Twitter, What Are You Doing? Co-Founder Tells All has so many new users that the Web site keeps crashing. Meanwhile, Twitter engineers are taking popular features away for retooling. It's a painful process, but co-founder Biz Stone has a plan.
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Twitter, What Are You Doing? Co-Founder Tells All

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Twitter, What Are You Doing? Co-Founder Tells All

Twitter, What Are You Doing? Co-Founder Tells All

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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If Twitter were a city, it would be Chongqing, and just like in China's fastest-growing city, there is a tension between growth and infrastructure. Twitter has so many new users that part of the service keeps shutting down. To keep up with traffic jams, Twitter is shutting down parts of itself for repairs. Now, when I say Twitter is doing this, Twitter is doing that, I mean Biz Stone, cofounder of Twitter, is directing these things. Hey, Biz.

Mr. BIZ STONE (Creative Director, Cofounder, Twitter): Hey, how're you doing, Mike?

PESCA: I'm well. So, you have more experience than I do in defining Twitter. People always ask me, what is this Twitter thing? And there are words like, oh, it's micro-blogs or mass instant messaging. Can you define it in the least-jargoning way you know how?

Mr. STONE: Yeah, that's an - it's an interesting question, because it really is different, depending on who you are talking to. I recently was speaking with someone and the way I defined it was, that it was - it was, like, you know, an AP news wire...

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. STONE: But you would - you'll get news about - you'll get breaking news about earthquakes in China, but you'll also get news about our friend, and where they're going to drink tonight. So it's this entire spectrum of news, whether it's like breaking news or personal news.

PESCA: And also, it's a little different from the AP news wire, because you decide which sources to opt in, but also you are the AP to other people.

Mr. STONE: Right, it's also you sending out updates as well, and yes, you choose to follow those sources that you find interesting, or they're friends of yours, or whatever.

PESCA: How'd it get started?

Mr. STONE: Well, Twitter actually started as a side project, inside of another company that we were working on. The company was called Obvious. It was a podcasting or audio-on-the-Internet company, and we weren't as enthusiastic as we should have been about it. So, we let our minds wander a little bit, and one of the engineers, Jack Dorsey, one day brought up this idea. He had this long history in dispatch, and he came up with this idea of, you know, what if we merged the concept of dispatch or, hey, where is everybody right now, or what are you doing right now, with social - you know, with the social web, with the idea of that. And once we started noodling around with that idea, we came up with the idea of tying it to the SMS, so that you could update this question, what are you doing, from anywhere, anytime.

PESCA: And so your best-case projection or best-case scenario, how big did you think it would get and how soon?

Mr. STONE: I don't think, you know - I don't think we ever sort of - I think, that's the thing. We never mapped that out. It was this interesting side project. We built a prototype in two weeks. We used it. We loved it. It was like making us laugh, and we just loved using this thing. It was great. We thought there's a lot of potential here, anyone could use this, and it could be used for any reason. Let's keep working on it, and we just did that.

PESCA: So how many people now - these days, how many people are using Twitter each day?

Mr. STONE: Well, over the last 12 months, Twitter has grown in size, like, six times over.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. STONE: So, we don't give out the total number of accounts created on Twitter...


Mr. STONE: But the growth has just been really strong.

PESCA: OK. So, don't tell us how many there are now, but tell us back then, how many, and then I'll multiply by six.

Mr. STONE: Well, I remember - no, I just still remember an email that Jack sent around, saying, everyone, we have 5,000 on the people on the system and we're like wow, 5,000 people, that's crazy, you know? And then, you know, then it just went nuts after that.

PESCA: And so what's the plan for - right now, it's free, and you guys are, I don't know, maybe drawing salaries, but you're not rich yet, are you?

Mr. STONE: No. We're privately funded.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. STONE: And you know, we want to make a sustainable company out of this service. The thing is, the most important thing we can do right now, and what's taking all of our focus, is accommodating the growth, you know, trying to build a reliable utility that everyone can use around the world and depend on. And once we do that, once we feel like we've achieved some semblance of that, then it becomes interesting to start looking at different business models, and a way to make money off the service.

PESCA: But how are you going to make money in the short run, in the long run? Are you going to charge for ads? What's the plan?

Mr. STONE: I don't know if advertising is necessarily that interesting, but you know, we'll definitely look at it, and we're doing some experimentation there with our Japanese version of our site. There's a lot of interesting scenarios, especially once you've become reliable and get to a certain scale. We have a lot of companies using Twitter and, you know, we have JetBlue, and Comcast, and companies like Zappos, the online shoe retailer. The idea of sort of commercial accounts comes to mind. Like, OK, these are people that are making money. They're using Twitter. Dell has declared that they made 500,000 dollars off of Twitter this year. So maybe there's something there, if they want more followers or they, you know, they want to be able to Twitter to more people or something like that.

PESCA: OK. I guess here is the question or, you know, I'll quote a couple Internet magazines and publications. Silicon Alley Insider says Twitter could be worth a billion dollars in a year, and maybe that figure was so high that it got someone at CNet angry, and he noted, if you guys can't get the site running right, it could be worth nothing. So, let's address the second part of that, you know, why people love it. It's very popular. Perhaps its popularity is also its flaw. tell me why there are so many breakdowns on Twitter?

Mr. STONE: You know, there's just so much room for improvement in our system. I mean, it's not the code, but also the way that we implement the system. Right now, we're in this kind of emergency-maintenance mode where, you know, every time the system reaches capacity, they - the answer becomes, you know, turn something off and take it down, retool it, put it back up, but that's a really horrible way of getting to where we need to get to. The best thing we can possibly do is get ahead of this emergency-maintenance mode, so that we're in a mode where we're building, you know, months in advance. So, that's currently the focus.

PESCA: So, we did solicit some tweets, by the way. What - do you use that phrase for a Twitter post? Do you say tweets?

Mr. STONE: We do now. We held off for a long time, because we didn't want to feel like we were saying, this is what you should call them...

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. STONE: But so many people started calling individual's Twitter updates tweets that I sort of recently gave in.

PESCA: Yeah. It's like, what are you going to do? So, T. Weiss wants to know who came up with that picture you show when Twitter's overloaded, the one with the little birds carrying the whale. Some people call it the Fail Whale. Is that its official name internally?

Mr. STONE: That's funny. Well, again, that became the name once we saw people calling it that. I think there are some folks that don't necessarily like it internally, but it is a cute - it is a very cute name.

PESCA: Yeah. It's not very affirming. You can't...

Mr. STONE: No. It's not.

PESCA: It doesn't really inspire you.

Mr. STONE: But there are people who love it. The illustrator for the - for that image is named Yiyang Lu (ph), and originally, I designed - pages when the service was disrupted I designed like LOLcats. I had these wacky cats on there, and it was like, oh, there's a cat in their computer fixing things, but I felt like that was too jokey, because as people were seeing it, they were like, OK, yeah, you're real jokey. You know, Twitter's not working, I'm upset and you're being jokey.

So I wanted to find something that was still fun, but it wasn't so jokey, and so I looked and I found this image of all these little birds lifting up this giant whale, like, you know, this idea that it was - it's a big job, but we're all working together to do it, and for some reason, people just started to really - they love that whale, or they hate it. They love and hate it.

PESCA: Yeah. Strong whale feelings. Tell me about the guy who hated Twitter and tweeted that. Do you know this thing?

Mr. STONE: Oh, yeah. There was a guy early on, I think he was - I don't remember his name, but he was a technologist and a venture capitalist in Manhattan, and you know, Twitter inspires a lot of, just sort of love and hate, just like that whale image. So this guy, I guess, hated it enough that he wanted to use it, but he wanted to use it just to declare when and how he was going to the bathroom.


Mr. STONE: Just to sort of put a fine point on, this is how I believe this service is useful. But he was doing it. He was actually sticking to it, which is pretty impressive. I was like, wow, this guy is not just doing it for one day as a joke. he's like, done it for like weeks on end, and suddenly there was this event, there was this explosion in midtown, and he - first thing he did was he reached for his phone and he sent a Twitter update, he said explosion in midtown, please advise...

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. STONE: Out to his followers, and amazingly, he had followers. And then he just started Twittering from the scene, like, I see people running down the street. Does anyone know what's going on? Other Twitterers were replying him saying, you know, it looks like it was a steam-pipe explosion near wherever, and they were like, sort of collecting this data, and working with Twitter, and it was amazing to me that, you know, his first reaction, even though he claimed that he doesn't like it, was to reach for Twitter in an emergency and just don't even think about it, just use it.

PESCA: Biz Stone, how'd you get the name Biz Stone?

Mr. STONE: I couldn't say my full name when I was little.

PESCA: And that's all you're known by? Do you disclose your full name?

Mr. STONE: Yeah. My full name is Christopher Isaac Stone. I couldn't say Christopher I said Bizibra (ph).

PESCA: Bizibra?

Mr. STONE: My parents thought that was funny and they kept it.

PESCA: That's awesome. It works well for the new business landscape. Biz Stone, cofounder of Twitter, thank you.

Mr. STONE: Thank you, Mike.

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