Interview with Biz Stone of Twitter

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Note: This is the second of a few interview pieces I originally wrote for the now-defunct Nokia Workshop blog. That blog died before these could go up, so I’m going to post them here instead. Thanks go out to the folks who took the time to participate — and apologies that these couldn’t wind up somewhere slightly more prominent.

If you’re at all interested in social software or mobile applications you’re probably familiar with Twitter, the simple SMS broadcasting tool that launched a couple of years ago. Twitter has continued to grow at a fast clip and has taken on a certain amount of cultural resonance, so I decided to ask Twitter Co-Founder and Creative Director Biz Stone a few questions about the social design and interaction design behind the service.

I should note, also, that Twitter has a lovely API which indie developers or experimenters might find quite useful.

Josh: Twitter is sort of shockingly simple. I’d like to know more about the initial design choices: How did you settle upon Twitter’s interaction model?

Biz: Our inspiration was the concept of status-like the away message in Instant Message applications. However, current status is only so interesting when you’re always in front of a computer so we wanted to take that idea and make it mobile. That’s where SMS came in. When we built the web site, we thought a little push in the right direction would help so we came up with the question, “What are you doing?”

Josh: Were there existing mobile apps that influenced and inspired you guys to build it as you did?

Biz: There were no existing mobile apps that inspired us. Instead, we took inspiration from broader subjects like the dispatch industry and the history of the telegraph.

Josh: Yeah, Twitter has a sort of “telegraph-like” feel to it. Have you read “The Victorian Internet” by Tom Standage? Were there any specific ways that looking at the dispatch or telegraph industry informed Twitter’s design?

Biz: Yes, I happened to be reading that book around the time we first prototyped Twitter. There was nothing specific that informed the design — I’d say it was more of an inspiration.

Josh: Did you have to actively hold yourselves back from adding features that might’ve cluttered the project? And how have you gone about deciding which features to incorporate post-launch (such as the “@username” means of addressing someone)?

Biz: To some extent yes, we needed to restrain ourselves from adding complexity with additional features. However, it helped that the service got very popular and we had less time for feature building. In general we prefer to take our time and allow behavior to show us how we can make the service better. When we saw users adopting an @username protocol we decided to implement it in the system and created the “Replies” tab so folks could track those links.

Josh: Is the 140-character message length holy, or is it merely an artifact of the length of an SMS? Would Twitter ever consider raising or lowering the allowed message length?

Biz: The 140 character length is holy to us but it is also an artifact of the length of an SMS. From the beginning, we wanted our service to be device agnostic — a message created on a computer should work when received via SMS. The lowest common denominator was 160 character messages of SMS and we left 20 characters for the username. However, we also very much believe that constraint inspires creativity so the 140 character limit is not going to change.

Josh: The Twitter API seems like an important factor in Twitter’s success. Have there been applications built on top of Twitter by third-party developers that have particularly impressed Team Twitter? Anything especially bizarre or unexpected?

Biz: The API has been a boon to Twitter and it accounts for a much larger percentage of traffic than even our web site. Several applications built on our API have particularly impressed us including Twitterriffic which as recently won an Apple Design Award and Twittervision which was recently featured in New York City’s MoMA. Early on, we used to be confused when at 5pm PST each day Twitter seemed to be taken over by what appeared to be lots of kittens twittering in Japanese. It turns out there was a popular tamagotchi game built on Twitter — that was bizarre. I think the plant that Twitters when it needs water is strangely compelling too.

Josh: What about community-forming? Were there conscious and pro-active steps you took to develop and nurture the early Twitter community? Do you have any suggestions for social application developers on that front?

Biz: We attracted early adopters and our API helped form a developer community around Twitter. My only suggestion would be that you’re building a product for yourself as well as others. Everything else forms around that — or doesn’t if you’re not personally interested.

Josh: Are there groups who use Twitter that have totally surprised you? Twitter’s effect on social justice movements, for example, is fascinating.

Biz: For sure, the story of James Buck who escaped from an Egyptian prison using Twitter highlights the social justice and activism use cases. Emergency workers and news organizations who value the real-time nature of the Twitter network were not exactly a surprise but their fairly rapid adoption has been pretty impressive.

Josh: It seems like many people have strong opinions about what Twitter should or should not do. For example, some people think it should have groups. Or it should have more refined privacy controls. Or whatever. You probably hear a ton of these. How does something go from suggestion to being built into the Twitter infrastructure? Are there any new features like this in the pipe or is this the sort of thing that you like to see users take care of themselves via the API or other hacks?

Biz: It’s true, many people talk about wish-list features. However, it’s important to measure activity and behavior patterns as well. You’d be surprised at how many people bring up a feature and then just as quickly dismiss it because they love the simplicity of Twitter. We have to be careful what we add to the experience. Certainly, API projects that solve certain user needs are beneficial to us so we continue to encourage that work.

Josh: Where does Twitter go from here? Will there be various regional (or socially-regional) Twitter clones that exist mostly independently similar to how Facebook and MySpace users remain walled apart? Or will we see a rise of services that bridge between these?

Biz: We’d like to see Twitter grow into a global utility around the world. We see existing networks like those you mentioned as devices not dissimilar from SMS. Twitter will remain complimentary to these services as well as new services inspired by Twitter.

Josh: And what about more powerful mobile devices that can run fuller-featured apps and aren’t constrained to text messages? Does Twitter depend on outside developers building on the API in those cases? Like Twitterrific for the iPhone.

Biz: Patterns are emerging on Twitter. Already we see three different types of messages — traditional status updates, replies or conversational updates, and messages sharing some form of media. Right now, sharing anything over Twitter is done via URL which renders as linked text and conversations can be hard to keep track of. We’ll be looking at these patterns and considering ways to improve the experience while remaining simple and true to form.

Josh: Thanks for your time!

Biz: Sure thing!

Great Interview

Posted Sat, March 28, 2009, 6:42pm EST by Danny Schreiber

Nice work Josh, that was a very enjoyable read. I liked your questions - way to not ask the always asked, "how to monetize."

Great meeting you at SXSW - hope all is well.