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TED2009

Evan Williams: The voices of Twitter users

February 5, 2009

In the year leading up to this talk, the web tool Twitter exploded in size (up 10x during 2008 alone). Co-founder Evan Williams reveals that many of the ideas driving that growth came from unexpected uses invented by the users themselves.

Evan Williams - Twitter co-founder
Evan Williams is the co-founder of Twitter, the addictive messaging service that connects the world 140 characters at a time. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Four years ago, on the TED stage,
00:18
I announced a company I was working with at the time
00:21
called Odeo.
00:24
And because of that announcement,
00:26
we got a big article in The New York Times,
00:27
which led to more press, which led to more attention,
00:29
and me deciding to become CEO of that company --
00:33
whereas I was just an adviser --
00:35
and raising a round of venture capital
00:37
and ramping up hiring.
00:40
One of the guys I hired was an engineer named Jack Dorsey,
00:41
and a year later, when we were trying to decide which way to go with Odeo,
00:45
Jack presented an idea he'd been tinkering around with for a number of years
00:49
that was based around sending simple status updates to friends.
00:54
We were also playing with SMS at the time at Odeo,
00:57
so we kind of put two and two together,
00:59
and in early 2006 we launched Twitter as a side project at Odeo.
01:01
Now, it's hard to justify doing a side project
01:06
at a startup, where focus is so critical,
01:09
but I had actually launched Blogger as a side project
01:11
to my previous company,
01:13
thinking it was just a little thing we'd do on the side,
01:15
and it ended up taking over not only the company,
01:17
but my life for the next five or six years.
01:20
So I learned to follow hunches
01:22
even though you can't necessarily justify them
01:25
or know where they're going to go.
01:26
And that's kind of what's happened with Twitter, time after time.
01:28
So, for those of you unfamiliar,
01:31
Twitter is based around a very simple, seemingly trivial concept.
01:33
You say what you're doing in 140 characters or less,
01:37
and people who are interested in you get those updates.
01:40
If they're really interested,
01:43
they get the update as a text message on their cell phone.
01:45
So, for instance, I may Twitter right now
01:48
that I'm giving a talk at TED.
01:50
And in my case, when I hit send,
01:52
up to 60,000 people will receive that message in a matter of seconds.
01:55
Now, the fundamental idea is that Twitter
01:59
lets people share moments of their lives
02:03
whenever they want,
02:05
be they momentous occasions
02:06
or mundane ones.
02:09
It is by sharing these moments as they're happening
02:12
that lets people feel more connected and in touch,
02:15
despite distance, and in real time.
02:19
This is the primary use we saw of Twitter from the beginning,
02:21
and what got us excited.
02:24
What we didn't anticipate was the many, many other uses
02:26
that would evolve from this very simple system.
02:30
One of the things we realized
02:33
was how important Twitter could be during real-time events.
02:35
When the wildfires broke out in San Diego,
02:38
in October of 2007,
02:41
people turned to Twitter to report what was happening
02:43
and to find information from neighbors
02:45
about what was happening around them.
02:48
But it wasn't just individuals.
02:49
The L.A. Times actually turned to Twitter to dispense information as well,
02:51
and put a Twitter feed on the front page,
02:54
and the L.A. Fire Department and Red Cross
02:56
used it to dispense news and updates as well.
02:58
At this event, dozens of people here are Twittering
03:01
and thousands of people around the world are following along
03:04
because they want to know what it feels like to be here
03:07
and what's happening.
03:09
Among the other interesting things that have cropped up
03:11
are many things from businesses,
03:14
from marketing and communications and predictable things,
03:16
to an insanely popular Korean-barbecue taco truck
03:18
that drives around L.A. and Twitters where it stops,
03:22
causing a line to form around the block.
03:24
Politicians have recently begun Twittering.
03:29
In fact, there are 47 members of Congress
03:32
who currently have Twitter accounts.
03:34
And they're tweeting, in some cases,
03:36
from behind closed-door sessions with the President.
03:38
In this case, this guy's not liking what he's hearing.
03:41
The President himself is our most popular Twitter user,
03:43
although his tweets have dropped off as of late,
03:47
while Senator McCain's have picked up.
03:51
As have this guy's.
03:56
Twitter was originally designed as a broadcast medium:
03:59
you send one message and it goes out to everybody,
04:03
and you receive the messages you're interested in.
04:05
One of the many ways that users shaped the evolution of Twitter
04:07
was by inventing a way to reply to a specific person
04:11
or a specific message.
04:15
So, this syntax, the "@username" that Shaquille O'Neal's using here
04:17
to reply to one of his fans,
04:20
was completely invented by users,
04:22
and we didn't build it into the system until it already became popular
04:24
and then we made it easier.
04:27
This is one of the many ways that users have shaped the system.
04:29
Another is via the API.
04:32
We built an application-programming interface,
04:33
which basically means that programmers can write software that interacts with Twitter.
04:35
We currently know about over 2,000 pieces of software
04:40
that can send Twitter updates --
04:42
interfaces for Mac, Windows, your iPhone, your BlackBerry --
04:44
as well as things like
04:48
a device that lets an unborn baby Twitter when it kicks
04:50
or a plant Twitter when it needs water.
04:53
Probably the most important third-party development
04:56
came from a little company in Virginia called Summize.
04:59
Summize built a Twitter search engine.
05:01
And they tapped into the fact
05:04
that, if you have millions of people around the world
05:05
talking about what they're doing and what's around them,
05:08
you have an incredible resource to find out about any topic or event
05:10
while it's going on.
05:15
This really changed how we perceived Twitter.
05:16
For instance, here's what people are saying about TED.
05:19
This is another way that our mind was shifted,
05:23
and Twitter wasn't what we thought it was.
05:26
We liked this so much we actually bought the company
05:29
and are folding it into the main product.
05:31
This not only lets you view Twitters in different ways,
05:34
but it introduces new use cases as well.
05:37
One of my favorites is what happened a few months ago
05:39
when there was a gas shortage in Atlanta.
05:42
Some users figured out
05:45
that they would Twitter when they found gas --
05:46
where it was, and how much it cost --
05:49
and then appended the keyword "#atlgas"
05:52
which let other people search for that and find gas themselves.
05:54
And this trend of people using this communication network
05:58
to help each other out
06:00
goes far beyond the original idea of just keeping up with family and friends.
06:02
It's happened more and more lately,
06:05
whether it's raising money for homeless people
06:09
or to dig wells in Africa
06:11
or for a family in crisis.
06:13
People have raised tens of thousands of dollars over Twitter
06:15
in a matter of days on several occasions.
06:18
It seems like when you give people easier ways to share information,
06:22
more good things happen.
06:27
I have no idea what will happen next with Twitter.
06:30
I've learned to follow the hunch,
06:34
but never assume where it will go.
06:36
Thanks.
06:39
(Applause)
06:42
Chris Anderson: We're not quite done yet.
06:47
So, look, if we could have this screen live.
06:49
This is actually the most terrifying thing that any speaker can do
06:52
after they've been to an event.
06:54
It's totally intimidating.
06:56
So, this would be the Twitter search screen.
06:59
So we're going to just type a couple of random words into Twitter.
07:02
For example: "Evan Williams."
07:05
"Evan Williams, give people more good ways to share information and follow your hunch at TED."
07:11
"Currently listening to Evan Williams." "Currently listening to Evan Williams." "Evan Williams --"
07:15
Oh.
07:18
"Evan Williams is just dying on stage here at TED.
07:19
Worst talk ever!" (Laughter)
07:21
Evan Williams: Nice. Thanks.
07:24
CA: Just kidding.
07:26
But, literally in the eight minutes he was talking,
07:28
there are about fifty tweets that already came on the talk.
07:31
So he'll see every aspect of the reaction:
07:33
the fact that Barack Obama is the biggest Twitterer,
07:36
the fact that it came out of TED.
07:38
I don't think there's any other way of getting instant feedback that way.
07:39
You have build something very fascinating,
07:42
and it looks like its best times are still ahead of it.
07:45
So, thank you very much, Evan. EW: Thank you.
07:47
CA: That was very interesting.
07:49

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Evan Williams - Twitter co-founder
Evan Williams is the co-founder of Twitter, the addictive messaging service that connects the world 140 characters at a time.

Why you should listen

Evan Williams helps the world answer the question "What are you doing?" Twitter, the tiny, free world-changing app Williams helped launch, has become a vital connector of people and communities (as well as a fantastic way to keep up with Shaq and Demi Moore).

Before Williams worked on Twitter, he was part of a previous revolution in mass communication, Blogger, while working at Google. He left Google in 2004 to launch the podcasting service Odeo, and Twitter spun out from this in 2006 as a side project based on an idea of Jack Dorsey's.

The original video is available on TED.com
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The developer's blog is here.