Twitter Founder Biz Stone on Foursquare, Ron Howard, and Dressing Like Steve Jobs

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At the World Innovation Forum Tuesday, Twitter cofounder Biz Stone took the stage to talk about life at Twitter.

Stone began by redefining his company for the audience. "We're not a social network--that's been a myth since the beginning," Stone explained. "We're much more like an information network or a source of news." This definition feels a bit like wishful thinking given how many accounts lack actual news (The top tweeted messages, for example, according to the Oxford English Dictionary include bored, chillin, and watching TV.), and Stone later acknowledged that Twitter "definitely has social elements to it."

Stone also spoke briefly about Twitter's rolling out of its geo-location feature. "We've implemented the technology that allows people if they choose to attach their neighborhood data to a tweet," Biz said, citing the example of tweeting about an earthquake. "That information becomes very useful not just for our search engine, but for companies who want to see where their followers are from." Of course, this isn't the first time Twitter has brought up its "Points of Interest" feature. At Chirp, the Twitter developer conference, another company cofounder, Evan Williams, said, "We're not looking to duplicate what Foursquare and Gowalla are doing but rather trying to integrate them better into the service." I was able to speak with Biz Stone in person after the conference, and got a chance to ask him about this particular point.

Biz Stone I asked Biz if he could elaborate on Williams' statement, especially on whether Twitter views Gowalla and Foursquare at all as competitors. Stone bluntly replied, "No. We don't have a check-in feature. We have the add-location-meta-data to a tweet feature, which we want to provide to developers. We want other check-in services to keep tying themselves to Twitter in interesting new ways. But we're more interested in 'checking out' what's going on in your area -- what are people on Twitter saying about this particular restaurant or neighborhood, which is more interesting to us." It seems that Twitter is drawing a disinction between "checking in" à la Foursquare, and "checking out" à la Twitter, which is more about the information gathered from the geo-located tweet, rather than where the tweet was sent from on a map.

Later on in his talk, Stone told audiences about Twitter culture, and how he feared that startup success might go to the company's head. "Twitter is a three-year-old company but it has this very intense spotlight," he said. "My biggest fear is that we ended up like a child actor who found fame early and grew up all crazy--and I wanted us to be more like Ron Howard: child actor, successful director, and producer." Stone says he is constantly pushing for humility at Twitter, and moreover, trying to keep its "fast-paced startup feel." To do this, Twitter has been broken up into 20 different teams, each with their own initiatives and goals.

Biz also had some tips for companies trying to enter the Twittersphere. "I usually tell people who are just getting started: Search for your company or brand name or the name of your restaurant, and see what people are saying," he suggested to the crowd. "You don't necessarily have to immediately develop this strategy. What you can do is you can see if users are misinformed or if they have questions, and then you can jump in."

Stone says this direct response to consumer interests and queries is what "grows into a direct relationship with your customers." Stone cites JetBlue as a great example of this relationship building, explaining that the airline company soon realized the "more press-release-y information just fell flat." But JetBlue began asking its followers what they'd like the company to tweet about, and it received a flood of responses all saying, according to Biz, "Just that--we want you to ask questions like that, and JetBlue began realizing they could mix in the important information along with more chatty-type stuff."

Lastly, Biz talked about his Steve Jobs-like outfit. "People at work always tease me because I'm generally wearing jeans and a black jacket," he said (see above picture). Yet when he visited Capitol Hill to discuss Twitter with lawmakers, he opted for a suit out of respect, and congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) had some advice for the tech head. "You know what you need? A signature outfit that you wear everyday," suggested Issa, who then walked over to a picture of him and Steve Jobs in his office, and held up the photograph as an example. "Arg, I have one!" Biz lamented on stage to the audience.

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