Twitter co-founder speaks with Ball State students on evolution of social media

Interesting fact about the Twitter co-founder who visited campus Friday: He never finished college. And his name isn’t even Biz; it’s Christopher Isaac.

A leader in social networking, Biz Stone met with a group of about 30 students Friday afternoon for a forum discussing Twitter’s rocky beginning and his plans to make the site a more useful information source.

“There is someone who cares about what you’re eating for dinner &- maybe your mom,” Stone said. “What we’re doing now is encouraging people not necessarily to tweet, but to find information that’s relevant to them right now.”

Stone said he’s not sure how Twitter can be used in the future, and there are plenty of applications users will help Twitter conceive. What he does know is he wants Twitter to be a relevant information network.

“That’s when Twitter starts to become, rather than yet another information overload, an answer to a tuneup because we get more relevant and timely and we don’t show you stuff you don’t need to look at,” he said.

Stone dropped out of college to design book covers full time. The Web entrepreneur had his first Internet gig when he created the social networking site Xanga, which began as a source for book reviewing and bookmarking websites. Stone met business partner Evan Williams when he took a job at Google. Together, they started one of the first podcast companies, Odeo, and from there developed their social networking site.

Internet gurus initially criticized Twitter for its simplicity, but Stone said he resisted because he knew the simple joy of using Twitter would be a success.

“The early critique of Twitter was it’s not useful,” he said. “Ev’s response was, ‘Neither is ice cream. Do you want us to abandon that and all joy?’”

Today there are 165 million registered accounts, Stone said.

He said he realized the site’s networking potential at South by Southwest, a 2007 music, film and interactive festival.

“We were seeing all these people just get up and leave [from one of the conferences], almost as if some invisible voice had told them to do so,” Stone said.

He realized later people were using Twitter to invite others to a different session down the hall. Convention-goers used Twitter later that night to get the word out about which bar they were meeting at.

“[The bar was] totally filled to capacity. There was a line out the door,” he said.

That was when Stone and Williams realized that humans can actually flock like animals, and social networking is the medium that can set it in motion.

“The image that came to my mind,” he said, “was that of a flock of birds, something that looks incredibly choreographed and beautiful and complicated.”

That night, he and Williams decided on the name Twitter.

Another milestone for Twitter happened in 2009, when information on the situation in Iran after the country’s controversial election was primarily coming from tweets.

Stone said they needed to close Twitter down for 45 minutes for a mandatory upgrade, but media and world leaders urged them to keep it up while at the critical time. He said he and Williams were praised for holding off on the maintenance.

Twitter can be a complementary source for news, Stone said, because it offers the first bit of information in 140 characters, leaving the media to develop the full story.

Stone said people around the world use Twitter in the same ways: social interaction and to post links and photos.

“When I do an interview with a Japanese journalist, I want to be like, ‘Oh yes, in Japan they use it in a very interesting way. They only tweet in haiku,” he joked.

He said he wished the uses varied, but they don’t.

Are there untapped uses for Twitter? Sure, Stone said.

“But I don’t know what they are,” he said. “I think a lot of it’s going to be our job in trying to unlock it, by creating more relevance, by helping discovery and helping serendipity.”

Questions and responses from the forum-

Question from moderator Brad King: What was your very first tweet?

Stone: “It was a chat session between Jack [Dorsey, who helped conceive the idea for Twitter] and I, where I was like, ‘Hey, something’s broken.’ … He said, ‘I’m hooking up the SNS thing now.’ He sent me the very first tweet over the system, and I wrote back, ‘Watson, come in here please. I need you.’”

Question from a student: When you were in high school, if someone would have said, “Where do you think you’ll be 20 years from now,” what would you have answered?

Stone: “At one time, I thought I wanted to be a master criminal… I would probably have said I wanted to be an artist. I still like to think of myself as an artist first and as a technologist and entrepreneur second. Because of that attitude, everything’s just a giant, fun art project for me, and I don’t get as stressed out as I would have.”

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