How Tweet It Is

Biz Stone and Evan Williams at Twitter.Photo: Hugh Kretschmer

In case you don’t remember the precise details of what the Silicon Alley dot-com boom-and-bust in the late nineties and early aughts was like, allow me to remind you, because I was there. Everyone showed up to work, hung-over, around 11:30 a.m., just in time for our free lunch. There were about six different dogs in the office. Everyone left around 6 p.m. to go drink on the company bar tab or show up at ubiquitous “launch parties,” extravagant affairs (often on a boat that circled Manhattan) that celebrated the historic occurrence of a website going live.

Mostly, I remember the meetings. We’d have about four meetings a day, in which a group of overpaid twentysomethings would ramble on for an hour about “content integration” and “vertical scalability,” just long enough to make it look like we were doing something. The nine months I worked at a dot-com back then were epic slack, all done in the name of The Future. We were changing the world. We believed. In something, anyway. The rest of the world didn’t matter.

The company I worked for died, as did hundreds of others. But the belief didn’t. Which brings me to Twitter. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, 34, wearing the casual yet composed Accomplished Techie uniform of an unbuttoned dress shirt over requisite logo tee and jeans, sits in a well-lit conference room in San Francisco, sharing a floor with mobile-software company iSkoot. Though he’s surely aware that the rest of the planet is in full-fledged depression panic, he doesn’t act like it. Inside Twitter, there is no economic downturn. Stone talks about “groundbreaking ideas” and Twitter’s unique place of responsibility. He talks about branding, provoking growth, and, yes, “scalability.” Twitter lives in its own bubble of The Future, while the rest of us are barnacles unfortunate enough to scrape by in the present. He sounds like everyone I worked with back in the dot-com days. He has the hot product. He might be right. But back then we all thought we were right, too.

The office itself feels like 2000 … but more adult. These guys are smarter than we were. They have only 28 employees, and the office has few decorations, save for two green ceramic deer in the corner and papier-mâché hanging from the ceiling that reads EVERY TWEET COUNTS. A spread of organic cereals is ready for the few people in the office at 10 a.m. There’s a vintage Atari game by the window (Tempest, from 1981), but you have to ask someone to turn it on. It looks as though certain concessions were made at Twitter to What a Web-Company Office Is Supposed to Look Like. Really, it’s like any other office, except there’s hardly anybody there. They’re all working at home.

“There’s not a lot of foosball going on here,” CEO Evan Williams, 36, says. “People are working on what needs to be done. I know when I’ve been in those cultures, there’s just a lot more goofing off. That burns a lot of cycles that don’t need to be burned. Part of it’s an age thing. My first couple of companies, I only socialized with work people. A high percentage of people here have spouses, have families. They can go home.”

Which is all fine and good, but Twitter is the hot web company right now. Its employees are pretty much the only people still reliving the old dot-com days. And yet they’re not. They’re more focused, more idealistic, more … San Francisco. Stone calls focusing on money, rather than the established goal of changing the world, “a New York thing.” They don’t care about money in the Bay Area? And we like to change the world here too, right? Well, maybe we used to.

Stone speaks of Twitter’s potentially being a new form of human communication, “like a flock of birds choreographed in flight.” That’s an extremely ambitious statement, particularly because it doesn’t seem to describe what Twitter does at all.

If you’re the last person in the world to not know what Twitter is, here’s a simple explanation: It allows you to post text messages to the web. You have a 140-character limit per posting, and you can “follow” other users (in aggregate or individually) and they can “follow” you. It’s kind of like Facebook’s status updates, but available for anyone to see. To read an individual user’s Twitter page in some semblance of order is beside the point. Most individual Twitter pages resemble a poorly written blog. If you looked at mine, you’d see updates from a recent football game I attended, a joke about the inauguration, and an alert that a friend of mine was getting a tattoo. My Twitter page is lame. Most are. What happens collectively is what matters.

Twitter staff discuss open-sourcing, over lunch.Photo: Courtesy of Twitter

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.”

Of course, not only is there no assurance that Twitter is going to be to instant communication what Google is to search, there’s no guarantee that this kind of instant communication is going to go as mainstream as search did. (Ask Dodgeball, the now-defunct Twitter-esque, what-bar-is-my-friend-at service that was once a hot item but was ultimately used by about 25 drunken bloggers to meet up on the Lower East Side.) At a certain point, even people who don’t spend all day at their desk surfing the web signed up for Facebook. It was so easy to use. It’s difficult to imagine the same people loading photos to TwitPic, attending meet-ups, and tapping out constant updates to “followers.” Williams is aware of this. Just ask his mom.

“We’ve heard time and time again: ‘I really don’t get it. Why would anyone use it?’ ” Williams says. “Often, three or six months later, they’ll say they love it. But obviously a lot of people don’t get to that six months later. People have to engage themselves, on their own.”

To its loyal users, Twitter is an invaluable part of their daily lives, and they don’t want it futzed with. But so far there aren’t enough of them. Will Twitter lose something as it becomes a massive, universally accepted fact of life? Any politician can tell you that you shouldn’t alienate your base. How big is Twitter’s base? Enough to believe in? Enough to rest the hopes of a company and a whole industry on?

That is to say: Are we really becoming a nation of people who reflexively share information with everyone the minute we have it? We might be. Twitter has no choice but to hope so. They might be right.

The first day I was in the Twitter office, I sat in the corner, playing with my own Twitter page, taking notes (it feels somewhat silly to write in a notebook there), and waiting to talk to Williams. For lunch, executives, including Stone, hosted programmers in the lounge to talk about some sort of open-source mumbo jumbo I didn’t understand. Their HD television was tuned to a still photo of a fireplace. They were wrapped up in the meeting. I attended to my computer.

And then I noticed something on Twitter Search. The first person was “manolantern,” who, at 12:33 local time, posted, “I just watched a plane crash into the hudson rive (sic) in manhattan.” After that, the updates were unceasing. Some fifteen minutes before the New York Times had a story on its website (and some fifteen hours before it had one in print), Twitter users who witnessed the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 were giving me updates in real time. One of them was a man named Janis Krums. Krums lives in Sarasota, Florida, and happened to be on a ferry navigating the Hudson when the plane hit the water. He immediately took a photo and posted it to TwitPic and sent a “tweet” with a link to the picture and “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.” He then, perhaps coming to his senses, began to help passengers off the plane. (He ended up giving his phone to one of them and didn’t get it back until that night.)

Now think about that for a second. In the midst of chaos—a plane just crashed right in front of him!—Krums’s first instinct was to take a picture and load it to the web. There was nothing capitalistic or altruistic about it. Something amazing happened, and without thinking, he sent it out to the world. And let’s say he hadn’t. Let’s say he took this incredible photo—a photo any journalist would send to the Pulitzer board—and decided to sell it, said he was hanging onto it for the highest bidder. He would have been vilified by bloggers and Twitterers alike. His is a culture of sharing information. This is the culture Twitter is counting on. Whatever your thoughts on its ability to exist outside the collapsing economy or its inability (so far) to put a price tag on its services, that’s a real thing. That’s the instinct Stone was talking about. If the nation has tens of millions of people like Krums, that’s a phenomenon. That’s what Twitter is waiting for.

Of course, no one at Twitter noticed any of this going on. This is the New Communication. There was no screaming and running through a newsroom, dispatching any reporter in the vicinity to the scene. For an hour, the boring open-source meeting droned on. No one in the room knew a plane had crashed. The next day, Stone would tell me that the site didn’t even get a traffic spike. “That’s only for huge shared experiences, like the inauguration, or Mumbai.” Twitter had unleashed something … and its executives were completely unaware, as its system worked on its own, without them. That might be what the future holds for Twitter. Or it might not be. It all depends on whether you’re willing to wait for something that might not come. It all depends on whether you’re willing to believe.

On his personal blog, Krums, five days before the crash, posted that one of his goals for 2009 was to “Have over 1000 followers on Twitter,” adding, “this goal has no real purpose other that to prove that I can do it. It will make me feel better about myself.” Needless to say, after the crash, it worked: He’s at more than 4,000.

He lost one, though, a week after the crash: Me. I don’t know Krums, and I don’t need to hear about his attempts to lose weight or what he thought of that night’s episode of The Office. He was getting kind of boring. Thanks for the photo, though, and for not making me pay for it.

How Tweet It Is