Charlie Rose is a cohost of CBS This Morning and the longtime host of PBS's late-night interview hour, the Charlie Rose show. Ev Williams and Biz Stone founded Twitter and recently created Obvious, a startup whose products include Branch and Medium. Seated at Rose's iconic table in his television studio, the trio discussed the meaning of conversation in an age of information overload.
Charlie Rose: For more than 20 years, I have sat at this table and had conversations that often last an hour. You guys pioneered the idea that you can say it all in 140 characters.
Ev Williams: Well, I think we pioneered that you can say something in 140 characters. And maybe, if well done, that can be a worthwhile thing.
Rose: But as we sat down, you raised the flag that "we shouldn't lose the value of the long-form conversation."
Biz Stone: Absolutely. The long-form conversation, long-form journalism, deeper dives, more meaningful and relevant approaches to what's happening in the world—that's what's really important. And in our experience, that's what drives a lot of the tweets, retweets, and links that get passed around on the platform. They originate from someone like you. They're clips on YouTube of conversations you've had. They're articles in The New Yorker, etc. These are the things that get passed around. Without longer-form, deeper-dive, more relevant conversation, I don't think social media would have anything to be social or media about.
Williams: In the best case, they are complementary. The long form gives you ideas that you want to engage with people on, and the opposite can happen as well. Conversations that start as little blips can catch someone's imagination and turn into something much deeper. In the worst case, people get obsessed with the short form.
Rose: I think it's important for who we are, to be able to have a conversation that has a beginning and a middle and an end, a conversation that will take you on a ride, on a journey. That's what the best conversations do. They grab you, and then you hear the music, and you hear the sense of the rhythm, and it takes it and goes and builds, and every aspect of human conversation gets exercised. I will have a conversation here, and at some point, I can sort of push back from the table and have a visual sense of, you know . . . Brothers and Sisters, listen! These folks are saying interesting things!
Stone: I've been thinking recently about how you use a search. People ask a search engine a question, and the search engine returns what is essentially a document. But a lot of times, a question is better asked of a person. If I ask, "Where's Howard Street?" a person might respond, "Well, where are you going?" And then I'd say, "This particular hotel." And they might say, "Oh, you don't want Howard Street. You want Market Street." So I should have asked, "Where's Market Street?" But I wouldn't have known that if I had asked an algorithm. There's something to interacting with people that leads you down a road that sparks . . .
Rose: Yeah. I'm beginning to see that for what I value as significant search, the right question is of supreme importance. I've had people say to me, "Every great book begins with a question." The novel begins with a question, but it ends with 13 chapters.
Stone: The kind of question that Evan and I have been asking ourselves is, "Given today's media landscape, what would it look like to reimagine publishing?" That is a huge question. And we don't know the answer, but it's something we're experimenting with.
Williams: The evolution of conversation online, looked at very broadly, has been that over the past dozen years or so, most of our efforts, as well as lots of other people's, has been about lowering the barrier, getting more voices into the public discourse.
Rose: Everybody can have their own show.
Williams [laughs]: Right! It started with blogs a dozen years ago, and everybody could be a publisher, everybody could have a voice. The theory, which turned out to be true in many cases, was that if they had something worthwhile to say, they would eventually find the right audience. Twitter is sort of the epitome of that. It can't really get any easier than sending a text message and have that be a globally available piece of media. But that doesn't necessarily lead to quality conversation. So the question now is, How do we raise the quality of the discourse? It's not just about quantity anymore.
Rose: How do you suggest we do that?
Williams: Well, it's a hard problem. We have a couple of projects we're working on. One is Branch, which is an online conversation platform, and the concept there is very simple. If you want to have a good conversation around this table, you can't just say, "Whoever wants to show up can show up," and, you know, say two words and leave, as if it's just a free-for-all. That's essentially what online conversation has been for the past decade, and there's a beauty to that. The openness is great, but it doesn't lead to quality conversations. What Branch does is allow people to host dinner-party-like conversations and say, "Pretty much everybody can watch, but we're limiting who's actually invited to sit down at the table."
Stone: Somebody begins by inviting people to discuss a topic on Branch. In that way, it's almost modeled after what we're doing here.
Rose: Indeed. There have been I don't know how many efforts to create conversation around a dinner table for a television program, using a table to bring people together, and having somebody host it because you need someone just to kick it off.
Williams: And also to be able to end it. To say, "Thanks, everyone, I think this is the summary of what we've learned. . . ."
Rose: Exactly right.
Williams: Another project we're working on, Medium, is more like blogging. The idea is that anyone can contribute, and the best ideas flow to the top, and they can react off of one another. What's different about it from most of the web is that it's less focused on right now, and more on thoughtful things that evolve over time and have a longer shelf life. It's a way to put an idea out there in the world, work on it, and get feedback. But we've just started to get into it.
There's a word that comes to mind when I think of the word conversation, and that is engagement. When you're having a good conversation, you become engaged with that other person. And once you become engaged, you can learn something. That's difficult to re-create in our business.
Rose: A second word that I use in terms of conversation is that it needs a certain clarity. Also, you need to listen. You need to prepare, listen, and engage. Engagement is a crucial element. I mean, it's not a casual thing.
Williams: No one has been able to re-create that online, except very rarely in emails when people are very passionate about—
Rose: What's happening to email?
Williams: Not as much as should be. In some capacity, email is the most intimate witness to our lives. Yet it hasn't changed since the days of Hotmail. We keep files in there. We share pictures of our kids in there. There are receipts in there. Email knows a lot about our lives. I've been dying for someone to come at it from a completely different angle. It's ripe for reimagining. Someone will do it.
Rose: That's interesting. That's the way we approached CBS This Morning. We said, "We're not going to try to do what the other guy is doing." They tried that for a long time. And failed. So it's our curiosity, in a sense, to provide the kind of programming and get the kind of dialogue you hope will happen.
Stone: What you're getting at is the idea of not trying to re-create what someone else has done and instead focusing on what inspires you, what is emotionally relevant to you.
Stone: That's the best way to approach any project. If you're not emotionally invested, it won't have a shelf life. That's why Ev and I always gravitate toward the same thing, which is this idea of large-scale systems that allow people to express themselves.
Williams: Medium is sort of the culmination of almost 15 years of working on these systems. Twitter is optimized for real time. When I stepped away from the day-to-day there, I wanted to go back to my blog. Of course, running a company like Twitter, I didn't have a lot of time to do that. I wanted to write again, write deeper things, be able to think. And I found that the tools just hadn't really evolved in the last decade or so. Most of the stuff that's gotten a lot of attention on the Internet the last few years has been about lowering the barrier, connecting people, getting quick feedback loops. There wasn't much work on how to increase quality. And now we are dealing in a world of infinite information.
There are two responses to infinite things being published on the web every day. One is to do it faster and cheaper. And one is to go deep. There is a hunger for depth. And it may be that they're complementary. Maybe the middle is what's going to go away. It's going to be very quick and very shallow and immediate, and that's where the value comes, or it's going to be the very thoughtful, deeper, more meaningful stuff.
Stone: The quote that comes to mind is Albert Einstein's "information is not knowledge."
Stone: So how do we, now that we're living in a world of infinite information, how do we take a step back and try to figure out, how do we turn information—how do we sort of alchemically transmute it into actual comprehension and knowledge?
Williams: And not just for the individual, but for society. I mean, 15 years ago, I really thought—and I think a lot of us really thought—once everybody can publish, once the truth is out there, so to speak, society will be smarter and make better decisions. You look at the state of the world today and you think, Well, maybe that's not entirely true. I mean, there's way more information and way more noise, and it's actually easier to manipulate the media than ever. Even though the truth is absolutely out there, it's not necessarily what people pay attention to. So our ultimate goal is to shift the discourse and decisions of society so it's not just about attention, or popularity, or page views, or clicks.
Stone: This speaks very much to Ev's and my world-positive view. People are basically good; if you give them the right tools, they'll prove it to you every day.
Rose: You know, conversation unleashes you into a place that you don't expect to go necessarily. In any conversation, the more you know, the better. On the other hand, if that somehow stifles you from being spontaneous, what you know can be a hindrance. You cannot be hostage to your own research.
Stone: The way Ev and I work together is, I may come up with something that's just ridiculous. But Ev is willing to listen for a certain amount of time. Like—this is a bad example—I might say, assume there's no gravity, okay? We could do this. And, you know, the conversation might get to a good idea that actually would work with gravity.
Rose: And the way he reacts to it may be very different from the way I would react to it. It's related to another word we haven't mentioned: curiosity. There are questions, engagement, curiosity. I probably suffer there—I should probably spend less time pursuing my curiosity and perhaps limit my fields of endeavor so that I can drill down more.
Stone: Well, it's fuel. I mean, in a way, you are extremely focused: It's your curiosity that allows you to have this incredible range of conversations to produce this highly developed experience [on the show]. So you're like both of us combined.
Williams: We always said, if the two of us could just be put together, we'd be as good as one man.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.