12 Burning Questions for Twitter Co-Founders

"Nightline" correspondent John Donvan spoke with Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, two of the masterminds behind the tweeting phenomenon. Below, find out how it all started and the surprises they experienced along the way. (This interview transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.)

John Donvan: How is Twitter different than blogging?

Biz Stone: I think of Twitter first as a communication network that has very social elements to it. And certainly blogging, or microbologging is a use in the case of Twitter. For people who are used to blogging to go ahead and write smaller blog posts, I think it works for that perfectly, but I think that there are a lot of cases where you're not really blogging. You're trying to organize a quick meeting among friends at a bar at 6 tonight and it's 5:30, so you send out a Twitter message to everyone saying, "I'm here, who's with me?" That's not blogging, that's communication.

Donvan: You've kind of created almost a new reason to communicate, in addition to a new format for it, and it's not one that anybody needed before because we would have created it a long time ago in some fashion, but now that it's created people are really drawn to it.

Evan Williams: It's true it gives people freedom. And part of the reason -- we saw this with blogging, which we both worked on for a number of years -- when blogs first arrived there was a lot of the same response at first, which was why should people care what I am going to say or why would pollute the Web with that, or, I have e-mail -- if I want to tell people something I will just e-mail them. When you flip it around, though, and make it up to the reader, the recipient, whether or not they want to tune into this info, it gives the author much more freedom to express themselves because they are not imposing on people. It's actually less presumptuous than to bump into a friend and tell them anything because they have to sit there and be polite. With Twitter anyone can turn it off.

Donvan: How are you not Facebook?

Stone: You are not responding to a request from someone else to be your friend, you are just finding sources of information on Twitter, whether it's me, Whole Foods, JetBlue, whatever it is. You are saying I want this information sent to me in real time, and there's a lot more to it than that but I think that's a big one.

Williams: There's some fundamentalism at how the relationships are formed. Facebook is very, very good at mapping real-world connections among people and that's kind of what they talk about doing, and those connections are two-way. So in the real world I don't know Bizz if he doesn't know me, there's people you know of and maybe are fans of but Facebook doesn't really facilitate that type of info exchange. And what Twitter does is allows you to tap into info sources, and so Twitter is really more about keeping up on what's happening with things you care about. Some subset of that is your friends and family, that's perhaps the most interesting thing, to get the buzz in your pocket to see what this other person is doing. But a lot of Twitter today are news sources, celebs, or some event that is happening in the world, and you want to see what people are saying about it. The attacks in Mumbai, the Super Bowl or the Oscars, and it doesn't matter -- in fact it would be limiting to say, 'I only want to see what my friends are saying about that.' I want to see what people on the scene are saying about that or what the global pulse is about this event. And it's all stripped down to that, and it's very, it's more informational than just communication.

Donvan: Who were your early adopters, where were they and how did they find each other? How did people figure out that you were out there?

Stone: I would say it started with the blogging world actually. And because Twitter has been called microblogging by a lot of people because structurally, it's very similar to blogging. If you understand blogging, then you understand Twitter. And we sort of have been playing in that world for a long time, so I feel like a lot of it was actually driven from our own personal connections, which involved a lot of bloggers especially in the technology world. So they very quickly understood it even when it was very primitive, and I would say it's still primitive in terms of ease of use and getting into it. But that early adopter crowd was able to accept those limitations at first and it quickly spread and of course bloggers sort of have their own megaphones, that when they started using it, they amplified it's growth by talking about it on their blogs. And so that was the first real substantial community that got on.

Donvan: Some Twitterers spend so much time Twittering -- when do they live? Where do they draw the line?

Williams: I think all technologies, especially technologies that connect people and sometimes give them the rush of getting feedback from around the world, it can be addictive. But, and there's lots of social networks where people spend hours a day. And it's a little bit ironic because I know [Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey] has talked about the idea coming from AIM with status messages, and him having this desire to connect while away from the computer. It was partially driven by that desire to get away from the computer and be out there in the world doing things but still have this connection. But I think inevitably you're going get people who get really sucked in and spend a lot of time on it.

Donvan: What has really caught you by surprise?

Stone: Well, there's been a big shift, I would say over the last few months. A lot of it's driven by search, and we bought a company that provides the Twitter search now. We're building it more into the product. It's really about a bunch of people collecting information about something even if they don't know each other, and this wasn't in the original idea. The original idea was more about, 'I want to stay in touch with this person I know.' And now, whether it's an event or a concert, or where gas is during a shortage in Atlanta, people are finding ways to organize using Twitter and using the search function.

Donvan: Are you surprised by the recent acceleration? How overwhelmed are you by how fast this is moving?

Stone: Every day is sort of like a new record, and the funny thing about it is that, working at Twitter, I worked with Ev [Evan Williams] together on Blogger, which is a really fast-growing, really popular tool ... Everything we've done at Twitter, not just growth but sort of everything else, has been faster. It's always faster. We're always making decisions that we thought we were going to make a year from now and we're making them now. So I think we're beginning to expect now, the unexpected speed, and that's funny because it goes really well with the product which is this real-time, right now what's going on and what's happening right now, and that's the pace that we're operating at, and now we have this tool that allows us to keep operating at that pace. It's been amazing from that standpoint.

Donvan: Mumbai was very big in the history of Twitter, Mumbai will always be a very big moment. What happened from your point of view?

Stone: From my point of view I think I was actually looking at the trends that we calculate on the search page for Twitter. Every minute or so we update the popular key words that are rushing through the system, and on that day it was at the end of November so it was a lot of Thanksgiving, turkey, that kind of stuff. And then I saw Mumbai, and I was like what significance does Mumbai have to Thanksgiving? So I clicked the link and I just saw all this craziness. I am on the page for 15 seconds and it says 200 new updates since you've been looking at this page.

Donvan: Is there anything that you don't want Twitter to become?

Stone: I mean there's product directions that we are not, or at least I personally am not that enthusiastic about going into. I like that it's a simple tool that doesn't require a lot of upfront thought to use and send a message instantly. So I don't want to go too far down the path of social networky-type-stuff, that's from a product perspective.

Williams: I'd say we don't want to pursue growth for the sake of growth

Donvan: It's kind of happening to you anyway...

Williams: The growth is definitely happening, but there's a path that you get on where you need to support certain corporate goals and you always need to grow, so you look at the areas about what's going to provide growth... So part of Twitter's beauty is that it can be used for so many things and we sort of have this idealistic view that more good things than bad will come of it.

Donvan: The product is not about causes, its about giving people the tools to communicate with themselves. Is that accurate?

Stone: What we are seeing with Twitter is that people in general are good and they want to do good things and they are making things happen and they are using our tool to organize these great things. I think our role in this is really to encourage this kind of stuff, highlight it as I've said. And not necessarily pick a particular cause but if there's one that's emerging, to encourage it.

Williams: I would say there's also maybe some high-level cause or mission that would describe what we are doing. We deeply believe that what we are doing is making people's lives better. We don't know the best way to articulate that. It's what we have observed so far, is that if we make it easier and more efficient for anyone to exchange information, more good things happen.

Donvan: Are you making money yet?

Williams: No, not anything meaningful. We're a little ways from that.

Donvan: Where, when and how do you make money from it? Has that been figured out?

Williams: We can't say it's been figured out until we do it and it works, and we prove it. We have some ideas, and they'll take, sort of like Twitter in general. I think the same will happen with the money-making features. But we, we're really focused right now on building the best product possible and growing it. We're building a business, we're building a long-term business. And the real value and defensiblity of that's going to come from the size of the network. And so we're only 30 people here. So if we were doing the money-making stuff, we would be doing less to make the product better.