree that there’s no bad behavior and then it gets very nuanced what is bad behavior. There are thousands of people and there’s thousands of counts that police the system right now. I think not everyone understands that.

ISAACSON: You know, I ask my students at Tulane, if you could invent a new form of media, or social media, that wouldn’t have some of the problems of the old one, they say the same things you do, which is, place where people take responsibility, place where there’s some curation. A place where, maybe, you could build your reputation. And low and behold, that’s what you’re doing in inventing Medium. So, explain Medium to me.

WILLIAMS: So, Medium is a place where anyone can write and publish, and articles is the main form that people publish on Medium. So, anyone can go on there. It’s — and just hit write and write something and thousands — tens of thousands of people do that everyday. Most people just read, and so you can go on there and you can find articles and blog posts about every topic under the sun, I think, almost literally. And, you can say what you’re interested in and you can start to get personalized. And, you can really go and learn about really anything, from technical topics, to politics, to business, to science, and there’s both professional journalists on there, who work full time on Medium. There’s independent writers, there’s organizations, there’s all types of people exchanging ideas and knowledge.

ISAACSON: You base it, not on advertising, but on subscriptions, and you actually pay people for the content?


ISAACSON: This is like going back to the future. The — your old- fashioned concept, but it means you get high-value pieces.


ISAACSON: Explain the theory.

WILLIAMS: Yes. So, the theory that — is that advertising, especially advertising online is the selling of attention. Almost all content on the internet is paid for by advertising. And the way these systems have evolved is, the most attention for the least dollars is what advertisers buy, for the most part. And so, if you apply that — if you want to pay for the creation of something with advertising, the formula becomes, how little can I spend to get the most attention.

ISAACSON: You make it click bait. You make it cats dancing on a piano.

WILLIAMS: You make it — yes, and you make it — it’s — it goes back to yelling fire in the theater.


WILLIAMS: If you got paid for yelling fire in the theater, people would — and there were no consequences, you would do that. That, in many ways, is what the internet has become and the algorithms and the advertising are all reinforcing this system, where whatever gets the most attention wins and as cheaply as you can create that most attention, that’s what is rewarded.

ISAACSON: And I assume the flipside, that is a subscription model means you’ve got to produce something of value, or people won’t pay for it.

WILLIAMS: — value, yes. The subscription model is, if we produce something good, you pay for it. It has to be valuable enough to the person receiving it to pay for it. If it’s not, they stop paying. That’s the whole basis, it’s a much more direct and it keeps us honest. So everything on Medium, there’s no advertising. There — it’s kind of like the “New York Times” and other publishers where everything is for free and you can read a certain amount, you keep reading more we ask you to pay.

ISAACSON: So, you just go to Medium.com and you say, hey, here’s what I want, and you start following things, almost as if it were Twitter, you have things you follow, but on the other hand, this is curated deep content.

WILLIAMS: Yes, and you can follow anything from cooking, we — we have a partner publication with Mark Bittman, the former “New York Times” columnist and he writes — he publishes and edits a publication called “Heated,” that’s about food. So, you can say, I’m interested in cooking, I want to follow “Heated,” I want to follow this individual author, I want to follow this topic, and then what you read makes it better overtime. And you can say I like this, I don’t like this, we’ll send you an e-mail, you get the app.

ISAACSON: You grew up on a farm in a tiny town in Nebraska, right?

WILLIAMS: That’s correct, yes.

ISAACSON: Did that help shape what you — your entrepreneurial spirit, your desire to connect, you’re desire to publish?

WILLIAMS: Yes. I think it relates to a lot of things. I’ve done — one is that I was very bored on the farm. I think boredom is a great thing for kids. I think it leads to creativity. I think I worry about that today.

ISAACSON: Meaning you worry that we don’t bore our kids? We don’t allow them to bored.

WILLIAMS: I don’t think that kids are bored enough, yes. Because I was just so — I was very isolated and I was just in mind thinking what can create, what can I do, what can I — and so, constantly trying to invent things, none of them were successful, but it was getting that habit.

ISAACSON: But you also liked magazines or something, right?

WILLIAMS: Yes, so I — as I got older, I just really wanted to be connected to the bigger world. I felt like — and I — and I found reading was a fantastic way to do that, pre-internet reading meant magazines and books. And so, I read about this — everything. And I had this, felt like an epiphany, where I read a book and it was about business or something. And I’m like, oh my gosh, I can learn what this person learned over years of work in hours. That’s like a super power.


WILLIAMS: And that, I still feel that to this day, is something we take for granted, that there’s all this knowledge out there and you can get it by picking up a book or reading an article. And so, I started doing that when I was a teenager, and I think that had a big part of getting excited about the internet. And finally, growing up on a farm, was sort of — entrepreneurship was sort of innate, meaning this idea that you have to be self-reliant, that you aren’t going to go, necessarily — the model isn’t, oh, go find a job or go line up to an institution, there’s — it felt very natural to me from day one to be on my own, scary, but it’s like, well what else would you do.

ISAACSON: And your first big company is Blogger. And in some ways you, at least, popularize and perhaps even create the word blogger, which is this notion that anybody can publish anything and anybody in the world can see it.

WILLIAMS: Yes, we created Blogger 20 years ago last month, is when we launched Blogger in San Francisco.

ISAACSON: And people have to remember that before then it was pretty hard to blog.


ISAACSON: I mean, you had to code your own pages.


ISAACSON: And when you created Blogger, it’s just a box. It’s just type in here and hit publish.

WILLIAMS: Exactly. And — yes, weblogs as people called them then and then eventually blogs were just pretty nascent. There were a few — handful of people doing them. And my friends at (inaudible) just said hey, we can make this easier. We know how to write code. Maybe more people would want to do this. We called it Blogger. Blogger.com was available. Just register the domain. And yes, it was just a big box and published them.

ISAACSON: And how did you get from there to Twitter?

WILLIAMS: Worked on Blogger for a few years, four years independently and then Google acquired it in 2003. Worked there for a couple years, which was great, learned a lot. Left there, started a company with a friend called ODO which was a podcasting company in 2005 about ten years before podcasts really took off. That was going sideways. Had to — and within that company, had a brainstorm, a hack-a-thon as we called it. Some of the guys there came up with Twitter. And we ran with that.

ISAACSON: You said that Trump is a sort of master for good for bad at being able to figure out how to use Twitter to further his own ends. I mean, what do you think of that?

WILLIAMS: Well, I don’t like it personally. But I think it’s fascinating that in some ways Trump us like an early Twitter user because early Twitter, one of the cool things, it felt like this connection to someone’s brain, like a more direct connection through the internet than we had before. Overtime, funny enough a lot of people on Twitter actually got more inhibited as the audience grew. It’s like oh, I’m not going to put just anything out there doesn’t stop Trump. He just puts — apparently it’s still whatever’s in his brain just goes out in there. And it’s — and the thing is that is compelling to people.

ISAACSON: But you tap right into the brain of somebody like a president is sometimes not a pretty sight.


WILLIAMS: Agreed. I mean it’s a mess. And there is power in it and it’s not–

ISAACSON: Does it give you any qualms that it sort of changed our political system both the way Trump has used it and then the way others have used it?

WILLIAMS: Yes. I mean, I think there’s a ton of harm that comes from that, for sure. And it’s amplified and the media amplifies it and the vast majority of people who see Trump’s tweets don’t see them on Twitter, they see them on CNN and Fox and everywhere else. And I’m not blaming them more than Twitter, I just think it’s not great that we have these messages that spread ignorance and lies and hatred amplified. Like first of all coming from the president of all people and then amplified by all media and Twitter and everything else say look at this. It’s terrible.

ISAACSON: And you say that causes harm.

WILLIAMS: I think so.

ISAACSON: Then what do you do about it?

WILLIAMS: What do I do about it?


WILLIAMS: I don’t feel like I have a lot of power to do a lot about that.

ISAACSON: But if you could’ve changed Twitter, what would you have done about it?

WILLIAMS: I don’t know that we could’ve. I don’t know that we could’ve prevented Trump. I think the system — if you look at any — if you look at Twitter or anything in retrospect and say well, let’s create a system that wouldn’t have led to those outcomes. Twitter probably wouldn’t be Twitter today and something else would be Twitter today. I think like the — had we created like a safe cultivated curetted place would it have grown? Would anyone have cared? Would there not been something else to take it’s place? I think all those things would be true.

ISAACSON: But now you’re creating a safe cultivated curetted place, meaning Medium.


ISAACSON: In some ways, are you doing that as a reaction to what happened at Twitter?

WILLIAMS: I’m doing that so people can deepen their understanding of the world and find good ideas. Not everyone wants to participate in the frantic hectic advertising driven media world. There is a hunger for nuance and complexity and that’s who goes to Medium. I’m creating the opportunity for reasonableness and depth to survive and thrive. That’s why I’m doing Medium.

About This Episode EXPAND

Vali Nasr and Karl Sharro join Christiane Amanpour to discuss protests in Lebanon and Iraq. Actor Julie Andrews reflects on her dazzling career. Twitter co-founder Ev Williams explains what went wrong with social media and how he’s trying to fix it.