Biz Stone: Rethinking systems and communication

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Biz Stone, Co-founder, Twitter

Biz Stone,
Co-founder, Twitter

When Twitter lowered the barrier to putting information on the Internet, you created a new mode of expression. Did you have any idea you’d create such a data explosion and so drastically change the media landscape?

And the political landscape and the business landscape at large. All of the sudden there came this deluge of people who wanted to express themselves, to communicate. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, because that’s what people do, but we really didn’t plan on having such success. It grew faster than we could possibly have imagined. Because of that, we had a lot of growing pains. But thankfully, we were able to scramble and work really hard and hire the right people to the point where now it’s a juggernaut.

How much thought went into building Twitter’s brand in the early days?

We were creating a brand that represents freedom of expression and which should be valuable to individuals, organizations and businesses alike. I felt we needed to embody the idea that Twitter would not be a triumph of technology; it would be triumph of humanity. We felt that people should be allowed to have their voice, so we erred on the side of leaving everything up unless it broke specific laws. That can be painful sometimes, but in the longer view of things, if your brand is about freedom of expression, then you can’t be deleting things. There were also more tactical things. I drew the Twitter bird logo because, what better way to express the idea of freedom of expression than a bird in flight? And, of course, the word twitter means short bursts of information from birds in trees. The secondary definition is laughter, which was just perfect. So, yes, we were obsessed with the brand, and you could argue that we had a billion-dollar brand long before we had a company worth a billion dollars. It took a long time for the actual number of users to catch up with the awareness of Twitter.

Twitter the company certainly benefited from media coverage. But the media also embraced the tool itself. What was your media relations – or maybe more appropriately – your media partnering strategy? Was it just about being helpful?

That’s exactly it. I was saying, “We have this public stream of information, essentially a growing, living, real-time feed. How can we make the way people experience your property more alive and more real-time?” That became the ethos of the way we did partnerships. We would just walk into a company and say, “How can we help? How can we help make search results better? How can we help make the experience on the iPhone better?” That became a great way of working with partners, especially since they were sort of war-weary from being dictated to by other so-called Internet companies.

What have you learned about the way that users behave on Twitter?

One of the big misconceptions of Twitter is that users developed all of the ideas and technology. Really it’s been a collaboration. We would see what people were trying to do and then, as architects of the system, try to make something better. For example, there was a point when people began highlighting someone else’s tweet and pasting it in their own tweet forum with the letters RT to indicate that this was someone else’s tweet that’s worth seeing. We looked at that and decided that people were looking to more easily spread important information across the system—so wouldn’t it be great if we systemized the feature so that one click would properly attribute the tweet to the original author. A re-tweet button turns out to be easier and far more efficient and it kept people from making fake re-tweets. Also, it becomes a signal for us to measure for quality of a tweet.

How do you see marketing changing?

I think the two biggest things that marketers need to get good at are storytelling and causes. Consumers want to know the story of the product, but also of the people behind the product or company. So marketers need to be able to tell a story that’s compelling about what the company cares for in a way that encourages consumers to interact. I’ve said before that I believe the future of marketing is philanthropy. What I mean by that is, people want to know how a product or service they’re considering buying is contributing to something more meaningful. They want to know why they should feel good about the choice. The better a company can quickly use tools like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to tell stories that are transparent and compelling narratives of what they’re trying to do in the world, the more they’ll succeed.

So engage in social media and be truthful?

Truthful, but also authentic – there’s real value in vulnerability. I used it to our advantage at Twitter a lot. If we had an outage, we’d say, “Hey everybody, we made this mistake; here’s what we did to fix the mistake; and, here’s why that won’t ever happen again. Thanks for your patience and understanding.” It makes people realize that you are also human. The more you present yourself as completely impermeable, the more you’re going to be torn down when something goes wrong.

How would you advise a marketer to engage with customers or complainers on Twitter?

A company shouldn’t be expected to @reply every single person who complains about something, but some level of response, even to one person, shows that the company is trying to make a connection. Helping one person in public goes a long way. You come across as an advocate. So, really, whenever possible, just engage with consumers when they engage with you. Of course there are more sophisticated tactics for marketers to use Twitter, whether it be analyzing the number of tweets, the words in a tweet, the sentiment of the tweets, where the tweets are coming from. There are tools for all these things, as well as to promote tweets or a trend to a certain audience. But at a really low level, it’s about engaging and not being aloof. You can communicate directly to your customer without a middleman. The Internet is a great leveler.

What’s your secret to seeing the bigger picture?

I started out as an artist, a painter and a graphic designer, so for me, it’s really about being creative. A lot of times I project forward what I see happening today. So I say, “Okay. Let’s assume that this is true and real. Suddenly, it’s five years from now. How have things changed?” That makes you start thinking about what you’re going to do. Long-term thinking is something that people generally aren’t good at. It’s awkward. But it’s also incredibly freeing and fun. These days I’m looking at what’s next for the entire Internet and again, I’m thinking, Okay. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others are saying, “We’re going to connect all seven billion people to each other and it will create infinite amounts of information.’” My next thought is, I believe you, but what’s next? More information will not make us smarter. Being able to understand that information so that we can take action on it—that’s going to make us smarter; that’s going to make the world better. So we have to start thinking about tools that can deal with unlimited information. What are some systematic ways that information can be filtered and delivered in relevant timely ways such that people can actually act on it? I think that’s what’s next for the Internet. What we’ve built so far is fantastic, but we need to build that layer where information becomes knowledge and thus transmuted into action.

Are you talking about additional layers of software or analytics?

Not completely. Part of the answer is programmatic. We’ll use computers and algorithms to sift through information. But we need to take advantage of the fact that people are signals now. Look at publishing on the Internet. It’s mostly words printed on screens, which isn’t really different from words on paper. We have a lot of fragmented publishing islands out there and we have a lot of frozen formats with ads and links along the top and the side, all of which comes at the expense of user experience. If you were going to create a publishing platform now, it would be completely different. Everyone is networked and billions of people are reading content on their smartphones. They can click a button that says, “This is good stuff.” These signals are pretty simple and straightforward, but they haven’t really been systematized. Everything needs to be re-imagined with this networked world in mind. We have to figure out a way to sort through the information because again, more is good, but more won’t make us smarter. It’ll just make us dumbfounded.

Is this the vision of your new project, Medium?

If you look at blogs, they’re about the author and everything’s time-stamped. But what if we look at the content first, take signals from viewers and use algorithms to determine what’s good? Part of the idea of Medium is, let’s try to refocus around the content, not the author, and start measuring things in a different way. You don’t just measure page views and clicks. You measure whether someone scrolled all the way down to the bottom or if they click “This is Good.” It’s all about how can we scrutinize content to find out whether or not it’s worth showing to the next person. Another principle of Medium is that something published on a digital network should get better over time, rather than old and stale. It should get more relevant because more people are interacting with it over time. People should be able to go in and fix it and change it to make it better. These are still blue sky ideas, but if you’re looking to create a new publishing platform today, you have to take into consideration a whole bunch of new techniques and tools that weren’t here even six years ago.

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