The Punch meets Twitter founder Biz Stone
Walking into Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco you’re acutely aware of your existence in the present.
At Twitter, here and now, you are in the heart of a company that is hottest on the internet (and possibly off it) and right now millions of Tweeters are their sending their thoughts via this office.
This would make Twitter co-founder Biz Stone the man of the moment.
Biz is a caricature of a new media company head. The three letter name ending in z, the funky/smart/casual dress code and the “I just could get into a Nerf ball fight with my staff at any moment” vibe he conjures makes shaking his hand feel odd. Really it should be a double high five with return down low.
Just this week Twitter announced that there are 50 million Tweets created per day and as of this week Stone boasts “we now have exactly 140 employees, no joke,” he told The Punch at Twitter’s San Francisco office.
The evolution of Twitter from a side-project of tech geeks in the Silicon Valley to worldwide media phenomena have been well documented, but Stone’s account of his first weekend testing Twitter five years ago is nicely appropriate to his cool Californian demeanour.
“The first weekend that I decided to try the prototype out I had just bought a house with my wife and was using the weekend to do some do a little home improvement . . . It was an awful job, terribly hot and my back hurt. So then my phone buzzed and it was Ev (co-creator) saying ‘sipping Pinot Noir after massage in Napa Valley.’
“And I just laughed and it was primarily because I was laughing that I thought I’m emotionally invested in this now and I really enjoy it.
“But as quickly as people started using it people started criticising it. People just saying well this just is not useful. And I remember Ed at the time saying something at the time like ‘well neither is ice cream’. So what are we going to do ban ice cream because it’s not useful?”
But Stone says the implications of Twitter beyond scoops of ice cream first struck him at a tech conference in Austin, Texas, in 2007.
“There’s a lot partying that goes on at this festival cause it’s Austin. So there was this guy with his friends and he was in this bar and it was too crowded and he couldn’t communicate with his friends. So he tweeted and said lets go to another bar and he named it.
“They go up the road and the other bar is completely packed and there’s a line at the door, so his plan had completely backfired. But what he had done this amazing thing with one tweet he got about 800 people to show up in one spot in eight minutes.
“He had sent out a tweet to his followers, and then a whole bunch of people had sent it out and very quickly had moved together as one.
“The image that comes to mind is perfect for the word Twitter is this idea of a flock of birds moving around as an object in flight, it looks perfectly choreographed it looks practiced but it’s not, it’s just rudimentary communication amongst individuals in real time.”
In a short presentation to our group of visiting journalists Stone unveils Twitter’s new tag line for the company: “Twitter is not a triumph of technology but a triumph of humanity.”
If it sounds a little, well, triumphal it’s because it is.
Twitter has been basking in goodwill from a series well publicised examples of the technology’s power not just to give updates of major news events but facilitate them.
The way Twitter was used by those caught in the Mumbai terror attacks and more recently its popularity as a form of communication for those protesting the Iran election result took Stone completely by surprise. The most recent example he gives is of a student revolt in Moldova.
“There was a student revolt in Moldova organised on Twitter. I got into work and I had all these calls and emails from people asking “Mr Stone what was your role in the revolt in Moldova?” And I was like yea I organised the whole thing.”
Stone’s joke belies some truth in the way Twitter has been lapping up positive coverage after these events. It will be interesting to see if they are as willing to own the consequences of their technology when it’s used for more pernicious purposes, like the recent problems of Facebook tribute pages.
The controversy of fake accounts he claims is largely overstated, but says the company is using a new flagging system to track people at risk of being impersonated like politicians, sport stars and companies.
There’s also the more general concern about the way technology like Twitter negatively changes both the way we interact as human beings and with the world around us.
In a recent essay English author Joshua Ferris described the today’s everyman obsessed with hand held technology and his addiction to its updates:
“He slices the throat of anticipation, only to discover it’s Hydra-headed; his task inexhaustible. Anticipation increases by what it feeds on,” and goes on “it is one thing to be a man of his age; another to allow his age to consume him.”
While talking to Stone I had been tweeting some highlights of our interview for novelty value, but I put it to him that I felt extremely rude doing this while he was talking to me. What does he think about Twitter’s role in creating the Hydra-headed monster Ferris describes?
“One I think that if you look at Twitter as a whole more social engagement happen because of it than less. People do these things called “Tweetups”, where people who meet on Twitter meet up and get to know each other. Which is pretty common on the internet everywhere.
“The other thing is more a meta-level philosophy. The more connected we’re able to become around the world, for example when I can read a tweet from someone on the street in Tehran while I read a tweet we have a connection that would not otherwise have existed.
“What this connection leads to is empathy and when we’re more empathetic we’re more engaged. And maybe this is too optimistic but when we are more empathetic and engaged we can start to think of ourselves as global citizens.”
And would he ever consider selling Twitter?
“No way, it’s a great company and we want to keep it.”
Leo Shanahan was the recipient of a grant from the Washington based Foreign Press Center to report on social media and government in the United States and was a guest of the US State Department.
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