By Kate Greene
Evan Williams has a habit of building software to help people broadcast their thoughts. In 1999, he developed Blogger, the easy-to-use blogging tool that Google snatched up four years later. His latest project is another self-publishing service, a miniblog service called Twitter. Launched in March 2006, Twitter lets people broadcast short messages from computers and phones to anyone in the world. The idea has generated a fair amount of buzz, but while some people love the idea of a constant stream of updates, others are appalled. Williams doesn’t seem too worried about the critics, though. He says he saw a nearly identical response when he introduced Blogger. Technology Review caught up with Williams to discuss Twitter and its implications.
Technology Review: What is Twitter, and what’s the point?
Evan Williams: Twitter is a way to keep in touch with people you’re interested in. And it happens by answering the question “What are you doing?” People do this through the Twitter Web interface, text message (SMS), or one of several clients that are available, such as instant-messenger (IM) or desktop applications. Then you subscribe to the people that you’re interested in to follow what they’re doing. So you get these very short little text updates that go on throughout the day. You get these insights into people’s lives. Updates can be accessed on the Twitter site or through desktop clients such as IM, and they can be sent as a text message to your phone.
TR: Couldn’t that get annoying, to constantly get text-message updates about the minutiae of your friends’ days?
EW: You can stop following at any time. You just turn it off so it doesn’t get overwhelming.
A lot of people just use Twitter through the website, but SMS is where it’s more interesting, because you’re out and about during the day and reporting those things. Twitter is like IM or direct SMS, but the key difference is that replies are not expected. This allows for a different type of sharing. It gives you more freedom. Because replies aren’t expected, you can write things that can be ignored, which allows you to write things that aren’t necessarily important but could be interesting or fun.
TR: What sorts of things do people Twitter about? What do you Twitter about?
EW: I shared earlier today how good my lox bagel was this morning. People share links, they share their insights into their day, what they’re feeling, what they’re excited about, and what they’re sad about. They share their thoughts on the movie they just saw or the restaurant they just ate at. If you know these people, it’s interesting to get these insights into their day. It can even be fascinating if you don’t know them, and follow them because they’re funny or interesting. A lot of people who don’t know me get my updates, and I get updates from people I don’t know, because they’re funny or interesting. It’s a new form of communication that’s about ambient awareness and instant insight into people’s lives. When you get a Twitter update from a friend, you can picture what they’re doing when they report it.
TR: How many people use Twitter, and what type of people are they?
EW: It’s still early, and we don’t publicly report our numbers, but right now many of our users are from the early-adopter crowd.
TR: Some bloggers have complained that Twitter’s functionality is limited. Is this simplicity intentional?
EW: Yes. It’s very intentional. Simplicity is a really big part of Twitter. As we go forward, we’re trying to carefully walk the line between adding functionality and keeping it simple. We know there’s lots of functions we want to add and will add, but we also want to wait. We think a lot of the beauty of Twitter is in the simplicity.
Even though it looks like Twitter is just simple text updates, there’s a lot going on that’s hard to explain. It’s a multidevice network that’s complicated under the covers. But the only way to make that work is to keep what it does really simple. Because it’s so simple, we’ve seen a lot of our usage come through our API [a platform that lets other people modify Twitter’s look and some functions]. It encourages people to play with it and develop tons of different interfaces and tools for it. That couldn’t have happened if Twitter were much more complex.
TR: What sorts of tools and interfaces have people developed?
EW: One popular interface is called Twitterific. It’s a Mac client that sits on your desktop like an IM window. Your friends’ updates will pop up and then fade away like [an] IM. It’s a really nice way to use the product if you’re on the computer all day, because it gives you this ambient awareness, which you can more or less ignore, of what people are doing.
There are also people taking the [public posts] and doing interesting things with that. The most popular one is called Twitter Vision. It’s a world map, and Twitters show up as they’re coming in from all over the world. It’s very hypnotic.
Also, there are bots [automated computer programs] that are posting as Twitter users based on some information feed. A lot of those are news bots that post headlines. There are others that post the weather, and there are at least two hooked up to the United States Geological Survey that post updates on the location and magnitude of earthquakes.
TR: So Twitter could be used to broadcast important news or emergency announcements?
EW: Yes, and this has broad implications. People have contacted Twitter about [using it as an] emergency broadcast system. We like the idea of it, but we’re not anywhere near saying we want to be counted on in emergency situations.
TR: Where is Twitter headed?
EW: Twitter is fairly unique in terms of allowing one to broadcast to many, on a subscription basis, in real time. That’s really the heart of Twitter, and what we consider the core. What we’re investing in long term is the message router part of it. Messages come in a bunch of different ways, and they all need to go to the right device and the right people. It’s all about the message routing and the network and the number of devices that are connected to it.
We’d like to grow the network and the number of people who are using Twitter actively. We are working to extend it so you can send and receive Twitters via e-mail. Also, we’re interested in getting more value out of the content that’s flowing through the system. We want to allow people to search for users. One of our most requested features is to allow people to form groups. For instance, if people are gathered at an event, it’d be useful to opt in and get Twitters from other people at the event. Likewise, you could have a group for a city such as San Francisco.