The cofounder of Twitter recently demoted himself from CEO to help his company grow—a lesson in thinking big in 140 characters or less.
Author David Carr Illustration Thomas Fuchs
IF EVAN WILLIAMS, WHO IS CREDITED WITH INVENTING BLOGGING, and who cofounded Twitter, were to tweet about what he thought of college, he’d write something like this: “@ev Left college after 18 mos. Didn’t really see the point.” Which is to say, his great success in the fast- moving world of the web is not owed, even in part, to a knack for rhetorical flight. He keeps it brief.
After growing up on a farm and attending the University of Nebraska, Williams started an unsuccessful CD-ROM (remember those?) company with his father, then moved on to found Pyra Labs. Pyra specialized in project management tools, but the Williamses had a side business called Blogger, which, of course, wound up completely revolutionizing the web. Google took notice and bought the company in 2003. Williams stayed there for two years and then left to start Odeo, a podcasting company, which had a little side project called—you guessed it—Twitter.
Twitter was conceived by Odeo software engineer Jack Dorsey and developed into its present form by Dorsey, Williams and Biz Stone. Since gaining exposure at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in 2007, it has experienced almost geometric growth and shows no sign of slowing down. It’s now the one of the largest social networks in the world, with a membership expected to hit 200 million by the end of 2010. It handles about 95 million 140-characters-or-less “tweets” per day and has become the go-to source for instant news about disasters, elections and far-flung conflicts from around the globe, as well as information on more quotidian matters, like what kind of sandwich your cousin is planning on having for lunch. In September of last year, the previously all- text Twitter launched a major redesign, incorporating maps, images and videos for the first time, and expanding its hold on the web.
Williams, 38, has spent the last decade and a half bouncing from one lucrative unintended consequence to another, and the pattern isn’t lost on him. He describes his career thus far as a series of “well- orchestrated accidents,” powered, in part, by his own “hallucinogenic optimism.”
HEMISPHERES: You decided to quit being CEO in September and go back to overseeing product strategy. What kind of nut gives up the chief executive job?
WILLIAMS: I’ve always been more of a product guy, and with the introduction of the new user experience in September, I thought the timing was right. For me it’s always about asking, “How I can be most valuable right now?” I think I can add the most value by focusing on products. Plus, in this case, the job happens to be more enjoyable.
HEMISPHERES: When social media companies redesign, as yours did recently, users usually take to the streets in protest. But Twitter changed in fundamental ways and people barely said a word.
WILLIAMS: That surprised us, to tell you the truth. I think it was two things. One was that we managed to strike the right balance between keeping the core of Twitter, the parts people liked, and improving upon them. So it wasn’t a disruptive change. Two: We were very, very careful not to force it on people. We rolled it out slowly out of technical necessity, but that also happened to create a bunch of anticipation.
HEMISPHERES: So if somebody asks you what Twitter is, what do you tell them?
WILLIAMS: It depends on who I’m talking to.
HEMISPHERES: Let’s assume that they are sitting in an airplane seat, and they have heard about the service but haven’t used it.
WILLIAMS: In that case I would describe it as a personalized news service. It gives up-to-date information on whatever you care about that’s happening in the world.
HEMISPHERES: So it’s a way to track what is going on, in addition to being a way to tell people what you’re doing or thinking about?
WILLIAMS: When people come to Twitter, they’re often thinking, “What do I have to say to the world?” But there’s information on Twitter for everybody. We want people to understand that you don’t have to tweet to use Twitter, any more than you have to create a web page to use the web.
HEMISPHERES: Before you became a web mogul, you used to work on irrigation systems.
WILLIAMS: That was on the farm I grew up on in Nebraska. My summer job was to go out and close and open gates. The pipes were at the end of the cornfield rows; you pumped water down them 24/7. You’d have to go out and close some of the gates and open others.
HEMISPHERES: What did that teach you, besides the fact that maybe you didn’t want to be a farmer the rest of your life?
WILLIAMS: Well, that was the main thing. The other thing was to be thorough, because if you changed the gates before you let the water get all the way down to the end, you could dehydrate the end of that row. You had to keep careful notes.
HEMISPHERES: Ah, ever the scientist, tracking data. You used to work for Google. What did you learn at the Googleplex?
WILLIAMS: When I got to Google, I was still a farm boy from Nebraska. What really impressed me was their ability to think very big. For instance, they weren’t satisfied with just keeping track of all the information on the web, so they decided to scan in every book that’s ever been in print. That was inspiring to me.
HEMISPHERES: Some people have assigned enormous civic value to Twitter, saying for instance that it helped enable dissent in Iran, while on the other hand you’ve got Malcolm Gladwell arguing that there is no real civic value because the connections it fosters are too distant to create change. Which is it?
WILLIAMS: The open exchange of information can have a positive impact on the world. I worked on Blogger for a long time, and I learned that giving people the ability to express themselves is really powerful. It can be something as seemingly trivial as people sharing a recipe, or something more profound like getting information out under an oppressive regime. Having information from more than one source is incredibly powerful, and we haven’t yet seen the full implications of it.
HEMISPHERES: One of the nice things about Twitter is you can put a question out there to the hive mind and get back really good information. Do you think in that sense you’re replacing some functions of, gulp, professional media?
WILLIAMS: Well, not on purpose. The people most engaged on Twitter are getting information from a combination of people they know and from media or celebrities or companies. We think that the one complements the other. If my sister sends out a video of my niece, that’s supercompelling media to me, but at the same time so is the major news story of the day.
HEMISPHERES: But people already use Facebook to do that stuff. What’s the difference between Facebook and Twitter?
WILLIAMS: Everyone tells me they use them very differently. We’re trying to deliver on this idea that Twitter has information about what’s going on in the world that you care about, and that’s different from Facebook’s value proposition, which is a way to stay in touch with people you know.
HEMISPHERES: Not that long ago, you predicted that Twitter would reach a billion users sometime in the future. That’s like a Carl Sagan number. You really think you’ll be able to hit it?
WILLIAMS: We think Twitter can provide value to everybody on the planet who can get access. So we don’t think that’s an unreasonable number, even if it is sort of an arbitrary one.
HEMISPHERES: Still, people are always nagging you about your business model, about how Twitter has always been more focused on amassing users than finding a way to make money. But here you are on your way to 200 million, or maybe a billion, users. It doesn’t seem like money’s going to be a problem.
WILLIAMS: It’s always been sort of a silly question in my mind about whether or not we could make Twitter into a business. We think there’s a great business here potentially. There aren’t many things on the internet or anywhere else that I can think of that have died of popularity.
DAVID CARR (@Carr2n), who covers media for The New York Times, just posted his 10,000th tweet and has more than 280,000 followers. Other than that, he has no idea what all the fuss is about.