Searching for Humans

October 19, 2007

By Erica Naone

Jaideep Singh, cofounder of the new people-search engine Spock, says he wants to build a profile for every person in the world. To do this, he plans to combine the power of search algorithms with online social networks.

Singh says he got the idea for Spock while looking for people with specific areas of expertise among his contacts in Microsoft Outlook. Although he has two or three thousand people listed, he could only find people he was already thinking about.

Spock is designed to solve that problem by allowing users to search for tags–such as “saxophonist” or “venture capitalist”–and then view a list of people associated with those tags. Singh could have manually entered tags for each of his contacts into Microsoft Outlook, but capturing every interest of each particular individual would be time-consuming. Spock uses a combination of human and machine intelligence to automatically come up with the tags: search algorithms identify possible tags, and users can vote on their relevance or add new tags. Registered users can add private tags to another person’s profile to organize their contacts based on information that they don’t want to share. For example, a contentious associate might be privately labeled as such.

The social-network component of the website introduces an element of crowd commentary into the search process. George W. Bush is tagged “miserable failure,” with a vote of 87 to 31 in favor of the tag’s relevance as of this writing. Users aren’t allowed to vote anonymously, and the tag links to the profiles of people who voted.

Singh hopes social networks will also help with one of the main problems in people search: teaching the system to recognize that two separate entries refer to a single person–a problem called entity resolution. For example, a single person might have a MySpace page, a Linked In profile, and a write-up on a company website. Steven Whang, an entity-resolution researcher at Stanford University, says that there are several aspects to the problem: getting the system to compare two entries and decide whether they are related, merging related entries without repetition, and comparing information from a myriad of possible sources online. Finally, Whang says, there is a risk of merging two entries that should not be merged, as in the case of a name like Robin, which is used by both men and women.

Many of the people-search engines try to get around these problems by encouraging people to claim and manage their own profiles, although Whang notes that this is a labor-intensive approach. Although there are many sites where people could claim their profiles, Singh says he thinks one engine will eventually dominate, and people will make the effort to claim profiles there. Bryan Burdick, chief operating officer of the business-search site Zoominfo, says that 10,000 people a week claim their profiles on Zoom, in spite of having to provide their credit-card numbers to do so.

Singh has also introduced the Spock Challenge, a competition to design a better entity-resolution algorithm. He says that 1,400 researchers have already downloaded the data set, and they will compete for a $50,000 prize, which will be awarded in November.

But although Spock and Zoominfo both stress the importance of being able to search by job title or other keywords, Michael Tanne, CEO of people-search engine Wink, says that isn’t the most common need in people search. “That’s not how 90 percent of searches are done,” he says. “When you search for the iPhone, you want to see what’s out there about the iPhone. But when you search for a person, you have a specific result in mind.” While his site does allow users to search by tags, Tanne says that the tags are more commonly used to narrow down a search. Wink is able to search by variables such as location with more focus than the simple word recognition Google uses, Tanne says. For example, he notes, Wink would recognize that Framingham is close to Boston, and it would include both when a user enters “Boston” as a search term. (A spokesperson for Google says the search-engine giant currently has no plans to develop special features to improve people search.)

Singh says that Spock has indexed more than 100 million profiles so far–a reasonable start on the way to indexing every person in the world. But some people have raised privacy concerns. The people-search engines spider business sites and public Linked In profiles, but also social-networking sites such as MySpace. (Facebook information is kept private.) Business and personal information can appear on the same page, although Zoominfo attempts to index only the former. The sites’ spokespeople all agree that the burden falls on the user to watch out for what’s available online. “Whether you’re managing it or not, you have a digital persona,” Burdick says. Wink will remove profiles upon request, although not all people-search engines share that policy.

“The ability to see what you’ve put out there is an eye-opener to most people,” Tanne says.


Managing Your Reputation Online

October 19, 2007

By Erica Naone

Shopping online requires trust between buyer and seller: often, each relies on the other’s reputation. Today, a Waltham, MA, startup called TrustPlus is releasing a new product that collects information about online reputations so that people can better manage their own, and investigate others’.

A person’s online reputation is often stored in a variety of disconnected websites, such as Amazon Marketplace, eBay, and LinkedIn. Other sites, such as Craigslist, have no way of measuring reputation at all. The problem, says TrustPlus CEO Shawn Broderick, is that reputation scores aren’t centrally managed, and often the rankings lack context. TrustPlus plans to make reputation portable by centrally collecting information about a person and displaying that information wherever he or she does business or interacts online.

“We don’t aggressively go out and collect data,” Broderick says. Instead, TrustPlus users can give each other ratings, including information about how they came in contact with each other. Rather than using a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, users can rate people at six levels of trustworthiness. Broderick says that he plans for the system to follow a bell curve, reserving the highest ratings for rare occasions. Systems that frequently hand out the highest ratings tend to be skewed, he says, and can encourage people to react irrationally to critical comments. Users can add information to their TrustPlus reputation by submitting profiles from sites such as LinkedIn. This requires sharing passwords with TrustPlus, but users can choose to submit profiles without verification, although they won’t carry as much weight.

Terrell Russell, co-founder of online identity-management system ClaimID and a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that most people don’t need to worry about having a bad online reputation. “The much bigger problem is total obscurity,” he says.

But Russell notes that there are cases when online management sites can’t do much to help a damaged reputation. “If you’re Miss South Carolina Teen USA, we can’t help you, and probably no one else can either,” he says.

A TrustPlus reputation will appear in several ways. Users can choose to install TrustPlus on their browsers, so that an overlay of TrustPlus ratings will appear when they visit sites such as Facebook, Craigslist, and eBay. They can also download a TrustPlus badge and include it on their website, inviting others to research their reputation through TrustPlus. Finally, some sites, such as the video classified site iMoondo, have integrated TrustPlus as a site-wide reputation system.

When viewing someone’s reputation through TrustPlus, users will find that the rating will change depending on the circumstances. For example, Broderick says, a person who is rated as a trustworthy seller of electronics might have a lower rating when she goes to sell a home, due of a lack of data in that context. In addition, ratings are affected by social networks. TrustPlus includes a feature called the Trust Circle, which allows users to specify whose opinions they trust most, or to limit who sees the ratings they choose to give. Trustworthiness ratings are weighted differently depending on who a person knows. For example, when a buyer views a seller’s TrustPlus reputation, the ratings of the seller that are given the most weight are those that come from the buyer’s friends.

This is powerful, Broderick says, because it prevents dishonest people from artificially bolstering their own ratings with the help of their friends. “Bad actors will become isolated islands of reputation, cut off from the mainland of good people,” he says.

Chris Dellarocas, an associate professor of information systems at the University of Maryland, says that public ratings systems sometimes discourage people from saying bad things when they ought to, while anonymous ratings systems cause trouble by failing to hold people accountable when they bad-mouth another person. TrustPlus’s model has promise, he says, because people may be more willing to give honest ratings when they know they can control who sees them. However, Dellarocas notes that systems like this work most easily when people are buying and selling, and he’s curious to see how well it will work in other contexts, such as when someone is meeting another person via Facebook.

The TrustPlus software released today is only an early test version. But the company plans to launch a full version later this year. Broderick says that he and his colleagues are currently finalizing deals to integrate their system with other companies and to license a people-search feature from an existing site. The company doesn’t intend to charge for maintaining users’ profiles, and it has no plans to add advertising features. Instead, the team intends to make money by adding support services, such as payment processing and tracking systems, for people who are buying and selling through free online classified sites, much like those offered by the company Channel Advisor, which supports buyers and sellers using eBay.


Is Twitter Here to Stay?

October 19, 2007

By Wade Roush

Last week I wrote about Jott, a useful tool for capturing thoughts that occur to you when you’re away from your computer and unable to write them down. You call Jott’s toll-free number from your cell phone and leave a brief voice message; workers at an Indian call center transcribe your message into text and e-mail it to you or to specified friends or coworkers.

Jott made its first big splash at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference in Monterey, CA, in early March, and it has already gained thousands of enthusiastic users, who “jott” everything from shopping lists to song lyrics. But in the competition for consumer and media buzz, Jott has been up against another free service that also uses cell phones and the Internet to capture moments in time, this one with a social twist. It’s Twitter, which essentially turns the one-to-one channels of instant messaging and phone-based SMS text messaging into broadcast media.

Twitter members use the company website or their own cell phones to compose missives up to 140 characters in length, almost always answering the trademark Twitter question, “What are you doing?” Once a member submits a message to the site or texts it to the short code 40404 (in the United States), it goes out to the phones and browsers of the people who’ve joined that member’s social network–his or her “followers,” in Twitter lingo. Every four minutes, the accumulated messages are also posted briefly to Twitter’s public timeline, which anyone can read on the Web.

Twitter had about 100,000 members as of late March, and membership has been doubling every three weeks, according to Twitter engineer Biz Stone. Members exchange an astonishing number of updates every hour, ranging from the maddeningly trivial (“Just placed a bid on eBay for an auction I won’t win”) to the mildly interesting (“Portrait of a writer on deadline: Staring into my near-empty fridge. Peanut butter, no bread. Cereal, no milk. Bottle of Veuve, no party”).

In that respect, Twitterers resemble bloggers, except that most updates have a rawer, more dashed-off flavor–which is to be expected, since they’re also far shorter and more ephemeral than blog posts. Members like the service, in Stone’s view, because it lets them stay connected with friends without having to think about technical details such as their friends’ instant-messaging handles or which cellular carrier they use. Twitter is “a sophisticated, device-agnostic, social message routing system that nobody realizes they need until they try it,” Stone says. “We’ve lowered the barrier to keeping in touch such that the only thing that matters is what you and your friends are doing.”

The guts of Twitter is a system that quickly matches new messages coming in from members with the followers who have signed up to receive them, then retransmits them using each follower’s preferred channel: instant message, SMS, or the Twitter website. Stone says the company completed a working version of the software in only two weeks using Ruby on Rails, a programming language and a set of prefabricated software modules widely employed by developers of the new raft of Web services known as Web 2.0. The hard part, he says, was “navigating the business aspects of the mobile industry. It took us months to get a short code and figure out how to play nice with all the major U.S. and international mobile carriers.” (SMS messages to Twitter incur the usual carrier fees of $0.10 to $0.15 per message.)

The company is also grappling with its own sudden growth, says Stone. The unanticipated storm of Twitters has resulted in occasional slowdowns and downtime. “We’re looking for a senior engineer experienced at developing large-scale systems,” he pleads.

Stone is a longtime collaborator of Blogger cofounder Evan Williams, who owns Twitter’s parent company, Obvious. But “obvious” isn’t the word some onlookers are using to describe Twitter’s utility. While it has some high-profile users, such as presidential candidate John Edwards and former Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble, many bloggers have dismissed Twitter as a giant distraction, full of news flashes about which variety of latte a friend just ordered at Starbucks.

Dedicated Twitter users defend the service, suggesting that the daily minutiae actually add up to something significant. “Asking ‘who really cares about that kind of mindless trivia about your day?’ misses the whole point of presence,” writes Liz Lawley, director of the Lab for Social Computing at Rochester Institute of Technology. “It’s about letting the people in your distributed network of family and friends have some sense of where you are and what you’re doing. When I travel, the first thing I ask the kids on the phone when I call home is, ‘What are you doing?’ Not because I really care that much about the show on TV, or the homework they’re working on, but because I care about the rhythms and activities of their days.”

But Twittering became such a fashionable pastime at TED and at the following week’s South by Southwest interactive technology conference in Austin, TX, that other observers wonder whether it is more than a fad. “Twitter was impossible to escape at South by Southwest,” says Jamais Cascio, an independent “foresight consultant” and cofounder of futurist news site WorldChanging. “I think it went through the entire hype cycle–from nobody knowing about it to ‘What do you mean you don’t use it?’ to ‘Twitter? Do you still have that?’–in about four days.”

But at least a few independent Web developers are still enamored with Twitter, and they’re using the programming interfaces provided by Obvious to build mashups that give messages more context. If Twitter users send a specially formatted message to the service giving their current location, all their subsequent Twitters will include that information; Maryland-based developer David Troy took advantage of this feed to build Twittermap, which displays each new message above the user’s location on a Google Map.

Later, Troy introduced an animated version called Twittervision, which comes as close to embodying the phrase “global conversation” as anything on the Web. The Twittervision screen depicts the entire earth (again, using map data from Google) and slides east and west to highlight the latest geocoded messages from Twitterers around the world. Say you’re in Tanzania and you see an interesting Twitter pop up over Tokyo. You can respond via phone or the Web, and within 60 seconds your own Twitter will appear over Africa.

Nat Torkington, a New Zealander who runs open-source conferences for technology publisher O’Reilly Media, comments that Twittervision is “a hypnotic glimpse into the lives of people around the world.” He calls it “a complete waste of time”–but “in the same way that conversation, casual sex, and reading are wastes of time.”

Source: MIT Technology Review


Friend Spam

October 19, 2007

By Jonathan Abrams

Five years ago, I imagined a website that would show how people were connected to each other in real life, so I built a prototype called ­Friendster. I decided that one of its central features would be a friend confirmation process. When you wanted to add someone as your friend, an e‑mail notification was sent with your request. If–and only if–the person approved your request, you were both listed as each other’s friends. Five years later, I am paying the price for this innovation as I face an avalanche of friend spam. I get several friend requests per day from Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, and also from social-media services such as Yelp, Flickr, and Pownce.

What is Pownce, you ask? Let’s take a step back. The “micro­blogging” site Twitter was launched in 2006 by Blogger cofounder Evan ­Williams to help people update their friends via phone or Web with short messages about their current whereabouts or thoughts (see “What Is He Doing?“). Twitter was all the rage at March’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival, seemingly supplanting a predecessor called Dodgeball, but by May, überblog Techcrunch had proclaimed that people were already “making the switch from Twitter to Jaiku.”

I never even got a chance to try Jaiku before Pownce launched in late June. Pownce was billed as a file-­sharing service but looked a lot like Twitter. Still not open to the general public, it has received tremendous hype thanks to its association with the cofounder of Digg.

The press, bloggers, and the investment community are excitedly following every shift in buzz, from Dodgeball to Twitter to ­Pownce, or from Friendster to MySpace to Facebook. Since the launch of the Facebook Platform in May, the press and many so-called experts have finally begun recognizing the value of Facebook’s “social graph”–the map of connections between real friends. But ironically, as the tech elite have begun to deride MySpace’s seizure-inducing page designs and promiscuous friend seekers, Facebook’s clean user interface and focus on real friends faces an onslaught of new users and pointless applications where tattooed zombies buy drinks for your top friends.

However this all plays out, it’s clear that these sites are not going to go away. In 2004, VCs bemoaned any further investment in social-­networking companies, and pundits argued that social-­networking sites would not endure as stand-alone destinations. Today, they are some of the biggest sites on the Web, and we have an entire industry of widget and tool providers building on top of the social-­networking ecosystem. There are niche social-­networking sites for moms, dogs, pagans, and bodybuilders. Ten years ago I moved to Silicon Valley to work at Netscape. Today, Netscape cofounder Marc ­Andreessen has a startup called Ning, which helps people–what else–create their own social-networking sites.

So what advice do I have for dealing with the friend spam and keeping on top of all these new services? Every once in a while, turn off your computer and go hang out with your friends.

Entrepreneur Jonathan Abrams is founder and CEO of the events-sharing service Socializr.

Source: MIT Technology Review


Trivial Pursuits

October 19, 2007

By Jason Pontin

Minutes before beginning this piece, I twittered, “At home in Boston, writing about Twitter one more time.” Robert Scoble, author of the technology blog Scobleizer, wrote in Half Moon Bay, CA, “Life with Milan is definitely nuts. He wakes us up at 3 a.m. and we both look at each other and say ‘good thing he’s so damn cute.'” In San Francisco, Twitter cofounder Evan Williams wrote of cofounder Biz Stone, “Talking about Biz’s need to get better at twittering.” In Tokyo, someone named Shiru said, “I’m getting better at surfing. Okay, time to get back to work.”

On Pownce, Michael Owens, a 22-year-old graphic designer in Chicago, addressed himself sternly: “I need a way to force myself not to check social media and blogs and webcomics and all the other things that I get distracted by.” A short time later, he posted, “Holy Crap. The Care Bears Movie is on. That’s freaking awesome.” And over at Facebook, Ed Vaizey, an old college friend who is now a member of the British parliament, told his 233 other friends about his professional reading: “Just read Robin Harris’s biography of Talleyrand–superb; and Edward Pearce’s biography of Walpole, not so good, far too arch.”

These notes–terse, obscure, and endlessly self-referential–are all examples of a new phenomenon in social media called “microblogs”: short electronic posts, sent to friends or to a more general community, that deliver some information about the sender. Sending microblogs broadcasts, “I am here!” Reading microblogs satisfies the craving of many people to know the smallest details of the lives of people in whom they are interested. Already, new-media intellectuals have coined a term to describe the new social behavior they say microblogging encourages: they talk of “presence,” a shorthand for the idea that by using such tools, we can enjoy an “always on” virtual omnipresence.

As Kate Greene reports in her profile of Evan Williams, “What Is He Doing?”, ever since Twitter was named best blog at the Web Awards at the South by Southwest festival in March 2007, the number of people using the microblogging service has expanded swiftly. In March, Twitter had 100,000 members, according to Biz Stone; today, TwitDir.com, an independent Twitter directory, says there are almost 500,000 twitterers. But the most obvious signal of microblogging’s importance is the swelling number of Twitter peers or imitators. Recently, a Chinese blog counted around 100 “Twitter clones” in at least 12 countries. They all have cute, telegraphic names: Jaiku, Kyte, Plazes, Pownce, Yappd. Even Facebook has joined the trend. The smartest of the social networks now allows its users to send their friends short posts that describe their “status.”

Two services merit attention: Twitter, because it was the first and is the best known, and Pownce, because of its many features and the personality of its founder, Kevin Rose.

Twitterers use mobile phones, instant-messaging software, or Twitter’s own website to send and receive 140-character messages, called twitters or tweets. Tweets–which mostly answer Twitter’s prompt “What are you doing?”–are routed to individual friends, to networks of friends, or to everyone who registers with Twitter.

Most twitterers (or twits, as they are sometimes inevitably called) communicate with small networks of people they know, but the most loved have thousands of people who “follow” them (to use Twitter’s own jargon). Paul Terry Walhus, a developer from Austin, TX, had 2,421 friends as of late September. Robert Scoble, the technology blogger, had 5,880. John Edwards–the John Edwards–had 3,528.

But as Evan Williams told me, “Celebrity twitterers are really outliers, even though they get a lot of attention.” Williams believes that the service is best understood as a system that swiftly routes messages, composed on a variety of devices, to the people who have elected to receive them, in the media they prefer.

Twitter’s elegance lies in its extreme simplicity. Pownce is more complex. As with Twitter, one can send messages to friends or groups of friends as well as to the service’s general community. (Unlike Twitter’s messages, Pownce’s cannot be sent to mobile phones.) But you can also send your friends links, invitations to events, photos, pieces of music, or videos. In addition, you can finely discriminate which group or subgroup of friends will receive a particular post. It is this combination of private messaging and file sharing that makes Pownce seem so richly functional. Such features are more often found on fully formed social networks like Facebook; but Pownce retains much of the intimacy and directness of Twitter.

Pownce was cofounded by Kevin Rose, the cofounder and chief architect of the hugely popular news aggregation site Digg and the cofounder of Revision3, an online video production and hosting company that shoots ­Diggnation, a weekly news show that Rose cohosts. Much of the excitement that attended the launch of Pownce last June derived from Rose’s reputation for creating new-media companies that hypnotize their youthful audiences into cultish devotion. Pownce seemed especially cool because Rose decided that only those with invitations would be permitted to test the new site.

Most of the other microblogging services combine some features of both Twitter and Pownce. Jaiku, for instance, works with cell phones, as Twitter does, but like Pownce, it is more friendly to pictures and videos. A few have novel variations on the basic themes: Kyte grandly claims that it allows “anybody to create their own interactive TV channel on their Website, blog, social network, or mobile phone”–a kind of microblogging that bypasses the written medium altogether.

Critics of microblogging argue that the services are not sustainable businesses, because they merely float upon the speculative bubble of venture capital investment in Web 2.0 companies. More nastily, they complain that almost all microblog posts are stupefyingly banal.

Bruce Sterling, the journalist and science fiction writer (whose latest short story can be found on page 69), crisply articulated the latter argument when he wrote to me, “Using Twitter for literate communications is about as likely as firing up a CB radio and hearing some guy recite the Iliad.” The private-equity markets best express the first argument: while the micro­blogging sites could not exist without venture capital, the sums invested in them have been relatively small. (Twitter, for instance, reportedly received about $5 million from Union Square Ventures and other investors, a paltry figure for a company whose importance has been so hyperbolized by the media, bloggers, and its users.)

But it’s too soon to dismiss the microblogging services’ potential as businesses. Although all offer free registration, they could charge their customers and communications companies for premium functions. Pownce already charges its users for the ability to send large files. Perhaps the wireless carriers might pay the services to act as application providers for their customers; when mobile-­telephone users bought a plan, they could select Jaiku as an option. Another possible source of income could be advertising that is pertinent to a particular user; advertisers and the media buyers at advertising agencies, for all their disenchantment with print publications and broadcast media, will still spend good money for the type of effective, targeted advertising offered by Google AdWords and AdSense. Finally, the services could be used for direct marketing. Already, a few companies (including Twitter itself) are using microblogs to directly market themselves; since users don’t receive promotional posts unless they’ve chosen to receive them from the corporations they follow, the blasts are presumably welcomed.

My own experiments posting semiregularly on Twitter and Pownce produced mixed emotions. I quickly realized that decrying the banality of microblogs missed their very point. As Evan Williams puts it, “It’s understandable that you should look at someone’s twitter that you don’t know and wonder why it should be interesting.” But the only people who might be interested in my microblogs–apart from 15 obsessive Pontin followers on Twitter–were precisely those who would be entertained and comforted by their triviality: my family and close friends. For my part, I found that the ease with which I could communicate with those I love encouraged a blithe chattiness that particularly alarmed my aged parents. They hadn’t heard so much from me in years.

On the other hand, I strongly disliked the radical self-exposure of Twitter. I wasn’t sure it was good for my intimates to know so much about my smallest thoughts or movements, or healthy for me to tell them. A little secretiveness is a necessary lubricant in our social relations.

Jason Pontin is the editor in chief of Technology Review.

Source: MIT Technology Review


What Is Twitter’s founder doing?

October 19, 2007

By Kate Greene

When he was 16, Evan Williams loved reading business books. The first one he read was about real estate, and at the time, he lived in Clarks, a town in central Nebraska that today has a population of 379 and a median home value of $34,900. Williams wasn’t particularly interested in investing in property in Clarks or anywhere else, but he reveled in the fact that it was so easy to learn about building businesses and making money. “I realized I could go buy books and learn something that people had spent years learning about,” he recalls. “I was very intrigued with the idea that there’s all this stuff out there to know that you could use to your advantage. It was written down in these books, and no one around me was using it.”

Today, Williams is half a continent away from Clarks, in San Francisco; no longer just reading about business, he’s the founder of Obvious, the Web-product development company that owns the popular microblogging service ­Twitter. At 35, without a college degree, he has become a bootstrapping, improvisational businessman whose decisions are influenced by what he describes as “hallucinogenic optimism.”

Williams became mildly famous in Silicon Valley during the first dot-com boom, after he cofounded Blogger in 1999. Blogger made it very easy for people to publish their thoughts on the Web in personal weblogs, as blogs were known at the time. In 2003, Google acquired Blogger for a sum the entrepreneur declines to disclose (although he says it was less than the $50 million that Valleywag, a ­Sili­con Valley gossip blog, has reported). It was, in any case, a significant amount: Williams worked at the Googleplex in Mountain View for a little more than a year before he left with the cash to conjure more winning ideas.

At first, he struggled to find something that would fully engage his energies. But Twitter seems to be it. The idea behind the service is simple: people compose 140-­character updates about themselves, ostensibly answering the question “What are you doing?” Users can post their updates by text-­messaging from cell phones, by logging on to the ­Twitter website, or by using desktop software such as instant-­messaging tools. Messages (also known as ­twitters, twits, and tweets) can be private, sent only to friends or groups of friends, or they can appear on Twitter’s home page for all to see. ­Twitter has been so successful that last April, ­Williams spun it out into its own company.

Twitter’s headquarters is in South Park, a tiny San ­Francisco neighborhood south of Market Street that attracts a mixed crowd. During the week, hipsters sip coffee in cafés on South Park Street, a one-way path that bounds the oval park; homeless men guard shopping carts near the park’s entrance; and entrepreneurs and computer programmers gather inside offices that line the green, trying to build the next big thing.

I visited Twitter’s loftlike office to meet Williams on a warm July afternoon. He has a spare frame and a handsome face that retains a youthful softness, and he was wearing his standard outfit of plain white T-shirt and jeans. The simplicity that made Blogger so attractive to Google, he told me, is similarly driving Twitter’s growth. Williams matter-of-factly described how the companies came about (both serendipitously) and explained what he sees as their appeal: they fill people’s need to stay connected with one another.

By the largely noncommercial standards of social-­networking startups, Twitter is a success. (Whether the company can become a profitable business is another matter, one much debated among those who follow the social-­networking industry.) Twitter took off in March, around the time it won a Web Award for best blog at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, TX. Since then, the number of registered Twitter users worldwide has been steadily rising. Twitter doesn’t reveal the actual numbers, but TwitDir.com, a third-party Twitter directory, estimates that there are nearly 500,000 public users, who allow their profiles and updates to be searched. In August, Twitter received about $5 million in funding, much of which came from Union Square Ventures, a New York venture capital fund. The company is in talks with Hollywood studios about using Twitter for promotional purposes, and MTV used the service to promote its annual Video Music Awards in September. Perhaps the biggest indicator of Twitter’s success is the sudden appearance of “me-too” startups boasting that their services offer Twitter’s features and more. (For a review of Twitter and its competitors, see “Trivial Pursuits“.)

According to Williams, Twitter is catching on for a simple reason: “It’s social, and people are social animals.” But ­Twitter is a different way to be social, he says. Though Twitter updates have elements of blog posts, instant messages, e‑mails, and text messages, they’re often shorter, can be broadcast more widely, and require no immediate response. “It’s a no-brainer,” Williams says. “People like other people. So hearing from them, and being able to express yourself to people you care about in a really simple way, is fun, and it can be addictive.”

Williams himself can seem addicted to continuous self-exposure. One night last August, he twittered, “Having homemade Japanese dinner on the patio on an unusually moderate SF evening. Lovely.” He’s not alone in his addiction. That same night, a Twitter user named Itiswell posted, “I am having problems with the computer with missing software components.” And I wrote, “Sense of accomplishment: never has my bathtub been this clean.”

Some experts, including Elizabeth Lawley, director of the social-computing lab at the Rochester Institute of Technology, see such posting as a completely new form of communication. “Because it focuses on the minutiae, it’s almost as if you’re seeing a pixel of someone’s life,” Lawley says. “When you see all of those little pieces together, it gives a much richer portrait. With other forms of communication, we don’t tend to share those everyday things, but the question ‘What are you doing?’ is exactly the thing that we ask people we care about. Otherwise we only get the big events, the things that are worth sending an e-mail about.”

To others, of course, twitters seem banal, narcissistic, and excruciatingly dull. Detractors believe, too, that the company is doomed because it lacks a clear path to profitability. A comment on the popular blog TechCrunch combines both sentiments: “Twitter is a worthless app for the most self-absorbed among us. There is no money involved and it will be extremely hard to insert any sort of advertising. A pay model won’t fly either because the mobile networks will just launch an application themselves if Twitter tries that path. Furthermore, most blogs are really boring (perhaps even my own). Twits are even worse. ‘I ate a cheese sandwich.’ Yawn. Fail.”

The criticism doesn’t seem to bother Williams, in part because he’s heard it before. “Actually, listening to people talk about Twitter over the last few months, you hear that almost all the arguments against it are the exact same arguments that people had against Blogger,” he says. “‘Why would anyone want to do this?’ ‘It’s pointless.’ ‘It’s trivial.’ ‘It’s self-aggrandizing bullshit.’ ‘It’s not technically interesting.’ ‘There’s nothing to it.’ ‘How is this different from X, Y, and Z that’s existed for the past 10 years?'” Indeed, there were blogging tools available when Blogger was released, and others have emerged since–including TypePad from Six Apart, which offers more features. But none has the simple appeal of Blogger, and none is as easy to use. These were the reasons Blogger was such an important force in the blogging revolution.

At first, Williams doesn’t seem the type to dedicate himself to changing human communications. He fits a certain Midwestern stereotype: he’s a thoughtful man of relatively few words. But the trajectory of his life defies that stereotype; growing up in Clarks left him dissatisfied. “Not to bad-mouth it,” he says. “It’s just not like people are striving to be their best. Doing something that’s different doesn’t occur to people. Looking around me, I think I did not want to be like most of the people I saw. I was always looking for a way out, to be different, to be exceptional.”

Williams enrolled at the University of Nebraska right after high school but dropped out after a little more than a year. He was in Lincoln in 1994, just as the Web was becoming a mass phenomenon. Guessing that the Internet would be important, he decided to build a product around it: a video that explained the ins and outs of using a command line to connect computers across the network.

The video made a profit, and Williams started a full-fledged Internet company, with a variety of ideas for businesses and products. (“It was when the Internet was new enough that you could just say you were an ‘Internet company’ and didn’t have to be more specific,” he says.) The company failed spectacularly. “It was sort of a train wreck in terms of management,” he admits. “I had lots of ideas for things that were potentially interesting products, but I had no idea what I was doing, either in terms of managing a company or on the technology side. If we could have written software, we would have been in a better position. We tried to hire people who could write software, but I couldn’t manage them, and they didn’t know much about what they were doing.” After a year or so, Williams fired his employees and shut the company down. In 1996, he moved to Northern California.

The late 1990s were heady for entrepreneurs in San Francisco, who worked long hours, racing to build the websites that would make their fortunes. “It was a pretty wild time,” recalls Meg Hourihan, Blogger’s cofounder. “You’d finish coding some feature for a product at 10 o’clock at night and then walk over to the party next door for free food and drinks.”

Hourihan, an English major with an aptitude for computers, was a technology consultant at the time, and she craved an entrepreneurial adventure. Meanwhile, Williams was becoming interested in collaboration software that helped people work on joint projects more effectively. In the summer of 1998, he and Hourihan both attended a networking event in San Francisco. “I ended up sitting down next to Ev and talking to him,” Hourihan says. “Somehow we started talking about the Web and computers, and I felt like he was the first person I had met who saw the potential on the Web that I saw, that it was a life-changing thing.”

They started dating but after two months decided they would be happier as business partners. In the fall of 1998 they began to work together on Pyra, a Web-based project-­management application. The goal was to create an online “worktable” that would keep track of project changes, questions, meetings, and more. The Pyra team became a company called Pyra Labs when a friend of Williams’s from Nebraska, Paul Bausch, joined to help write the code. In order to keep tabs on the status of Pyra’s features, the three employees posted updates on an internal blog they called “Stuff.” Both Williams and Hourihan had been early bloggers, so it seemed a natural way to communicate. Stuff became the central nervous system for the company. “That was really how we communicated and collaborated, which is ironic because we were building this collaboration tool that was much more complex,” Williams recalls. “We joked semiseriously many times that we should just make Stuff our product. I had a little bit of a thought that there was something to it, but it was just so ultrasimple that I didn’t seriously consider it.”

Then a slight modification to Stuff made Williams reconsider. One day, Bausch wrote a piece of code that made it possible to transfer an entry from Stuff to Pyra’s public Web server using something called a file transfer protocol, or FTP; the entry would then be visible to anyone. “That was really the genesis of Blogger,” Williams says. “The simplicity of having an application that ran on the Web that would then FTP a static file to your server was the key thing. Once we did that, we thought people would use that.”

Eventually, it became clear that Blogger, not the more complex Pyra, was what people wanted: Williams had found a simpler, more valuable communications product inside the more diffuse company. The team raised money in a small round of funding. Yet Williams’s colleagues were nervous because Blogger was a free service, and it still didn’t have a business plan. And Williams, who was the CEO, struggled to raise more funds. “We started running out of money,” says Hourihan. “We couldn’t stay ahead of the infrastructure we needed to keep growing. Then the market collapsed, and it seemed like we couldn’t raise another round.”

The team, which had grown to six, bitterly disbanded. Williams “just took the servers back to his house and kept it going, a one-man show, for a while,” says Hourihan. “Then things started to come back, and he was able to hire some people back and slowly get its legs under it again.” ­Hourihan stayed away, but Williams was successful enough to negotiate the sale to Google in early 2003.

After leaving Google, Williams took time off to find startup ideas. Instead, a startup found him. A friend, Noah Glass, was working on software to help people create, distribute, and search for podcasts, and he and Williams began to talk about the product. Williams started spending his days advising Glass, and eventually he invested in the new company, Odeo. At first, Williams wanted to maintain his distance in order to pursue other projects, but in February 2005, he was asked to unveil Odeo at TED, the yearly, invitation-only conference of technology, entertainment, and design. At TED, his name quickly got attached to the company. “I sort of had an ego thing going on where I was like, ‘This is my next thing.’ But that wasn’t my intention in the beginning,” he says. “I was excited and glad to help out, but I wasn’t ready to start a new thing, and it wouldn’t have been that.” There was a lot of excitement surrounding Odeo, Williams recalls, and he got caught up in it, against his better judgment.

Odeo had plenty of funding up front (after Blogger, it wasn’t hard for Williams to attract investors), but the company’s prospects weren’t really very healthy. No one had a clear sense of what its main product would be, and in June 2005, Apple released a version of iTunes, its audio software, that offered podcasting functions nearly identical to those Odeo was developing. “It sort of shocked us,” Williams says. “Apple did it all, and they’re on millions of desktops. All this stuff that we built was kind of irrelevant once Apple launched their product.”

The problem wasn’t just Apple’s beating Odeo to market, he adds. Odeo’s product demanded a more traditional approach to the media business, one that relied on distribution and media deals as opposed to viral growth, and that wasn’t the type of business model that appealed to Williams and the company’s engineers. “We just weren’t a company that was going to excel in those things,” Williams says. Realizing this, he went to the board in October 2006 and bought the company with his Google money. Among Odeo’s assets was an early version of Twitter–at the time, merely a side project.

Liz Lawley of the Rochester Institute of Technology was initially skeptical of Twitter when she started using it in February. “My first reaction was that I don’t need another place to post things, yet another user name and password to remember,” she says. “I have four blogs, and it didn’t seem to me that I needed to do anything different.” But by March, she was twittering on a regular basis. Now she tends to twitter mainly when she’s traveling, when something unusual is happening, or when a lot is going on in her life. “It’s easier to update people that way rather than figuring out who to send e-mails to,” she says.

Lawley represents only one type of Twitter user. Some people are hypergraphic, posting incessantly. Others rarely post but follow the updates of people they don’t know. A few writers are experimenting to see how storytelling changes when it’s produced in 140-character increments, while others are creating charming haikus. People are also using Twitter to send clues for scavenger hunts and other games. And individuals aren’t the only users. In fact, the service has proved useful for advertisers, news outlets, and even fire departments.

These uses aren’t surprising to Jack Dorsey, the Odeo engineer who proposed Twitter to Williams in 2006. Dorsey, now Twitter’s CEO, had always been fascinated with real-time communications and dispatching systems–the kind that send taxis around cities and ensure that ambulances quickly arrive at the right place. “Back in February of 2006, we were having a bunch of conversations about how to change Odeo into something that we loved,” he recalls. “We wanted something a little bit different. Texting was getting big, and in a meeting I brought up the idea of Twitter. It was the simplest thing we could do: send what you’re doing to your friends, and that was it. Everyone started thinking about that, and a week later Evan gave me the go-ahead to build a prototype.”

Just like Blogger, Twitter was a simple communications product salvaged from the impending implosion of a more complex project. In both cases, Williams didn’t really know what he was doing. With both ventures, his genius–if that is the word–derived from what the English poet John Keats, in a letter to his brothers, called “negative capability”: “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

With the help of another engineer, Dorsey built the basics of Twitter in about two weeks, using a popular Web programming framework called Ruby on Rails. At Twitter’s core is a simple messaging distribution machine that is, in the jargon of communications, “device agnostic.” After a twitterer composes a 140-character update and clicks a button on a Web page, in an instant-messaging program, or on a cell phone, the tweet is almost instantaneously routed to the people who have elected to receive it. They in turn will read the message on the Web, with an instant-­messaging program, or on a cell phone, according to their preferences.

Crucial to Twitter’s popularity was the release in September 2006 of its application programming interface, or API, which allows outside programmers to build applications that plug into the company’s information infrastructure. Once the API was available, geeks everywhere started to create innovative Twitter tools. “A ton of our usage is through our API,” says Williams. And the API is relatively simple: “It’s not the most powerful development framework, but it’s encouraged a ton of people to play with it. This means that a ton of interfaces and tools were built and plugged into Twitter because of that simplicity.”

Among the tools that third-party developers have built are desktop interfaces. An example is Twitterrific, a downloadable program for Macs, which makes twitters pop up on the Mac OS desktop and then fade into the background. Another way people have tapped into Twitter’s code is by redisplaying the public posts in interesting ways: in a program called Twittervision, for example, a globe displays twitters as they are posted all around the world. It is the diverting spectacle of the human race (or at least that part of it that twitters) talking to itself. Bots–automated program–can also post twitters with content extracted from some information feed. There are news and weather bots, and little programs that update users with earthquake information from the U.S. Geological Survey.

By letting programmers build twittering tools that appeal to a broad range of people, Twitter has gained many more users. And this could be just the beginning. “Another way to look at it is as a platform for device-agnostic real-time messaging,” Williams says. “And that has broader implications. People have contacted us about emergency broadcasting systems. We like the idea, but we’re not anywhere near saying that we want to be counted on for that.” For emergency use, Twitter would need to be reliable, a goal that seems elusive. This past summer saw many Twitter outages, both planned and unscheduled, and it’s not uncommon to have a twitter or two dropped.

Williams, Dorsey, and another Twitter cofounder, Biz Stone, are betting that by shoring up the service’s infrastructure, they’ll be able to fend off the mounting ranks of competi­tors. These include Jaiku, Plazes, Kyte, Yappd, Pownce, and ­Facebook (which has a feature that lets users update their “status” in a way that resembles twittering). All of these services differ: Jaiku has more functions than ­Twitter–users can add pictures to their posts, for instance–but it’s a bit complicated to use, and it doesn’t yet have as many users as Twitter. Pownce, which is still in its beta-­testing phase, allows invited users to share different types of files with different groups of people: users can create lists that allow them to send information to one person (as in an instant message), to a few of their contacts, or to all of them. And Facebook is “in a much stronger position” than Twitter, Williams says, because for social applications, the number of users is crucial.

“If you look at Pownce and Twitter and Facebook today, they’re all conceptually the same, but they’ll evolve in different ways,” Williams says. “We know there are lots of features and functionality that we want to add and will add, but we don’t want to make it more complicated, because we do think that much of the beauty is in simplicity.”

Staying static for too long on the Web is risky, however, especially for the first company with a new type of technology. In 2002, a social-networking site called Friendster quickly became successful, gaining droves of users who created profiles that linked to their friends’. Friendster’s social-networking preëminence didn’t last long: in 2003, MySpace entered the picture. Now MySpace, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, has around 100 million registered users, and it’s growing. Friendster still operates, but at a smaller scale than MySpace. (See “Friend Spam,” by Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams.)

Williams says that he thinks about Friendster’s fate, especially when Twitter’s service falters. “We’re doing okay now, but when we were doing really poorly, the Friendster ­analogy came up,” he says. This is why it’s crucial to focus on improving reliability and making the interface even more foolproof, he adds. “I think if we can make it perform and make it obvious how to use it and just get it in front of people, we’ll do well.”

Williams believes that building a healthy infrastructure is also the key to eventually making a profit, so that’s what he hopes to do with the money from Union Square Ventures. Fred Wilson, a Union Square managing partner, says, “I think with a lot of these kinds of services, the big looming question is ‘How are we going to make money?’ In the case of Twitter, we felt if they could build a communication system that was easy to use and was used in lots of different ways by lots of different services, then they could become a piece of the infrastructure of the Internet.” At that point, Twitter would possess enough “messaging volume” to get paid by someone: “probably by other people who want to participate in that volume–maybe wireless carriers,” Wilson speculates.

“Our advice was to not focus on generating revenue on day one,” he adds, “but focus on getting as many people and as many services as you can to use the underlying Twitter infrastructure to build messaging services.”

Crucial to this plan is ensuring that Twitter’s technology–that is, the structure of the system’s underlying code–can support new users as they join the service. Technologists say that a network “scales” when it can take on an increasing number of customers. A good portion of the company’s recent funding, Williams and Wilson say, will go toward making Twitter “scalable.” If that doesn’t happen, opportunities for profit may go unrealized.

When I last saw Williams, he had just returned from his honeymoon, a safari in Kenya. (In Africa, predictably, he twittered using his cell phone: “Touring Nairobi.” “Having drinks after a day of game drives and relaxing.” “Watching lions. Shhh.”) Over breakfast at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District, he told me that he’s taking a few steps back from Twitter: he’ll sit on the company’s board but leave coding to the engineers and the day-to-day management to Dorsey. Before his wedding, Williams explained, he had spent a lot of time writing code for features and slogging through the daily maintenance of the service. Now he feels the company is in ­capable hands without him.

So do his venture capitalists, it turns out. Williams “seems a little more thoughtful and willing to live with ambiguity more than most of the entrepreneurs I know,” says Fred Wilson. “That’s a big positive, but it could be a big negative, too. It’s a positive because startups need to have ambiguity around for a while, but a lot of the time things need to be decided, which is why I think it’s good he’s letting Jack [Dorsey] run the company. Jack is probably a little more decisive.”

Now Williams says he wants to work more on Obvious, which, for him, is a different type of venture; he describes it as a kind of incubator for products that solve obvious problems. Obvious (which upon its founding in October 2006 absorbed Odeo) wasn’t created with a product or even a technology in mind; it was conceived as a company where ideas are fueled until they either catch fire or simply fade away. But as of our meeting, Williams was the only employee, and it’s clear that he doesn’t know how Obvious will operate.

Williams has some technological problems he’d like to explore, including his old preoccupation at Pyra: the question of how companies can communicate more effectively, both internally and with other companies. He has at least one person in mind to do some coding, too. Still, he seems uncertain how any solution could be turned into a product, let alone a viable business.

In fact, he tells me, he doesn’t have any solid plans. At the end of 2007, Williams finds himself in the same state that he has so often been in before: uncertain, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

MIT Technology Review


The Rise of the Miniblog

October 19, 2007

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.

MIT Technology Review