The Curious Genius of Twitter

Fast Interview: Co-founder Evan Williams talks about why it helps to have a side project, why he had to leave Google to found Twitter, and why Twitter isn't called Friend Stalker.

Is Twitter the next big thing or a twempest in a tweepot? Twitter is a free "micro-blogging" service that allows users to send updates, or "tweets" — messages of up to 140 characters that answer the question "what are you doing now?" The updates are kept on the user's profile page and distributed to friends via text messages, instant messaging, RSS feeds, and other applications.

For Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, it's déjà vu all over again. He created Blogger, one of the first Web applications for creating and managing blogs. Blogger was acquired by Google, where Williams worked for more than a year before striking off on his own again to start Odeo, a podcasting company. In 2006, he cofounded The Obvious, the company that spun off Twitter based on the idea of his colleague, Jack Dorsey. Now, Williams is trying to figure out how to turn a cool idea into a successful product.

Can you explain Twitter in tweet-length message?

Twitter is a utility for keeping people connected via short status updates.

Am I admitting my age if I ask why anyone would want to be that connected?

I don't think it has anything to do with age. That's the most common response from everybody: Why would I want to use that? Once they start using it, they kind of get into it. It's something you have to experience.

It's fun and sometimes useful to have a mechanism to send and receive these status updates. If you hear from someone — even something as mundane as eating a sandwich at this restaurant — then you get a picture of this person you're interested in and what they're doing at that moment in contrast to what you're doing. It's interesting in itself because of the real time factor. You get what some people call ambient awareness.

Did you foresee productive uses for Twitter — like people using it for status updates on the Southern California wildfires?

That pleasantly surprised us. We definitely saw it mostly as a social tool. But also we've been doing consumer Internet stuff for long enough to know that if you do something right it will be used for all kinds of stuff you couldn't have predicted.

Does Twitter remind you of the early days of blogging?

Oh yes, absolutely, there's a lot of parallels there. One goes back to the response of many people — why the heck would I do that? Whereas people who do it seem to really enjoy it. It's also about enabling a new mode of personal expression.

Did you reject any other names before you settled on Twitter?

We talked about calling it Friend Stalker. We thought that might give the wrong impression.

When and how will Twitter start making money?

We can't say how for sure although it seems like there are a lot of good possibilities for making money. One obvious angle is that communications tools can be very valuable for people using them for commercial purposes. If people are using Twitter for commercial purposes — and a lot of people already are — then we won't feel bad about charging those people. It will take some experimenting to figure out exactly what the model is. Fundamentally, we're working on building the value right now. We think the value is in the network and the value is in ease of communication. We can tap into that value and extract revenue in many different ways.

So you're not even trying to make profits right now but just focusing on building it out.

That's right. We figure any model we can think of, the value will come from the scale of the network. So we're totally focused on making the best user experience possible and building a defensible communications network. Like any consumer Internet type thing, it's going to grow most quickly by word of mouth and virality. Fortunately, we're in a position where we can put off focusing on the revenue for a little while.

The Economist magazine once said that you love side projects so much that your main projects seem to exist mainly as placeholders. Is this true?

It's happened a couple of times where side projects have become the interrupting thing. Blogger and Twitter were both side projects. In both cases, they eventually became more compelling than the main thing we were working on. But because they were side projects in a company that was ostensibly doing something else, they didn't need to be questioned a lot at first — other than, "Why aren't we focusing on the main thing?" They didn't need to be justified as whole businesses in themselves. A lot of ideas die when they're questioned too much in their early stages.

A lot of people talk about Google as this Eden for innovation. Why did you decide to leave?

I'm just much more of a startup guy, and Google was pretty big by the time I left. Maybe I could have started something new there, but there wasn't a lot of reason to — I could start something new elsewhere. Google has a lot of resources but to get those resources you also have to have skills that aren't necessarily my skills.

Bureaucratic skills?

Being able to justify why you should get those resources more than lots of other projects, which you don't have to do if you're on your own.

You don't consider corporate games your strong suit?

No, not at all. The other thing is Google, although very innovative, has innovator's dilemma issues like any other big, established company. They're very open to radical new ideas, but they can only justify working on projects where they have a reasonable expectation that they're going to be valuable investments. It has to be a known market that's very big or an improvement on one of their existing businesses. To do something there as speculative as Twitter — even today Twitter is very tiny on the Google scale — is very difficult. How could you justify needing an engineer for Twitter instead of improving AdWords or multimillion dollar businesses?

Why did you call your company "The Obvious?"

The best ideas are always those that are obvious in retrospect. It's not about being clever, it's having the breakthrough to see the obvious thing that wasn't obvious to everybody. We want all our products to be very obvious. In the case of Twitter, it's not quite obvious why to use it, but eventually it will be.

And if that happens, what do you think the future will hold for Twitter?

We really believe Twitter is potentially massive in terms of its impact on millions and millions of people. I believe it's bigger than anything I've ever worked on. We have high hopes for it. We're not looking to sell it anytime soon. We're just looking to execute right now and get it to as many people as possible. I don't know what that number is, but I think it's as big as the biggest Internet successes out there today. The more I work on it, the more I see opportunity.

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