Twitter (as well as Xanga, Odeo, and Blogger) co-founder Biz Stone keynoted this week’s 2012 Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference with the history of Twitter alongside advice on the future of the social web and what it means to be successful.
"The story of Twitter... this is a weird story," he began. Stone left Google “at a time when it was silly to leave,” as he put it, and with Evan Williams started Odeo, which used RSS to aggregate and publish podcasts. Then Apple created iTunes, and the Odeo founders started looking for the next project.
How you know your project is a success
Williams, as CEO of Odeo, gave investors their money back and told those who had been working on the project to "pair up and build something you care about and want to see in the world." Stone paired up with Jack Dorsey, who had worked on code for emergency dispatch systems and was intrigued by them and how they gave you the sense of a city’s heartbeat in a given moment. Combined with Stone’s more social experience at Xanga, they conceived of spreading that “heartbeat” concept to the sort of mood and activity information you might put in your IM messenger’s status field. At the time (late 2005-2006), texting was just becoming popular in the US, and carriers were allowing texts to cross from one to another. The two decided to use this simple, existing technology to create something else—the something else we now call Twitter. "The reason I knew we were on to something,” he said, “...at Odeo we weren't using our own product, and that's a bad sign. Twitter was something we were very engaged with."
The main critique of Twitter in its early days—and sometimes still—was that it wasn't useful. To that, Williams remarked, "Neither is ice cream—should we ban all ice cream and joy?" What made the service’s potential clear happened at the 2007 SXSW festival where a large number of early adopters were using it at the same time. Stone described two notable events:
- While sitting in a lecture, he noticed everyone started leaving silently. He later realized they were using Twitter to communicate with one another about a more interesting lecture elsewhere.
- Later that same night, someone tweeted that he was in a loud and crowded bar and wanted to move to another one. But by the time he got there, his followers had shared the tweet with their followers, who sent it to their followers, and when the original tweeter arrived, there was a line outside the bar!
And here is where Twitter’s iconic bird representation is clear. A flock or birds appears choreographed, but is actually the result of real-time communication among the individual birds that allows them to behave as one. “It's amazing, and it was happening with people,” Stone said. “I couldn't think of any tool that had ever been invented that allowed people to come together and behave as one. The next day we formed Twitter, Inc.”
The future of social
Humans are designed to take in, process, and act on the nearly unlimited amount of information that we are able to consume online. The next phase of the web is the one in which we’re able to turn that information into understanding and true knowledge. Arab Spring showed how technology can let people receive information, understand it, and take action because of it.
"If Twitter was to be a triumph, it was not to be a triumph of technology,” Stone said. “It was to be a triumph of humanity. The more connected we get, the more we can move as one. The faster we can move to do wonderful things together."
The seven assumptions you must make
Stone shared a set of seven assumptions he asks all Twitter employees to listen to and embrace. Despite the fact that we know making assumptions isn’t ideal, we do it anyway. “So if you’re going to make them, make it these,” he said:
- We don't always know what's going to happen. And that’s OK.
- Leave space for the unknown.
- There’s a creative answer to every problem.
- There are more smart people outside your company than there are inside. use them.
- We will win if we always do the right thing for our users.
- The only deal worth doing is a win-win deal.
- Your coworkers are smart, and they have good intentions.
Finally, Stone said, for true success, there are three things you must have. You have to have all three together for a business to be a success: profitability, making a positive impact, and a love for what you're doing. Any two without the third is not enough.