Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is a co-founder of Twitter, Biz Stone. March marks the fifth anniversary of the first tweet and already Twitter's micro-blogging service has helped change the world. With an estimated 200 million registered users worldwide, it's been used by heads of state, astronauts in outer space, protestors in Iran and Moldova, and it was an essential communications tool for the protestors who just brought down the Mubarak regime in Egypt.

As incredibly successful as Biz Stone is, he never completed college. He dropped out of the University of Massachusetts, Boston to take a job as a designer at the publishing company Little, Brown. Then he helped create and launch Xanga.com and was a senior specialist at Google, working on the blogger team.

Regarding Twitter, Stone has said his goal is to connect people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them.

Biz Stone, welcome to FRESH AIR. Did you ever think that Twitter would be used in organizing revolutions and overthrowing dictators?

Mr. BIZ STONE (Co-founder, Twitter): Well, first of all, Terry, thank you for having me. And second of all, of course, absolutely, that was the plan all along. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: Definitely not. Twitter was a very simple side project, almost to kind of scratch an itch, and it just grew and grew and grew and grew, and it's become something that we of course never expected, but we're along for this ride.

GROSS: What exactly was the itch?

Mr. STONE: Well, the key thing was we - my co-founders, Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams, and I were working together on a different startup. It was called Odeo, and it was a podcasting startup. And we just weren't as emotionally invested in that project as we really should have been, to be working on a startup, you know, to be taking that risk.

And Evan actually came up with this great idea where he basically said: Why don't some of us just take two weeks and build something that really is more up our alley and inspires us.

And I had become friendly with Jack during the time we were working at Odeo, and we decided to pair up and built Twitter because we had been thinking about SMS. It had started growing in popularity in 2006 in the United States.

GROSS: Explain what SMS is.

Mr. STONE: SMS is just that very simple text-messaging that is on every single mobile phone in the world. And it was very popular in Europe, but earlier, and it was getting popular in the United States, sending text messages to one another over mobile phones. And we thought: Is there something interesting we can build on top of this network, this very simple network that's on all phones?

And it turns out that Jack had had a long fascination with writing dispatch software, the idea that you would write software for taxicabs, and emergency vehicles and couriers, that would sort of paint a picture of a city in transit, you know.

And my other co-founder, Evan Williams, and I had been building sort of social networking and large-scale consumer systems that allowed people to express themselves and communicate for - since 1999.

So the combination of all three of us together at the right time, and we said, why don't we build this prototype? And that's what Jack and I did in 2006.

GROSS: What were the first indications you saw that Twitter was being used as an organizing tool in Egypt?

Mr. STONE: Well, actually, Twitter's use in Egypt goes back to something that happened in 2008 that we heard about after the fact and we were just sort of chilled by, and that was this photojournalism student named James Buck, who had traveled from U.C.-Berkeley to Egypt specifically to photograph protests. And he wanted to get great photos in Egypt.

And so he went out there on his own, and he kept missing all of the protests that were organized. And so he asked some of his Egyptian friends that he met there: How is that you guys are, you know, suddenly organizing these protests so quickly and so efficiently? And they said: Oh, we're using this tool called Twitter.

And, you know, James was from the Bay Area, hadn't even heard of it, and he's hearing about it in Egypt. And so he gets on Twitter, and he's suddenly plugged into this network. And so he's able to make it to these protests, and there he is, taking these great photos.

And suddenly, he notices something is up. He told us later, a lot of Egyptian police have mustaches, and the mustache quotient in the crowd went up significantly, which got him worried. And he suddenly said something doesn't seem quite right.

And he was grabbed, arrested by Egyptian police, thrown in the back of a car, really starting to freak out. He's this young guy, realized they hadn't taken his mobile phone from him yet and that he was on Twitter.

And so he sent out a tweet, and it was a one-word tweet, and the word was "arrested." Within about three hours, what happened was his friends back home in California knew the situation that he was in, they had been following his other tweets. They knew it wasn't - that it was serious, that it wasn't a joke.

His friends called the dean. The dean called a lawyer. The lawyer called the consulate, and within a few hours, James sent out another tweet that was also one word, and that was simply "freed."

And when we heard about this story and that Twitter was being used in Egypt in 2008 to organize these protests, that was one of the early, eye-opening experiences for us, that made us realize this was not just something in the Bay Area for, you know, technical geeks to fool around with and to find out what each other's up to, but a global communications system that could be used for almost anything and everything.

GROSS: What was your reaction when President Mubarak shut down the Internet?

Mr. STONE: You know, sadly, we've seen this happen. We've seen our services - and when I worked at Google, Google services and specifically bloggers - shut down before, but it was shocking to see the entire Internet shut down.

I mean, that was just - you know, we'd talked about this before, you know, privately amongst ourselves. You know, you can shut down a service, and yet people will find ways to communicate. You can shut down a specific service and people will find ways to communicate.

But we joked amongst ourselves you'd have to shut down the entire Internet, you'd have to shut down the entire mobile phone infrastructure if you really wanted to stop people from communicating. And then suddenly, we have news that the Internet is being shut down.

And that was just like, you know, wow. It was just an amazing thing to think about, because you're not just shutting down communication among people who may or may not be, you know, opposing your regime, you're shutting down everything. You're shutting down commerce, you're shutting down all communication among individuals, emergency communication, everything. And that's just something that's mind-blowing to me.

GROSS: Now, didn't you come up with a way around that for Twitter?

Mr. STONE: Yeah, we worked with Google to create a system that allowed people to call local phone numbers in Egypt and just speak into the phone, and the voice would be then turned into text, and the text would then be automatically tweeted out. So the normal phone systems were then hooked into Twitter so that people could continue to push the information into the Twitter network.

Once it gets into the Twitter network, it can spread virally across our system, through mechanisms we've created such as Retweet, which allows people to simply press a button to have a tweet go out to even more people, things like that. So there are ways - there are seemingly always ways around shutting down technology. People do find ways.

GROSS: So in this system, the speak-to-tweet system, you actually became - Twitter became an active participant, not just a neutral conduit.

Mr. STONE: I think - I mean, together with Google, we allowed for the, you know, the phone lines to become a way of allowing people to get their voice out. It is important for us to remain a neutral technology provider, but we do believe that the open exchange of information is very important and can have a positive impact on the world. That's a mission that we subscribe to and that we are committed to.

GROSS: So if a movement strikes you as being pro-democracy, anti-authoritarian, you'll do what you can to help it get its messages out?

Mr. STONE: We'll do what we can to, you know, keep lines of communication open for all people, I think is the key thing. I mean, it really is a strong belief of ours that this open exchange of information can have a positive global impact. And while we don't always agree with a lot of the information that's being transmitted on Twitter, we still feel strongly that it should be allowed to flow, to be transmitted.

GROSS: Don't you wonder, like, if al-Qaida is using Twitter, you know, really, to get its word out to its followers around the world?

Mr. STONE: Yeah, I don't wonder so much as I probably figure that Twitter is open to everyone who wants to use it. And that's always been the case in these large-scale systems that allow people to express themselves and communicate like Blogger, which I helped work on with my co-founder Evan Williams, and like another sort of social blogging network that I created even before that, in 1999.

It's open to all, and that means it's open to both good and ill. And the key thing that we've learned over the years, over the decade-plus of working on these systems, is that it's important to allow everyone access because for one thing, these systems tend to be self-policing.

When people are trying to spread misinformation, it generally gets debunked very quickly, and the other thing is, you know, just speaking from a personal perspective, I'd rather have - you know, Twitter is a very public and open forum. I'd rather have this bad stuff out there in public for other people to see and track and watch, than for it to be happening and festering in secret, where people can't see it.

GROSS: What are some of the techniques you've seen governments use to try to do the best they can to control Twitter and to keep track of the people using it?

Mr. STONE: I don't know that I've actually been, you know, privy to government techniques for following Twitter. I would imagine they wouldn't be too dissimilar from techniques that companies and organizations would use to track what their consumers and what their users are saying about their services, and that's something that we saw very early on.

In the best-case scenario, they do that to improve their services. The mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, actually is a very active Twitter user, and he actually is constantly searching Twitter for, you know, how best to help his constituents.

In a recent snowstorm, he was actually out there with a shovel, collecting the requests for people to, you know, dig out their cars, and he was going around shoveling people out of their driveways and calling for plows and all this sort of thing.

So that's sort of a best-case scenario of a government official watching what's happening on Twitter and just trying to help.

GROSS: Those were his Snowpocalypse tweets. (Laughing)

Mr. STONE: Right, exactly.

GROSS: Because Twitter has gotten so big and become such an integral part of so many political stories, you've had to make some really complicated decisions that you probably never expected you would have to make.

For example, the Obama administration asked you for information about several people connected to WikiLeaks, including the founder, Julian Assange, and the private accused of leaking the documents, Bradley Manning. And you had - you and your co-founders had to ask yourselves, what are you going to do?

So I know there's things you cannot talk about regarding this story, but you do have a policy that you applied to this request. So what is your policy on requests like this coming from the government?

Mr. STONE: Our policy is one that's very, very pro-user, in terms of protecting their privacy. That's a privacy document that we publish on our website before you sign up to Twitter, explaining that we want to protect your privacy, and we will behave as advertised.

And so when we're asked to give over private information about users -you know, and in many cases, it's the law, and it's something that we have to do - what our policy is, is that we give the user time to react to this request.

So if we've given 10 days to turn over the information, we immediately notify the user, and we tell them: We've been asked by the law to hand over this information. We would like to give you this time to fight it on your own behalf and deny giving up this information. That allows us to comply with the law, and it allows the user the ability to hold onto their privacy if they need to. And so that's the policy that we follow.

GROSS: Now in this case, and I said the government asked you, it was a court order. But in this case, the court order came with a gag order, saying that you weren't allowed to tell anybody that they were the target of the request. So what did you do? Did you obey the gag order, or did you obey your own rules and tell them, notify them in advance that they were being investigated?

Mr. STONE: Well, we were able to obey our own rules in this case because the gag order ultimately was lifted, allowing us to go along with our normal policy.

GROSS: Can you say more about that, or is that the limits of what you can say?

Mr. STONE: That's about all I can say on that issue.

GROSS: My guest is Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter. We recorded our interview yesterday. After the interview was recorded, I learned that yesterday, lawyers for three of the people on the WikiLeaks case asked a judge to vacate the order requiring Twitter to turn over account records to prosecutors investigating WikiLeaks. We'll hear more of my interview with Biz Stone after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Break)

If you're just joining us, my guest is Biz Stone. He's one of the founders of Twitter.

So in 2009, when there were student protests in Iran after the election, the State Department in the U.S. asked Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its website because the administration wanted to make sure the protestors - the Obama administration wanted to make sure that protestors would be able to continue to use Twitter to organize and communicate during the demonstrations.

So I'm not sure how used to getting requests like that you are, but what was your thought process like when you were approached by the administration to postpone maintenance so that students could continue to use Twitter for its protests?

Mr. STONE: Well, that was an interesting day, actually. We had announced the night before - I had put a little note in the user interface of our website, telling people that, hey, at this time tomorrow, we're going to be closing the service for a little while so that we can perform some much-needed maintenance. And we were just totally inundated with emails, with tweets, with phone calls, everything you can imagine. People were all telling us absolutely not. This is - you have to keep this service up.

One of the hundreds of folks who contacted us happened to be the State Department. So it wasn't like, you know, there was a red phone ringing in our office, and it was just the State Department calling us. There was an overwhelming amount of people who were telling us it's very important that you keep the service up at this time.

And we recognized that as, you know, part of our job, basically. Of course we should keep the service up. So all we really did was, with help from our network provider, move the schedule window to a different time and keep the service up, which it should be up at all times anyways.

But it was a particularly electric day, the idea that so many people thought it was of such vital importance that we keep the service up. And the key takeaway from me from that was - and this is something I think I wrote on our company blog the next day - was that, you know, although the State Department may have contacted us about this, it's important that people understand that they don't have access to our decision-making process.

We decided to do this because we thought it was the right thing to do, and we had heard from so many people and so many users, and that's why we reacted. But at the same time, it was obviously a stimulating day.

GROSS: Were you prepared for the kinds of intelligence decisions and freedom of information decisions that you've had to make? I mean, these are, like, major-level, like, you know, ethical, legal, political, moral dilemmas that you face - of profound importance.

Mr. STONE: Yes. Well, I mean, yes and no. I've worked with - like I said, my co-founder, Evan Williams, and I and another friend of ours, Jason Goldman, we've worked together very closely. We worked at Google together on Blogger, before that another web-logging network I helped start in 1999.

So it's been over a decade now of trying to support freedom of speech and trying to create these global networks that allow people to express themselves freely, and we've always, always erred on the side of freedom of speech, and we've always had to fight for that, to a certain extent.

So to answer your question, I was somewhat prepared, having been working in this field for so long, but I think Twitter has just made it so much more intense. Twitter has managed to find its way into almost every kind of political uprising that's happened since Twitter was around.

I mean, some of the earlier ones, revolts, if you want to call them that, in Moldova, I came into work one day, and I got down to my desk, and I saw that my email inbox was completely flooded. My phone voice mail was filled up. And it was all the same question from, you know, major news organizations around the world, and all of them essentially asking me: Mr. Stone, what was your role in the Moldovan revolts?

You know? And I just - part of me was tempted to say, well, I just wasn't happy with that regime, so I went over here to this button I have here on the wall, and I, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: But, you know, the truth of the matter is, I had to actually look up what was going on in Moldova. So, I mean, there are things happening all around the world at any given point in time and we find it just incredibly meaningful work to foster this open exchange of information and to watch as people around the world do their thing and make the world a better place.

GROSS: My guest, Biz Stone, is a co-founder of Twitter. We'll continue the interview in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter. Twitter has become an essential communications tool for protest movements. It helped the organizers of the protests in Egypt bring down the Mubarak regime.

Now, we're recording this Tuesday, February 15th. I'm on the East Coast. It's afternoon my time, but you're on the West Coast, so it's morning your time, so you haven't had a chance yet to hear or read Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's policy speech on Internet freedom. So let me read or paraphrase a few parts of it that I think are relevant to Twitter and see what you have to say about it.

Is that okay?

Mr. STONE: Great. Yeah. Sounds great.

GROSS: So she says that they're trying to prevent autocratic governments from using the Internet to repress dissent. And she said last week the State Department launched Twitter feeds in Arabic and Farsi, adding to the ones in French and Spanish. Similar ones will be started in Chinese, Russian and Hindi.

Quote: "This is enabling us to have real-time two-way conversations with people wherever there is a connection that governments do not block." Also, the U.S. continues to help people in oppressive Internet environments get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online.

And here's another thing I wanted to mention to you, that the Obama administration is awarding more than $20 million in competitive grants to support technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against Internet repression. This year they'll add more than $25 million in additional funding. Quote: "We are taking a venture capital-style approach."

Any reaction to any of things I just told you from the speech?

Mr. STONE: Wow, just that we agree with a lot of that, obviously. I mean it almost sounds like a lot of what we say often internally to our own employees. You know, I mean, like this idea that the open exchange of information can have a positive global impact is being proven over and over again around the world nearly on a daily basis - and for Secretary Clinton to recognize that, I think is a huge step.

You know, I mean people more and more are coming to rely on the Internet and mobile phones as a key component in, you know, helping the world go 'round. You know, the big thing for me, the big take away for me here when I hear those comments is that we are now living in kind of an age where there are five billion mobile phones. They all have SMS, they all are capable of doing - of accessing the Twitter network. There are two billion people who have Internet access around the world. All of these people getting connected and sharing their information with each other means that I can be waiting in line at the grocery store and I can take out my iPhone and I scan the tweets and I can see what's happening halfway around the world, and I can put myself in the shoes of someone who is trying to overthrow an oppressive regime, and I can suddenly have an empathy with that person that I would not otherwise necessarily have had.

And this is happening over and over again. And what it's resulting in, I think, is people over, all around the world are realizing that we're not necessarily just citizens of a particular state or a particular country, but citizens of the world. And this is a growing feeling, and I think that the Internet and social media tools are making the world a smaller place and they're strengthening humanity and allowing us to feel this empathy.

And I think that's an incredibly important thing because this kind of global alignment of thought among individuals around the world - think about what we can do in the years to come if we are this connected and we are kind of thinking along the same lines. And I think Secretary Clinton is sort of highlighting that potential with her comments, and that is just an extremely exciting thing to think about.

GROSS: Now, Twitter has been in what's described as low-level talks with Google and Facebook about being purchased. So I don't know what you can tell us about the status of those talks, anything?

Mr. STONE: Well, if you can tell me what a low-level talk is, that would be great.

GROSS: That's part of the question. What is low-level?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: But I want to know. Does that mean it takes place in the parking garage at Twitter or what? Like, I have no idea what low-level talks mean. I can tell you that Twitter is not for sale. We're not - we don't have a shingle out on our front that says Twitter For Sale, B.O. We're not for sale and we haven't been. And we're very, very interested in building an independent company.

We've proven, I think, beyond a doubt, that Twitter is an important communication medium used around the world. What we still have yet to prove is that we can build a very successful business on top of this. And for us, in addition to both of those things, we're kind of adding a new layer of ambition for our team, and that is that we want to, we want to have a positive global impact. We want to make a very successful business out of this, and we want to have a lot of fun and enjoy our work and do meaningful work along the way.

And for us, success is all three of those ingredients, and just having two of them doesn't count. And so we're very committed to being an independent company. Twitter's not for sale and we're - I haven't been in any talks with anybody. No one's made an offer to me. So...

GROSS: That's why it's low-level, because you're not the one talking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: Yeah. So Terry, if you want to, maybe you want to make an offer right now. I don't know. Maybe NPR...

GROSS: So does this mean you have not been approached by Google or Facebook or...

Mr. STONE: I have not been approached, no.

GROSS: Okay. So you said you want to build a successful business model. Twitter is considered, you know, worth billions of dollars. I think it's valued at 10 billion, but its profits in 2010 was like 45 million? Correct the numbers if they're wrong. I'm just telling you what I read.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, we're not - we're not valued at $10 billion. That's just what people are writing in the newspapers, which unfortunately has the negative aspect of my friends thinking I must have $10 billion. So hey, I just read in the Wall Street Journal that you have $10 billion. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I was hoping you were going to take me to lunch after this interview...

Mr. STONE: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. STONE: Yeah. That's just a completely made-up valuation. We - and now with all this talk of $10 billion, I've forgotten the original question.

GROSS: Oh, well, I was talking about the business model. So I mean if it's true...

Mr. STONE: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Like forget the numbers if the numbers are inaccurate.

Mr. STONE: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: But you're valued at much more than the profits that you've actually been turning.

Mr. STONE: Right.

GROSS: And it's hard for me to figure out where are the profits. Like, unless you start putting ads on Twitter itself, like where do profits come in, because you don't pay to send a message and you don't pay to receive one, you don't pay to sign up, so like where's...

Mr. STONE: Right.

GROSS: How is it, you know, profitable? Where's the money?

Mr. STONE: Well, we're generating revenue today from advertising that is very unique, and that's one of the reasons why a lot of people around the world actually don't think we have advertising, is because what we've done is we follow this model that we like to call value before profit. And that is building a system, building a network that is of value to people around the world in their everyday life, in their business, etcetera, and then applying a business model to that that enhances that original value they're finding.

So businesses and organizations were finding value in Twitter right off the bat. Airlines like JetBlue and Virgin America were using Twitter to have these two-way conversations with their customers, to learn more about their customers, to you know, to offer them deals, etcetera, and they were getting a lot of followers on their Twitter accounts. And we saw that since businesses were getting value out of Twitter, what could we do to enhance that value? And that's when we came up with what we're calling our promoted products, and that is the promoted tweets, promoted trends and promoted accounts.

And you'll see companies, especially movie studios and others, buying a promoted trend. And a trend on Twitter, for those who don't know, is a word or a phrase that is suddenly being used more than any other word or phrase across all 200 million accounts on Twitter. So it's something that people are talking about. And you can buy a promoted trend. We only show the top 10 but you can elevate one that's not in the top 10.

Recently, for example, during the Super Bowl, Audi was introducing a new car and they had this Super Bowl ad at the end of which they put a keyword with a hash - what's called a hashtag in front of it. That's something that Twitter users also do. The hashtag is the pound sign on your phone or on your computer. It's the same thing. At the end of the commercial they said: hashtag progress is. And that indicated to anyone who knew about Twitter to go on Twitter and tweet what you think progress is. And what they also did was they bought that keyword as a promoted trend and they bought the top promoted tweet.

So as a result, a Super Bowl ad, which is traditionally difficult to measure in terms of impact, you have to wait until the Nielsens come out, etcetera, they were able to turn an ad into an online conversation that to this day is still going on about what people think progress is. And they were able to associate that sort of meme on Twitter with their brand, and that was a very successful ad for them. So that was a way in which promoted trends, promoted tweets and television sort of all fit together. And that's the way we're making revenues right now and we hope to drastically grow those revenues over the next year or two.

GROSS: So you're separating the promoted trends from what's trending and what people are actually talking to each other about without the intervention of a company, without a company buying space or...

Mr. STONE: Right. Exactly. Their native promoted tweet is just like any other tweet except that the company has paid to have that tweet be listed at the top of the other tweets, and that's clearly marked as a promoted tweet so people know...

GROSS: Right. So I can tell what's an ad.

Mr. STONE: Right, exactly.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. STONE: Although what we also have created is something we're calling the resonance algorithm, and that measures whether or not these tweets are resonating with users, whether or not they're interesting to users, whether or not people are engaging with these tweets. And if they're not, we remove them, because the advertiser doesn't want that tweet in the system and people don't want to look at it. So we're constantly measuring the level at which these tweets are resonating with users so that their resonating highly and so that they're very relevant, and so that they're part of an overall good experience on Twitter.

(Break)

GROSS: Earlier you told us the story of how you and your two co-founders created Twitter while you were supposed to be creating a podcast company.

Mr. STONE: Right.

GROSS: You thought that wasn't really what you were interested in and you created Twitter. Once you created it, how did anybody know it existed? Like, how did it catch on?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: Well, it didn't at first. In fact, for the first nine months or so everyone just thought we were fools. You know, they made so much fun of us and they said it was the most ridiculous thing they'd ever heard of and all this other stuff. But that didn't matter to us, because I mean one of the chief criticisms of Twitter early on was Twitter is not useful. And I remember distinctly at the time my co-founder, Evan Williams, saying, well, neither is ice cream. Should we ban ice cream and all joy? No. And we were having fun working on this. This was something that was very much up our alley and we were loving it. And so even though people were criticizing it - at one point somebody called it Twitter is the "Seinfeld" of the Internet, it's a service about nothing, which I took as a compliment because I'm a huge "Seinfeld" fan.

But for the first nine months or so, Twitter didn't really pick up much in terms of steam. You know, it was friends and family were using it at our request. And it wasn't until March of 2007 that Twitter suddenly kind of popped and came onto the scene and started to become interesting.

GROSS: What happened in March 2007 that was a game changer?

Mr. STONE: Well, in March of 2007 we went to a festival called South by Southwest, which is widely known for its music and film aspects. But just before those begin, there's an interactive portion and that's where a lot of Bay Area geeks go and they show up and they network. And at that time we had about maybe 50, 100 thousand people sort of system testing it out. And this was the first time and the first - and the right crowd that we were able to see Twitter as sort of in the wild, so to speak. And what we saw was really amazing. There was a couple of stories that came out of that, that particular week that were just really, really big for us.

One, there was a lecture going on that I was attending, I was just watching from the audience, and I noticed all of a sudden that all of these people started getting up in the middle of the lecture and leaving, as if a PA system had announced, you know, everyone leave. But there was no PA system. And what it was was it was people using their mobile phones and their laptops and Twitter to communicate that there was a much more interesting lecture going on across the hall. And so they silently got up and they moved across the hall as one.

Later that night there was a party, because this event is also about the parties at night, and there was a guy at a bar who really wanted to be able to talk more with his friends and it was too loud. So he sent out a tweet that said this place is too loud, I'm going to this other place, and he named the other place. And in the eight minutes it took him to walk to this other bar, it had completely filled to capacity and there was a line out the door. So his plan backfired, but what had happened was his one tweet had then been received by his hundred or so followers. They sent the same tweet out saying, hey, this is what we're doing, and within eight minutes 800 people descended upon this bar.

And what was really amazing about that was that this was just a party situation. But what if it had been something more serious? And the thing that came to mind for me, and the thing that really got me fired up, was this idea, if you think about it, of a flock of birds moving around an object in flight. This is something that looks incredibly choreographed. It looks beautiful. They just all move as one around a telephone pole, for example. And it's not choreographed. It's very simply rudimentary communication among individuals in real time that allows the many to behave as one. And this is something we were seeing happening with people. And this is the first time to my knowledge that people were able to coordinate and move in real time like this. And for us this was just sort of, you know, spine-tingling.

We went back to San Francisco I think two days later and that's when we founded Twitter Incorporated, and that was the beginning of a series of eye-opening events which would reinforce the fact that we were working on something important.

GROSS: Do you ever get totally overwhelmed by information? I mean, you know...

Mr. STONE: Yes. Yeah.

GROSS: What's your threshold? Like at what point do you think, like, make it stop? And what do you do when you feel that way? I mean your business is information and the tweets - you know, if you follow people on Twitter and if you follow a lot of people on Twitter, they just kind of keep coming. It doesn't stop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: Yeah. No, that was a key thing when we - I mean I'm particularly, I have a low threshold myself. You know, I get so many emails per day, I'll occasionally do what's called declaring email bankruptcy, which is I just delete everything in my email and I tell people if you had anything important, please resend. I just give up because I see hundreds and hundreds of emails and they're - some of them stretching back a month and I know that it's too late to do whatever that person needed me to do.

And so when we created Twitter, we wanted to create a different set of expectations. And that is, you follow the sources of information you're interested in. You glance down at them. They're 140 characters or less. You scroll through them. You see what catches your eye. Maybe you click on one, you read more about it. When it comes to interacting with other Twitter users via at reply or direct message, there's not an inherent expectation that you will get back to them like there is in something like email. Why haven't you emailed me back? I sent you an email two days ago. I still haven't heard back from you. The protocol is you're supposed to email me back.

On Twitter, if you send an at reply to someone, you can look at it, you can have a chuckle and you don't have to reply back to them, and they know that, and so the expectation is different. So I feel a lot less stress when I'm glancing through my tweets than when I'm looking through my email, because I know that everyone in that email, you know, list is waiting for me to get back to them. But everyone on Twitter would just be thrilled if I were to reply to any one of them.

GROSS: Do you remember the first really big tweet? You've explained how South by Southwest was the first time you actually really saw it in action, but the first really memorable tweet?

Mr. STONE: When Obama tweeted that he had won the presidency. And that was just, you know, sort of a mind-blowing thing because it was this historic presidential election and here we had the man himself tweeting and acknowledging it, and for us that was just a big acknowledgment of our work.

GROSS: Well, I wish we had more time to talk. We're out of time. I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. STONE: Oh, well, thanks for your interest, Terry. It's been awesome talking with you.

GROSS: Biz Stone is the co-founder of Twitter. You can follow him on Twitter at Biz, B-I-Z. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.