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Sat March 19, 2011
Digital Life

Twitter Turns Five: #happybirthday!

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." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Only fitting to introduce our next guest with a series of tweets. The social networking site Twitter is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year -hashtag happy birthday, three exclamation points. Tweeting, of course, is like blogging, only faster, and more stream of consciousness - hashtag Gilbert Gottfried.

Today, the service has over 200 million users who send over 100 million tweets every day. Are we a trending topic yet?

Biz Stone is the co-founder and the creative director of Twitter. He joins us from the studios of On the Path Productions in San Francisco, where - of course -Twitter is based. Mr. Stone, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BIZ STONE (Co-Founder, Creative Director, Twitter): Oh, thank you, Scott, for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: You know, I sent out a tweet inviting Twitter users to ask any questions. You know what question I got - by far - more than any other?

Mr. STONE: I have no idea.

SIMON: Why 140 characters?

Mr. STONE: Oh, right.

SIMON: And?

Mr. STONE: I have a good answer for that.

SIMON: OK.

Mr. STONE: Well, from the very beginning, we built Twitter to work over SMS, or simple mobile text messaging. And so the limit, internationally, for text messages is 160 characters. So that meant we needed to fit all of our tweets within that limit, but we also needed to reserve room for the name of the author of the tweet. So we decided to standardize on 140 characters. And that way, you can read and write tweets in their entirety, on any mobile phone on the planet.

SIMON: And how, when, why did you get the idea for Twitter?

Mr. STONE: Well, that's an interesting story, because we weren't supposed to be working on Twitter. My co-founder, Evan Williams, and I had left Google together, and we were working on a new start-up. And that start-up was not captivating us as much as it should have been, really, for us to be taking a risk with other people's venture capital money.

So my other co-founder, Jack Dorsey, came up with this idea that was actually not too far from something I had already tried twice, unsuccessfully, to launch. And that was very simple way to update other people with a status message over a mobile and specifically, text messaging. And we started talking about it with some others; we started getting excited. And it was actually Evan who said: Why don't you guys just take two weeks and build a prototype, and we'll see if people like it.

And at first, nobody liked it, really. People - for the first nine months or so -just thought it was not useful, to which I recall Evan Williams saying: Well, neither is ice cream; should we ban ice cream - and all joy? And the answer was no. We were having fun. We were emotionally invested in this because it was something that captivated and held our interest.

SIMON: And how do you get from something that was just fun - like ice cream - to something that has been credited for at least playing a role in revolutions around the world?

Mr. STONE: You know, when I think about it, it really comes down to a very core, basic belief of mine - which is that it really doesn't matter how sophisticated the algorithms get, or how many machines we add to the network. If Twitter, you know, if it's to be a triumph - and if you want to call it a triumph - then it's not necessarily just a triumph of technology. It's a triumph of humanity.

So how did we get here? We got here because people are basically good; they're basically smart. And when given a simple tool that allows them to express that, theyll prove it to you every single day.

SIMON: Question from Rav Fox over Twitter: Whats the actual business model for Twitter? I mean, how do you guys make money doing this?

Mr. STONE: Our business model comes from something we are calling our promoted products - and that's promoted tweets, promoted trends, promoted accounts. The reason that these go somewhat unnoticed by people is that they're entirely native to the system. So a promoted tweet is really just like any other tweet. But a company like Starbucks, for example, can pay to have that tweet show up at the top of the other tweets when people search for, you know, coffee-related terms.

We're really just at the beginning of it. This is our revenue model for now, and it's by - sort of invite only, the partners we work with at this point. And we're going to grow that as the year goes on.

SIMON: Let me ask you about whatever role Twitter may have played in a revolution in Egypt, in uprisings in Iran, in Libya - political movements around the world. At the same time, are there people who confuse sending a tweet with actually doing something?

Mr. STONE: No, I don't think there are. I think there are people that are arguing that there are people that are making that confusion. But I don't think anyone is really making that confusion. I think the key thing to remember is that, you know, tools like Twitter are just that - they're tools. They are ways that people can coordinate activities, communicate with one another and in this way, come together as one when it's important to do so.

And I'd be the first to admit that, you know, 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. You know, when the Berlin Wall came down, I'm sure there were phone calls being made. But no one said that the telephone brought down the Berlin Wall, you know?

SIMON: You mentioned that when you and your partner were beginning Twitter, people asked yeah, but what good is it? And you said: What good is ice cream? Can't you just enjoy it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Can you, at this point in your life, just enjoy tweeting?

Mr. STONE: Yeah, it's interesting. Tweeting, for me, has changed a little bit because what's happened over time is that I've switched from tweeting a lot, to consuming a lot of tweets. And that's based on the idea that you don't have to build a web page to get value out of the Internet. And the same is true for Twitter. You don't need to actually tweet to get value out of Twitter. And I've learned that to be true.

SIMON: Mr. Stone, thanks so much.

Mr. STONE: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: Biz Stone - he is the co-founder and creative director of Twitter, as the site marks its fifth anniversary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.