About four years ago, a brainstorm session between three Silicon Valley executives – Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone – turned out to produce one of the hottest web properties around. The brainstorm yielded Twitter, a way to share short messages only 140 characters in length to a stream of friends over the internet.
Today, Twitter has more than 175 million people signed up to the website and has become a critical way for celebrities, media organisations, pundits and ordinary people to communicate with one another. The National's technology correspondent, David George-Cosh, recently sat down with Mr Stone in Abu Dhabi and discussed what's next for Twitter in 2011 and beyond.
Q: What are your plans for 2011?
A: Job number one remains stability and hiring engineers to do an incredible job at keeping the service reliable.
Other things [we're working on] is growth. We want to keep growing the network and specifically related to growth is keeping people engaged and the service valuable for them.
That then spins out into product development, obviously. Product development is a lot of different things. Product development doesn’t just mean what we did with the revamp of the website. It also means expanding to other areas of the world like SMS. We go into a lot of regions ... We’ve translated the service into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese and it’s in English. We’ve done that because we’ve seen a lot of pickup in those areas and because it makes sense to bring our promoted product to those services as well.
But we also go into places like Haiti and the Caribbean and parts of Africa and we push into those places through SMS. That’s not for financial gain, that’s for positive social impact. So product for us can mean for example, “fast follow” which is the ability to join and completely use Twitter over SMS without entirely using the website. Which means from a rudimentary feature phone you can get all the benefits of the information from our network that you would from a fancy broadband network in New York City.
There’s a lot of things in the pipeline but I’m not sure on what the prioritization of those is because at this point of the company, I’m in a weird, higher level where I’m trying to think of what we’re doing five years out, how do we revamp the platform and ecosystem that it’s even more useful for users and developers. It’s very philosophical and I can tell you what I’m talking about but it’s nowhere near what the product itself will be. It goes through a bunch of people before it turns into something reasonable.
Growth, reliability and another big thing is the growth of the company itself and making sure that we stand on the right track in regards to company culture, making people happy. We try to innovate in a way how we set up the company itself. We have a lot of people who come to work at Twitter [and we ask] why do you want to work at Twitter? [They say] Because I want to work at a startup and I don’t want to work at a big company. Well, okay, we’re going to become a big company one day, how do we counter act that? So we’ve created autonomous groups within Twitter than get to make their own decisions and this creates a lot of littler entrepreneurial companies within Twitter which creates a spirit of craftsmanship over their own work. It also allows you to move very quickly because you’re not constrained by, you know, you don’t have to present your work to some executive who just says they don’t like it because they don’t like yellow.
Q: What is the state of Twitter right now? How many users does the website have?
A: There are 175 million registered accounts. The term users is an interesting term at this point. Twitter has become an information network. There's many more people using Twitter without making an account. I like to say that you don't need to create a webpage to get value out of the internet, you don't need to create a Tweet to get value out of twitter. More people are realizing that, searching Twitter for real time mentions such as if you're a company, what are people saying about our products. It's on there. People come to us and say "Why are they talking about this obscure product for this niche thing?"
Q: How fast is Twitter growing right now?
A: We have 370,000 people registering for accounts every day. That's increasing as well. Pretty strong growth all around. At this point, it's still organic word of mouth. We've never done the kind of everyday viral growth mechanisms that most companies do. We send out scant amounts of e-mail recommending that people come back and things like that. People have grown accustomed to that sort of thing so I think we're going to ramp up on those types of things. I think a lot of people will think that if we would do that occasionally, they'd go, "Thank you so much, I didn't know you had that new feature." I think we need to do that more in the future too to not just increase the amount of people that are coming to the site but increase the amount of people who are getting engaged and getting value out of the site. Truth be told, we have very broad global awareness but the gap between that and the people who are getting value out of Twitter is still pretty wide. Over the next few years, we need to close that gap.
Q: Advertising has been viewed as a challenge for Twitter as traditional models could alienate your expanding userbase. What are some of the advertising models that Twitter is looking to introduce over the next year?
A: Advertising hasn't been a challenge because we specifically didn't do it. With promoted tweets and trends, our limited group of advertisers are thrilled with it and we have tons of people are knocking at our door because the engagement rates are so incredible high. It's a regular tweet and people are interacting with this tweet and the companies are enthusiastic about it.
How we plan to grow that? Open up so as many people who want to spend money on Twitter can do so. It doesn’t have to be limited to the 50 or 100 companies we’re partnering up with now. Also, syndicating it out. One of the things we announced last April, once we have a solid promoted suite of products, we will then split 50-50 with any Twitter ecosystem partner that wants to participate with promoting our products. That is obviously an amount of inventory for expansion there.
We could say, “Would you like to take our ads”. We’ve got wonderful advertisers and we want to split it 50-50. You don’t have to build a sales force and we have very high quality ads that are resonating with users that becomes a very attractive thing for an ecosystem partner to make money and for us to get a wider distribution. We’re testing it now and we’re seeing how it goes. If it does well, we’ll do more. If it doesn’t, we’ll fix it and try again.
Q: What are your thoughts about how Twitter is being used in the Middle East?
A: People use [Twitter] differently around the world but people also use it similarly. People share links, people talk about what's going on with them. The key takeaway there is that we've only translated the service into [six languages] ... but we're very keen on opening that up and getting it translated into more regions in the world sooner rather than later. That is incredible for us. When we do that, we see a lot of growth and users.
That’s something that has to go with localisation. I wish we could do it for every city, every country, every neighbourhood in the world but it comes with the slower rollout of localisation globally.
This interview has been condensed and edited.