Q: Mr. Stone, the movie „The Social Network“ depicts how Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg bullied his way to be the youngest billionaire of all times. Would it be possible to tell a similar story about Twitter?
Stone: I don’t think we’re quite interesting enough to be a movie. We’re not like the dorm room startup and there is not enough intrigue.
Q: However, you burned three CEO already, after only three years in business. What went wrong?
Stone: This has a lot to do with what Twitter needed at different times. In 2009 we had about three million users. Now we have about 175 million. For a long time we were working on reliability and we achieved that. But always fighting fires kept us from developing a strong vision what Twitter could be in the future. That’s what we are trying to do right now with a new CEO. And the recent relaunch of Twitter shows it.
Q: What is Twitter today and how would you explain it to new potential users?
Stone: Twitter today is a real-time information network that spans everything from your friends’ updates to global news and events. There are 90 million tweets being created every day, and all of these tweets are being archived at subsecond speed by our search engine, which means for any person in the world there’s pretty much going to be something relevant to them in the Twitter network. So I always advise people to search Twitter about something that interests you, whether it’s sports, the name of your company, your city, what’s going on in your neighborhood, and get into it that way.
Q: But people are overwhelmed anyway with information from the net.
Stone: I agree, we are living now in an age of infinite information. And we can’t look at all of it. So relevance and timeliness have to be things that we have to pay a lot of attention to. We want people to be able to get the information when and where they need it and without having to sift through it all, so that they can move on with their lives.
Q: There are millions of tweets like „I am drinking coffee right now“ – nothing anybody needs to know. Is there really a way, to find relevant information in 90 million short messages?
Stone: Yeah, I think there is. Firstly, by following specific subjects or people on Twitter, you choose yourself which information is relevant to you. But that means that you’re missing out on a lot that potentially could interest you. Therefore, when you search for something in Twitter, we also show you the tweets that relate to your search and that were last created, just seconds ago. As an example, think of the situation a few years ago when that plane landed in the Hudson River. On Twitter, you were able to find that one first picture of that plane on the Hudson just half an hour after the crash.
Q: You call Twitter even a „triumph of humanity“. Isn‘t that a little bit over the top?
Stone: If Twitter is going to be a triumph at all, I believe that it will not be a triumph of technology but indeed of humanity. It really depends on what people are going to do with this simple tool; if they help each other during time of crisis, if they raise spontaneous amounts of money for people after a crisis or if they self-organize during a political upheaval. Twitter is designed to work on every phone across the planet because tweets fit in the international character limit for SMS. And there are more than five billion people using mobile phones in the world. This is so empowering. For example, if something happens in China, in Iran, in Haiti or anywhere else halfway around the world, you are able to find out about it instantly on this network because the relevant tweets are rising up and are becoming visible. That makes us realize that we are not just citizens of one country but of the world and that we are all in this together.
Q: But does that really change anything? Looking at Iran for example: Despite Twitter the situation hasn’t really changed, has it?
Stone: It depends on what you describe as change. Twitter isn’t in the business of changing a situation in another country. It’s in the business of allowing people to connect and share information about what’s going on. Think about China: Twitter is blocked in China. But people use Twitter in China because they’re figuring out ways around that block.
Q: Critics believe that real political movements need a strong network and supervision. A flat hierarchy of just well-linked activists would even most likely disturb a real movement. Can Twitter push forward real change?
Stone: Nobody here at Twitter with their head screwed on right would say that writing a tweet is equivalent to starting a revolution; neither is forwarding an email or updating your status or any of these things. But to say that Twitter would not play a complimentary role in any meaningful event in the world today is an absurd statement. A communication network that allows for information to spread very quickly, very virally, very effectively, can be used in any kind of situation.
Q: Does that mean that Twitter is in effect a journalistic format?
Stone: I don‘t think so. But the idea of the teaming up between Twitter and journalism is very powerful. I think Twitter has a knack for breaking news very quickly. So if there’s an earthquake, you’ll find out about it on Twitter before you’ll find out about it at the news desk. But what you won’t have then is what journalism provides, which is the fuller context of the story. What does it mean in relation to the previous three earthquakes and what geo-economic impact is it having on the region?
Q: The editing and distribution of information was always a domain of professional journalists, and for good reasons. Today, if there is for example a political upheaval, people go to Twitter first. Isn‘t there a big risk of manipulation. How can people distinguish between trustworthy sources and others?
Stone: Like any tool, Twitter can be used for good and for evil. However, what we’ve noticed over a decade of developing these kinds of systems is, that disinformation has a very short shelf life on these open networks. These networks tend to be self-policing. When you have some people trying to spread disinformation, you have more people debunking that and coming at it with the truth.
Q: North Korea, for example, is sending out Tweets on a regular basis. Have you ever considered blocking Twitter accounts like that?
Stone: Removing tweets from the system is something we don’t take lightly. We take free speech and openness very seriously, and there’s only a few scenarios in which we would remove content, like if it is breaking the law. But we can definitely highlight the more relevant information. For us, it is tremendeously important to be relevant and meaningful. We need a network that is important to peoples lives. Otherwise, we won‘t be able to make any revenue.
Q: Twitter hasn‘t been able to generate a lot of profit so far. How exactly are you going to make money in the future?
Stone: We are making money already. People don‘t realize this, because we are doing such a good job at our original plan. We optimized for value before profit in the first couple of years. And now we are seeing companies like the airline Jetblue or the coffee chain Starbuck’s using Twitter. And even more encouraging, people are willing to follow these accounts by the millions.
Q: And the companies pay you money for that service?
Stone: They pay money if we promote their tweets by putting them for example on top of our so called trend list, which can be found on the Twitter homepage. Anything that’s promoted is very clearly marked. So users can decide themselves if they want to read and follow promoted information. This is working exceptionally well for new products people are already talking about or for things like movies …
Q: … some believe that because of Twitter they may predict if a movie becomes a blockuster or not…
Stone: .. exactly. And the advertisers are loving it. Our ads are not banners that we are sticking in front of you that have nothing to do with anything. Our ads are tweets and are therefore part of the natural Twitter experience. In a lot of cases, you’re not even noticing that they are ads.
Q: Is Germany a big market for you?
Stone: It is. Germany is one of the first places that we translated the web interface into, and this year we have seen 80 percent growth in Germany. Japan was the first place that we saw such an explosion, and now Germany, France and Italy.
Q: The Germans do really mind their privacy …
Stone: … well, yes, and the good thing about Twitter is that we’re very, very clear about our policies in this respect. We tell people that Twitter is a very public and open service. Here in the US, tweets are going to go on CNN, they’re going to go in the Library of Congress of the United States, which is archiving public tweets. Once you send out a tweet, it is out there. We’ve tried to make this abundantly clear.
Q: Do you still read a newspaper?
Stone: Well, actually I read Google news, and so wherever Google news sends me is where I end up. So I guess I’m putting my faith in Googles algorithms to determine what I should and what I shouldn’t read. I don’t know if that’s the best way to do it or not.
Q: And you really think that people will do good just because they can share information?
Stone: I believe that people are basically good, and if you give them a very simple tool that allows them to express that basic goodness, they will. We’ve seen it over and over again. The more people are connected on something like Twitter, the more empathy they begin to feel for people who are halfway around the world. They are suddenly walking in the other people’s shoes in a way that they might not have done in the past. I think this really brings people together.