Q&A with Twitter co-founder Evan Williams By Andy Vuong The Denver Post
It started as a side project with a fair share of skeptics: who wants to read what someone else had for breakfast, even if it’s shared in 140 characters or fewer?
Four years later, San Francisco-based Twitter has become one of the Internet’s top destinations for breaking news. With 175 million registered users, it is also a source for real-time commentary and an outlet for businesses to interact with customers, whether to market their products or resolve service questions.
Denver is among the nation’s leaders in using the microblogging site, ranking No. 7 for social-media savviness, according to a study by NetProspex.
The Denver Post recently interviewed co-founder and former chief executive Evan Williams (@ev) about "new Twitter,” the site’s most significant makeover to date. Williams, who now focuses on product development, also touched on how some Denver organizations are using the service and revenue generation plans, among other topics.
Q: What did you envision for Twitter when it launched in 2006 and what’s the vision now? A: It’s evolved over time as we’ve discovered what Twitter’s really good for. At first, we launched it as a side project because we thought it was fun. There was a big focus on SMS (short text messages) at the beginning because that’s what made it particularly interesting. That’s why there’s the limit of 140 characters. Over time, that constraint is really useful for building a more general, open, real-time information network. The way we think about it today is it’s the best way to share and discover what’s happening in the world.
Q: When was the tipping point? A: There was an event in the spring of 2007, which was actually about 9 months after we launched the site, and that event was South by Southwest, a music and Web conference in Austin, Texas. That was kind of a tipping point. There weren’t tons of users of Twitter, but a lot of them happened to be in Austin at that time. It really blew up both in terms of attention and usefulness because Twitter became the way of sharing what was happening at that event while it was happening, and it really demonstrated the power of this real communications system like nothing else we’ve ever seen… That’s when the growth really took off.
Q: What is "new Twitter” and what drove the update? A: It’s the biggest change that we’ve made to the website ever. There were two main goals with it: One is to make everything faster and more efficient. There are little things, like the fact that when you get to the bottom of the page, you don’t have to click a button to get more tweets, it just infinitely scrolls for as long as you want to read. The second goal was about driving more discovery of the information within twitter. Because there’s so much information bolting through the system, one of our big goals is to help people find the stuff that’s most interesting to them and let them explore all of it much more easily and not be limited to the tweets from the people that they follow. That’s why there are things like "related tweets.” Q: Why can’t we retweet with comment on the web interface? A: We consider a retweet really to be the kind that we do on the website because the tweet retains its integrity and clear authorship. You can manually quote a tweet by just copying and pasting, but we may evolve the function or add the ability to quote in the interface, but there’s no definite plans for that. Q: Is the preference to have people use the website rather than third-party apps, like Tweetdeck? A: We want people to use whatever works best for them. There are many options. We just want to make sure that people have options that they like. Q: How are you generating revenue? A: We have an advertising platform that includes a couple of different products. One is what we call promoted trends, which is a topic that a company may want to promote. There are promoted tweets, which are currently showing up in search for certain keywords. The promoted tweet is a real tweet that a company may have sent out that they want more distribution for. They will buy key words for it. If people are looking for something related, it will show up. We charge the advertisers based on actual engagements. The last thing that we just launched … was promoted accounts. It’s in the "who to follow” section of the site where we recommend accounts based on people’s interests and based on who they’re already following. Q: Any plans to stop third-party promoted tweets? A: No plans for that. As long as people are not being deceptive or tricking users, we’re pretty hands off as far what people can tweet. Q: Who are some Denver area Twitter users that have caught your eye? A: We looked at a couple that are kind of interesting. The Red Cross in Denver has an account (@redcrossdenver) where they do kind of standard Red Cross stuff, like disaster relief and prevention and information about responding to emergencies. There’s an account called Denver Fun Times (@denverfuntimes), which has local information on concerts and festivals and plays and other kinds of events. Q: Have companies signed up for promoted accounts? A: We’ve kept it pretty limited beta. We have much more demand than we’ve been able to serve so far because we wanted to ramp it up slowly and make sure it works well. Q: How do you use Twitter? A: As a user, I find it just a tremendous source of information and entertainment. I tweet sometimes, but I check constantly throughout the day. I follow quite a few people, over 1,200 accounts. There’s always new and interesting information there from companies, from friends, from people I respect and admire or just find interesting. It’s the place I get my news and information.