At just two years old, Twitter is a worldwide phenomenon and changing the way we communicate. Co-founder Biz Stone says it’s a happy accident
Twitter, the invention of three serial Web 2.0 entrepreneurs, is easily mistaken for the perfectly-realised result of an inspired idea. The truth, however, is more interesting. “Twitter was a happy mistake,” says Biz Stone.
Stone, who had a background in social networking and innovation, and Jack Dorsey, who had written dispatch software for tracking ambulances and taxis, planned to work on another project. But boredom drove them to experiment.
“We thought about dispatch and wondered if there was a way to bring this to social networking,” says Stone. “What say you could know where your friends and colleagues were without actually asking them?” They built a prototype in two weeks.
“I first knew we had something when we starting testing the service,” says Stone. He was renovating his new house in California—and desperately regretting ripping up wall-to-wall carpet during a heat wave. His phone buzzed with a tweet from Evan Williams: Sipping pinot noir after massage in Napa Valley. “Here I was, dripping with sweat, and all I could do was laugh out loud. I was killing myself and he was getting a massage. I then realised I was enjoying the product. And that was enough of a reason to keep working on it.”
He knew Twitter would be big when he heard the story of James Buck, a photojournalism student who’d moved to Egypt to record activism. After he kept missing the action, he befriended protesters to find out how they knew when and where to meet. They were using Twitter.
When police captured Buck during a protest, he tweeted one word from his mobile: Arrested. Friends back home saw it, alerted his dean, who alerted the embassy, which sent lawyers immediately. Several hours later, there was another one-word tweet: Freed.
The world was starting to see the power of Twitter. Stone was flooded with stories of people whose lives had been transformed: sharing ideas and making connections.
Companies can’t ignore the pulling power of Twitter, and Stone doesn’t expect them to. The Twitter team—now numbering around 70 with Dorsey as chairman, Williams as chief executive and Stone as creative director—is working on a business product to help companies better engage with their audiences.
“It’s more accurately a new platform,” says Stone. There will be application programming interfaces (APIs) with the new feature, so all the third-party applications that are currently servicing businesses will be creating new workflow for them.
The new accounts will be rolled out before year’s end and for now that’s all Stone is sharing, but he will say that companies will be charged for information in the quest to help them Twitter better.
“We want to allow companies to spend as much money on Twitter as they’d like, and they’ll get back even more money in return.”
And there’s still the thought that mobile is the right platform for Twitter. A team is working to bring the Twitter mobile service to those in developing countries at no extra cost, and they are also launching a ‘retweet’ feature.
“You can just push one button and everyone who follows you can see it and do the same. We can get a message out to millions in seconds,” says Stone, which he hopes will help people become aware of disasters and civil defence information.
“I wouldn’t say to people that they should rely on Twitter in an emergency situation, but I think creating a system that disseminates information very quickly can certainly help people to help each other.”
So Stone isn’t worried about Twitter’s future and is in no hurry to jump into bed with someone new. “Choosing an investor is like hiring an employee you can never fire. You have to be very, very careful.
“Everyone thinks this is just going to disappear. People have this image of a big scary board of directors demanding cash. But it isn’t like that at all. There’s no shortage of ideas for the future, but we do operate with some restraint. Part of the beauty of Twitter lies in its simplicity.”