Twitter, founded by Stone, Williams, and Jack Dorsey, has about 6 million users, which, all told, isn’t all that many. (The Twitter user with the most followers is Barack Obama, with 237,500, or about as many people who voted for him in Idaho.) Compared with Facebook, which has more than 150 million users, it’s puny. But it’s different from Facebook. It, as Williams puts it, “lowers the bar.” Twitter is the logical next step from blogging. It’s one thing to start a blog. But it’s much easier to type 140 characters and send it out into the ether. It’s streamlining information. “It’s another step toward the democratization of information,” Williams says. “I’ve come to really believe that if you make it easier for people to share information, more good things happen.” Williams would know. He’s in his second incarnation of reinventing publishing. In a former life, he was the creator of the Blogger platform — he’s the guy credited with inventing the term blogger. He acts a little bewildered by the media’s fixation on Twitter as the Next Big Thing. This was something he started for fun.
Williams describes himself as a “farm boy from Nebraska who’s been very lucky.” In 2003, Google bought Blogger, which was accidentally invented in 1999, when the web journal in which Williams and his cohorts were jotting down notes about their inability to come up with a software tool to let people collaborate emerged as the only worthwhile aspect of the whole venture. Williams dabbled in online audio with Odeo before segueing to Twitter in 2006. He became CEO late last year, if only because he’s the single member of the Twitter team who has experience in, you know, business.
For a service with relatively few users, Twitter’s had a lot happen to it awfully fast. From Twitter’s initial public debut as the best way to find the parties at South by Southwest in 2007, we’ve gone from hackers taking over Barack Obama’s and Britney Spears’s feeds to Republican operatives spending their post-election-malaise retreat bragging about who had more followers, to the Mumbai attacks, when users trapped in the Oberoi Hotel were transmitting messages that chronicled the ongoing madness. Twitter executives are proud of the Mumbai aftermath; Forbes called it “Twitter’s moment,” and Stone’s face lights up when it’s mentioned. “Twitter is not about the triumph of technology,” Stone says. “It’s about the triumph of the human spirit.”
Stone and Williams run Twitter—former CEO Dorsey traded places with Williams in October—but it’s clear, in conversations with both of them, that Stone’s more of the dreamy visionary. Where Stone will say things like, “We’re here to impact people’s lives; we own up to our leadership position here,” Williams admits that he has trouble getting his mom to figure out his service. He is also wary of all the publicity Twitter has generated, mostly from nervous journalists striving to stay relevant in a free-information age.
You can forgive journalists their Twitter obsession. If you haven’t noticed, we’re in an economic clusterphooey of historic proportions, and many analysts are blaming the media’s failure, in particular, to create information-sharing services like Twitter. But Twitter isn’t making any money yet, either.
Neither Williams nor Stone will get into the details of their revenue strategies, though each says that charging companies for brand verification (assuring users that JetBlue’s Twitter is really from JetBlue, for example) and for targeted prompts for users to join company feeds seems to make more long-term sense than straightforward web advertising, which Stone says “feels tacked on.” Another possibility would be charging users to “buy” friends’ feeds, almost like a subscription, though both executives are wary of any model that charges individual users.
When you ask Williams and Stone about revenue, they’ll—reflexively, defensively—remind you how young the company is, then they’ll point out that they have to worry about first making sure their product is flawless, then they’ll note that no one asked Google in 1998 how it was going to make money, then they’ll gripe that just because everyone else on the planet is terrified about money right now doesn’t mean they have to be.
They have a point. They’ve taken in more than $20 million in venture-capital funding, and a recent TechCrunch report claimed they signed a term sheet with another fund that values the company at $250 million. So they do have time. Which is why they’re all chilling out, tinkering with formatting and quality control, while the rest of us beg them to hurry up and stimulate the tech sector already. We need it.
They already turned down a half-billion dollars from Facebook (to be paid mostly in Facebook stock). Could they get that same offer today, in this economy? Probably not. “We have a product, and we’re working on it,” Williams said, with more than a hint of exasperation. “The money will come.”