The social networking site Twitter turns five today. The service now boasts 200 million users, who send more than 100 million tweets each day. Twitter co-founder Isaac "Biz" Stone joined NPR's Scott Simon to answer questions about the popular social media site — including the one we've all been dying to know: Why 140 characters?
"I have a good answer for that," says Stone. "From the very beginning we built Twitter to work over SMS, or simple mobile text messaging. The limit internationally for text messages is 160 characters."
So what about the other 20 characters? "We needed to reserve room for the name of the author of the tweet," Stone explains. "So we decided to standardize on 140 characters. That way, you can read and write tweets in their entirety on any mobile phone on the planet."
Stone admits that Twitter was partially born out of boredom. "We weren't supposed to be working on Twitter," Stone says. "My co-founder Evan Williams and I ... were working on a new start-up, and that start-up was not captivating us as much as it should have been for us to be taking a risk with other people's venture capital money."
Stone, Williams and their third co-founder, Jack Dorsey, had all been pondering the idea of a simple service that allowed people to send status updates via their mobile devices. They spent a few weeks working on a prototype, and "at first, nobody liked it," Stone recalls. "People for the first nine months or so thought it was not useful." (Williams' rebuttal to that criticism was, "Well, neither is ice cream. Should we ban ice cream and all joy?")
The co-founder followed their instincts — they were captivated by this new method of communication. So they stuck with it, and five years later, what started out as a fun way to keep in touch has now been credited for playing a role in political movements around the world — from the uprising in Iran to the revolution in Egypt. But Stone doesn't get too carried away. People were communicating by phone in the weeks and months leading up to the 1989 destruction of the Berlin Wall, Stone points out, but no one credits the telephone with bringing down the wall.
"Tools like Twitter are just that: they're tools," he says. "I'd be the first to admit that forwarding an email, or sending a text message, or writing a tweet isn't exactly the same as true activism, but it's in support of activism, and it helps."
Over time, Stone says he's switched from writing a lot of tweets to reading a lot of tweets. "You don't have to build a web page to get value out of the Internet, and the same is true for Twitter," he says.
At the end of the day, Twitter is only as good as the users you follow, and Stone says he's impressed: "It really doesn't matter how sophisticated the algorithms get or how many machines we add to the network," Stone says. "People are basically good, they're basically smart, and when given a simple tool that allows them to express that, they'll prove it to you every single day."