Conversations About The Internet #1: The Rumpus Interview with Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone


249111336_24851f07e6Biz Stone is the creative director and co-founder of Twitter. He also helped create the blogging platform Xanga and is the author of the books Who Let The Blogs Out?: A Hyperconnected Peek at the World of Weblogs and Blogging: Genius Strategies for Instant Web Content.

The Rumpus: Before starting this online magazine I wasn’t that Internet savvy. I was working on a book so I took the browser off my computer so it wouldn’t interrupt my writing. I didn’t have a Facebook account. But now I come across Twitter and I think, this is kind of magical. I’m not sure if this is culturally relevant to the magazine, but I’m interested in it and I’m putting it in anyway.

Biz Stone: Either way. It’s your magazine.

Rumpus: We should start with your history. What leads you here?

Stone: Well, it depends on how far back you want to go. I started as an artist and I had a side job moving some heavy boxes for a publishing company. They had just gotten a Mac for their art department, the department that creates the book covers. And I knew Mac pretty well. I’d used them when I was younger. I was kind of showing the art director a thing or two about how to use a Mac. And one day everyone went out to lunch and I jumped on the computer and designed a book jacket and slipped it in the pile to go to the review board in New York. They picked my jacket and when the art director got back to Boston, he wanted to know who designed it and I said, “Me.” He was like, “The box guy?”

Rumpus: So you got work?

Stone: I did. I started designing book jackets, which was great because I was good at it. And then from there I decided to become a freelance graphic designer and I needed to expand beyond book jackets, so I taught myself web design, and then in 1999 some friends of mine decided to start a company called, which was a very early kind of social network slash blogging community. We launched it in 2000, and they’re still based in New York. They’re still doing their thing. They are just a small private, profitable company, that never really went really big, big, big, Internet.

Rumpus: But clearly people are into it. People are still using it and not changing it.

Stone: They’ve changed the way they run the company, but they’re still there. But anyway that’s how I made the jump. I was the Creative Director and product guy over at Xanga and then after Xanga—

Rumpus: Wait, you started this business, Xanga, and that’s kind of this pivotal thing. You go from this art guy to what?

Stone: What happened was my best friend Mark. He went to college, but I’d dropped out of college to start this design thing, and he graduated college with his friend, John. It was them who said, “Hey, we’re thinking of leaving our jobs.” They we’re thinking of leaving these consulting jobs and starting a “web company.” They knew I knew web design, and that was how we jumped in and started shaping what this may or may not be. It changed a lot. We originally thought Xanga would be an online reviews kind of thing.

twitterRumpus: Online reviews?

Stone: Like if you have CDs why not just write about them, or movies, or whatever. But we quickly turned that into write about anything and read what your friends are writing, do it all in one place. And that’s what really helped it take off because it was that social feedback.

Rumpus: Didn’t livejournal already exist at this point?

Stone: It was about the same time, I think. We were building Xanga in 1999, and we launched in 2000, and I think livejournal probably did exist. I wasn’t aware of it until I started doing Xanga and realized there was a service out there like this, but that was only like, “Oh, then this must be a thing.” And it was interesting. That’s how I first started getting into the web. That’s how, or why, in 2003, when Google acquired Blogger, they asked me to come work with them, specifically on the Blogger team.

Rumpus: What were you doing right at that moment that you were leaving to go to Blogger?

Stone: I had already left Xanga. I had actually moved back to Boston. I was working at Wellesley College. I was writing and developing software for alumnae to be able to connect and communicate. So I moved out here in 2003 to work on Blogger. I thought I was going to stay at Google, because it was a great place to work. Evan, who I became very good friends with at Google, my co-founder here at Twitter, left and I decided to follow him. We worked together on a start-up called Odeo, an online audio podcasting service. At Odeo, Twitter was a sort of side project that ended up taking off.

Rumpus: What happened with Odeo?

twitter_logoStone: We realized we weren’t really using Odeo, we weren’t investing our own time creating podcasts. We were building a tool that was a great idea for some other people. That’s a dangerous way to go because if you don’t actually use it yourself and love it, then you aren’t going to be as fully invested in it from the start. That’s what leads you to doing side projects.

Rumpus: And?

Stone: And we sold Odeo to people who wanted to work on it. It exists today. Now it has video and audio and it’s a whole directory.

Rumpus: But you kept the Twitter part?

Stone: We actually created Twitter and Odeo at the same time. When we realized we didn’t really want to be running Odeo anymore we looked around for anyone who wanted to buy Odeo, but not acquire us as a technology. But people aren’t as interested in that. So we founded a new company and that company acquired Odeo and its assets. Now we were free to do whatever we wanted. We sold Odeo to a New York-based company which the state runs and it’s great. We did Twitter, and Twitter grew so fast, and in 2006 we spun it out into Twitter, Inc.

Rumpus: An American story. So Odeo doesn’t own Twitter?

Stone: No.

Rumpus: I just met with M. and she twittered that I was coming to meet you.

Stone: Oh, yeah, that’s awesome.

Rumpus: I mean, it’s funny right?

Stone: Yeah.

Rumpus: We’re talking about this technology, and here’s M. on your technology twittering about it. I dunno… it seems so meta.

Stone: It’s funny that you say “your technology” because I don’t really think about it like that. There’s a lot of social input when you put these things out there. People’s ideas cross with other people’s thoughts.

Rumpus: You don’t think of this as your technology? You think of it as everybody’s technology?

Stone: I think of Twitter as a messaging system that you didn’t know you needed until you had it. Think about when cell phones first started coming out. People said, “Why would I carry my phone around?” And now you’ll drive back to your house thirty miles if you forget your cell phone.

Rumpus: That’s a broad definition of Twitter.

Stone: Yeah, it’s broad. You can kind of zoom out and look at it as social networking. I don’t think of Twitter as a social network. I think of it as a messaging system that has a lot of social components to it.

Rumpus: What’s the difference between a social network and a social networking system?

Stone: When you think of a social network, you have these two-way interactions: “Are you my friend? Yes? No? Yes?” Like LinkedIn, it’s business oriented, but it’s all about establishing connections. You connect to me through my other connections, and that sort of thing, and you sort of define who your friends are. Twitter doesn’t have that.

Rumpus: Explain.

Stone: Okay. So there are a lot of sources of information out there, so why don’t you curate for yourself a list, like a real timeline of information, like the New York Times, or JetBlue, or your friends, or this comedian, or this guy who pretends to be a cat, or whatever it is, whatever entertains you, whatever you find useful. You curate information that you want to receive. It’s a lot different because I’m not asking you if it’s okay, I’m just saying I’m following your updates. That’s why I don’t think of Twitter as a social network.

Rumpus: What has Twitter brought to the table, then?twitterservers

Stone: I think Twitter has brought something totally new to the table. First of all, real time. We didn’t have anything before Twitter that allowed a group of people roaming around a city to communicate instantly, in real time, and in a coordinated way, in a group. I’ve probably overused this analogy of a flock of birds moving around an object in flight, but, in reality, it’s so simple, real time communication of individuals that allow for this super organism type of organism to happen. And I think before Twitter people didn’t think that way, not in any sort of meaningful or specific way, so what I’m trying to say, if we’re trying a bunch of stuff, a lot of cool and great social stuff, a lot of platform stuff, then some of it will stick, and some of it will be junked over. Some of it will be just like the cell phone, you can’t imagine not having it.

Rumpus: We were at SXSW a couple weeks ago and Twitter was so handy. I was seeing everyone is here, I can go here, I can meet this person here. But if I want to go out with ten specific people, I really don’t want everyone to see that. Are you going to have friend groups or something like that?

Stone: I wasn’t at SXSW, but it’s at events like that where it really clicks for you, where it’s something Twitter can be, and it also shows you that you know, you also want a tool that allows you to become hyper-connected, but that also allows you to pull back. When you think about email or IMing, why aren’t you writing back? I can see your avatar, I know you’re online, why aren’t you writing me back? But with Twitter, everybody sends their responses to Twitter, and Twitter then sends them out to everyone. So there’s not this constant connection. You can be hyperconnected, then you can take a break for a couple days and it’s fine.

Rumpus: But—

Stone: Right, right, getting back to your question, I think that it just speaks to the issue of feature design, how can we make the product better, what can we do to make it more valuable to people? And I think groups or lists of some kind, so that you could instantly say I want to follow all these people because I’m at this thing, and now I don’t want to follow them anymore, and just make that easier to do, I think, yeah, there’s a lot of things you can do there. Now on the input end, you have to be really careful because you’re using this beautiful, cognitive, low, thing that you just send off, and that’s what makes it so useful, and what’s so great during an emergency or during a casual situation or whatever it is. You have to think for an email. What’s the subject? What’s it about? It takes two seconds to think about that. So you have to think, Is this a work thing or a social thing? Which? Then you get into a situation that you don’t want to be in, because then people are thinking about it too much.bad mommy blog

Rumpus: When I did work in tech ten years ago, I did it in search and I think the reason Google took over is because it became just search. And you go to Yahoo and it’s too much. And that’s the analogy I feel like between Facebook and Twitter. I mean obviously, they are different in a lot of ways, but Facebook, to me, feels like Yahoo used to feel, and Twitter feels like Google. I just go and I do this one thing. And it’s very simple.

Stone: I think a lot of that is sort of how you design the product. I think we definitely want to focus on the simplicity aspect because it’s something that’s built into the culture even here at Twitter. Constraints inspire creativity.

Rumpus: 140 characters.

Stone: Yes, I mean, even when it’s really simple, there’s so much amazing beautiful creativity that can come out of that. You know, I mean just look at haiku, the idea of it. We want to focus on that singularity, on that simplicity, but we still want to add features and add value, but we want to do it in a way that fits in with that mentality of simplicity. You have to spend a lot of time thinking about it.

Rumpus: Because there are so many things that you want to do.

Stone: Yes.

Rumpus: I’m curious about writing in the age of online publishing. Because nobody cares about good writing online. Or maybe we are so early in the online magazine revolution that writing isn’t important. It’s more about the information.

Stone: But I don’t think that’s true. When you think about Twitter, there are people all around the world reporting twenty-four seven, every second. They’re reporting what they’re seeing and what’s happening around them. So there’s a lot of potential for breaking news. We can break news really fast. When an earthquake happens, there are people Twittering about it. When a plane lands in the Hudson and there’s a Twitter user on the ferry taking a picture of it, Boom. That’s it. The water is still splashing. Here’s the photo of the thing. But then we need people to put this all in context and tell the story. What happened behind it? A Twitter update is simple and fast and gets the information and news, and it spreads it very quickly, and it can contain links so you can then link to this whole context of information. And I think that’s a really important role that people sometimes forget about, especially with all these newspaper shutting down and having trouble, where are all these stories going to go? I think you have something really great with all those stories waiting to be told, but I just don’t know how it shapes up exactly. I don’t think there are going to be a lot of newspaper reporters sitting around not writing, you know?

Rumpus: But where is it going to go?

Stone: The good news is, since the old models aren’t working… I mean, it’s just the idea.

Rumpus: What do you mean?

Stone: Hey, I got an idea: people like news why don’t we write the news down on a piece of paper, and we’ll gas them up and drive them to everyone’s house. I mean, if you were going to say that now, it doesn’t sound like a great idea, because there are other ways you can distribute the news. What if the New York Times gave out free, cheap Kindles to everyone and said this is how we’re doing it now. You know? Maybe that’s a way to go. The technology gets cheaper and cheaper, and at some point it has to be cheaper than all these trucks and all this gas, to just say, let’s give away a Kindle to everyone.

Rumpus: But what about the role of the editor? The barrier entry is so low online. It’s nonexistent. Anything gets published.

Stone: But that’s what I’m saying, we need that editor and those reporters are the people who are the storytellers and the context-providers. Twitter provides a great amount of timely information, but we still need those people to fill out the rest of the story and the context.

Rumpus: Do you have an offline life?

Stone: I see this technology kind of falling away to the point where you have access to it but you don’t really see it or notice it. It’s ambient. You don’t have to spend the entire day hunched over your computer consuming this information. Maybe, it is as simple as once in a while glancing down at the device that’s invaluable to you or many reasons, catching up, or it lets you know when you should know something. But as these things get better and we get more connected in it, it will get more sophisticated.

Rumpus: Online and offline?

Stone: Right. What I’d like to see happen is some of this stuff disappear. You know, I still walk around the streets, and I see these giant wooden poles with bits of wire and stuff and huge trash can sized devices attached, and they’ve been there for a hundred years, you know? We still have these things? What are these things? And I think, you know, maybe that will be what it’s like, years from now. Are you carrying this thing around with you? This giant device? So, hopefully it melts away, even though we are even more sophisticated and connected in terms of how we can communicate, as we become smarter, more efficient, more open, more information is a lot more democratized, but the context is there when we need it. That sort of thing. I don’t know about the answer, but that sounds kind of like it. Doesn’t it?

Rumpus: So you can, like, get out in the world to connect?

Stone: Yeah! I mean, it’s already happening a little bit. My wife’s job is as a wildlife rehabilitator, so people bring in wounded birds. Actually, just the other day, the author of The English Patient dropped off an injured cedar wax to her. She rehabilitates these wild animals, and then re-releases them. I sometimes go with her to help her drive or just take her to where she needs to go to drop off. And there was one thing one time a while ago, when we were having a technical difficulty on Twitter on a Sunday evening, but we had to go drop off an opossum in someone’s woods in Oakland. And I was on my iPhone setting a status message explaining why, about the downtime, while she was driving. It was funny to me because I am doing this very sort of technical thing and communicating with my Ops and Engineer team while we’re dropping off a wild opossum to go back in the wild and live in the woods. So, I think, that kind of stuff. But even more slowed down and less hectic, a more natural blending.

Rumpus: Because people in technology, maybe especially in the 30-45 range, or the 30-50 range, are confused about where technology intersects with our lives, and we’re stressed about it.

Stone: Oh, there’s a huge overlap. I mean, people are watching TV, they’re watching some clips on their iPhone. I mean, some folks are sitting there on the iPhone, watching the Colbert Report, and meanwhile there’s a huge plasma TV right in front of them that they could be watching it on.

Rumpus: Yeah, I know.

Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founder of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. More from this author →