Biz Stone

Tweet, Tweet

Air Date: June 20, 2015

Twitter co-founder and author of "Things a Little Bird Told Me" reflects on the creation of the social media platform and its social ramifications.

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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today, we’ll continue to contemplate our digital future as we expand on recent conversations with Sue Gardner of Wikipedia and Mitchell Baker of Firefox.

Some years before Biz Stone co-invented Twitter, podcasting and blogging – on the cutting-edge in all three instances – there was television – and specifically educational broadcasting, where we’re fortunate he joins us here today in this admittedly old-school forum.

The creation of Twitter, as told by Stone in Things A Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind, is a fascinating dive into our tech culture.

The creative design behind the omnipresent storyboard (and increasingly story-shaper) of our times, Stone calls the innovation “a triumph not of technology but of humanity.”
While its cofounder insists the little birdie is a “neutral force in the world,” Twitter was the vehicle through which the Arab Spring revolution manifested…and it’s the platform on which he calls “new rules” of the masses are now established.

He writes, “The Internet and mobile devices have connected the world like never before. The onset of social media motivated another steep acceleration in connectivity,” For almost a decade now, we’ve been ‘friending,’ ‘following,’ ‘liking,’ and in other ways amassing a prodigious network of virtual connections without a long-term goal. What’s it all for?” That’s the question you present and answer in your fascinating book, Biz … thank you for being on The Open Mind today.

STONE: Thanks for having me, Alexander.

HEFFNER: You say in some large measure to “breed empathy”.

STONE: Well, that’s what I hope … I mean I, I, I sort of have a, a whole synergistically optimistic point of view and I often get a lot of rolling eyes when I talk to people about, you know, the future of technology and of social media. But really, what I hope will happen is that, you know, because we can experience life through another person’s eyes, halfway across the world because of these new technologies … just while we’re waiting in line at the grocery store … you know, it, it makes it easier to place yourself in their shoes and empathize with someone … see how different your life is and what their life is like and … you know, what I hope is that as we learn more and more about other people’s way of life … we, we begin to think of ourselves not as citizens of a particular city or state or country, but of … citizens of the world. And, and if you take that out even further you imagine that, you know, this sort of utopian future where people are collaborating and can you imagine what we could get done if, if the world were to collaborate on big projects, like exploration of space and so forth. We, we’d get things done in, in a … like a year that it would take decades to do … instead of companies reinventing the wheel every time … you know, if we were collaborating … it would just be amazing.

And then I think … well, I hope, I hope that these early beginnings of social media are the beginnings of that. They’re allowing people to collaborate like never before, you know, I mean, we can talk about it a little bit later, but the, the first time I really and truly realized that Twitter had a future as an important tool was … it was in March of 2007 and my point of view was completely altered and, and it was sort of a life changing moment.

But … anyway, this is my hope that, you know, as, as it gets more sophisticated, these types of tools and social media will allow people to collaborate around the world and do amazing things.

Because that’s what people do, they do amazing things and it’s not that … like I say, it’s not the, it’s not the technology, it’s the people.

HEFFNER: You want to take that life changing moment, Biz, and extend it to realize what you call “the true promise of a connected society”, in your work with Twitter and Jelly and your newest app, how, how do we move towards that ultimate goal amidst this patchwork of Twitter, Facebook, Vine … you name it …

STONE: Yeah. Yeah. Well, something I learned along the way here … is, you know, you, you really have to build something that’s fun first. It has to just be for fun. Because if something’s fun, then people will use it. And that if a lot of people use it, then it has the potential to become important.

You can’t just create something that you think is important because then nobody will use it. And if nobody uses it, then it won’t make a difference in the world.

So, starting with fun, starting as a toy, you know, starting out where everyone’s criticizing you and telling you its silly and useless and stupid that there’s no need for it, that’s, that’s fine … as long a people are getting more and more interested. And then suddenly you have something that’s never before been seen and allows people to do things that they heretofore were not able to do. And so, the short answer is, you know, you have to, you have to come from the point of view of fun. Even if your … even if your ultimate goal is to build a platform where very important things take place …

HEFFNER: Which they have …

STONE: … it has to be … you also have to be able to just make jokes with your friends. You know. I mean look, look at all these big networks … Twitter was just started … Jack and I built it because we thought it was fun. Look at Snapchat … you know. Even Facebook to a certain extent. It was just … it was just for fun in college. And now it’s, you know, one-seventh of the population of plant Earth uses it to communicate. So …

HEFFNER: Amazing.

STONE: … you just have to begin as a toy. And, you know, play … the, the essence of play and that leads to important, if you’re lucky.

HEFFNER: In that environment of play you’ve described not wanting to be apolitical while you were at, at Twitter … but you really are imagining a pro-social digital future.

STONE: Yeah. For sure. And, you know … and a pro-social future in general for everything. I mean I talk about … in my book I talk about the future of marketing being philanthropy. And, again, another eye-roller for a lot of people … like, “Oh jeez, this guy. Might as well be in Birkenstocks he really is a Northern California guy …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

STONE: … even though I grew up in Boston. Hmm, you know, it’s not, it’s not governments that are going to change the world, it’s, it’s people and it’s, and its private industry and, and if, if more and more companies have this so-called “double bottom line” than, as they do well, they’ll do good. And, and the side effect will be, you know, a better world.

HEFFNER: Do you think that Twitter now is being government with that sensibility?

STONE: Well, we instilled Twitter with that idea of that … of Twitter for good … you know Twitter is a tool for good, the idea that … you know, I always talked about this internally … I don’t work at Twitter day to day any more, but I always talked about people are basically and fundamentally good. And if you build a tool that helps them show that they’ll prove it to you every single day. And, and so we always talked about that at Twitter, we talked about helping people do the right thing and helping people do the good thing. And yes, I think Twitter is still very much involved in that.

They, you know, they do a lot for the community where the headquarters is … based … in San Francisco … there’s a lot of good that’s going on.

HEFFNER: And talk about you latest projects because you said off camera …

STONE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … that you wanted to explore that a bit.

STONE: Yeah. Yeah, well, see … what we did was … I stopped working at, I stopped working at Twitter day to day and I, I created another publishing platform with my long-time collaborator Evan Williams, called Medium, which is another way of … just basically another publishing … another web based publishing platform. And, and then I just found that we were agreeing so much I should go off and I should do even something else to create more surface area. So, Ben Finkel and I, my, my co-founder at Jelly Industries, we, we came up with this idea for, for a new kind of search engine which didn’t rely on documents that were on the web … instead relied on what people know. The idea being that most of the world’s knowledge is still in people’s heads, it’s not documented on the Internet, no matter how much there seems to be on the Internet, there really is far more information and knowledge out there in people’s heads. So, it was based on the idea that mobile phones are now the hyperlinks of humanity.

So, if you have a question … likely one of your contacts will either know the answer or they’ll know someone who knows the answer so they can go ahead and forward it. And that plus social networking … you know, the new 6 degrees of separation is actually something like 3.8 … or something like this … so because of social network and mobile.

So we did that … we built this new kind of search engine and for whatever reason, people either weren’t asking or didn’t have questions, for us. It was, it was … the app was successful if you were one or two people and you were in your Mom’s basement. You know. But we, we really wanted to have something bigger than that and so we, we employed what I talk about in my book … we employed my “Bright Spot Theory”. When everything looks terrible, you know, everything looks dark … there’s got to be something that’s good … look for what. And so I went to my COO Kevin Thau and I said, “Let’s look at the numbers and the charts and the graphs and if we … see what, what’s good about Jelly? What, what have we done that’s successful. And he says, “Nothing. We’re, we’re screwed. Nothing’s going to work, it’s all terrible.”

I said, “No, come on really, there’s got to be something … let’s look.” He said, “Well, for every, for every question, surprisingly, there’s 30 or 40 answers. So people are loving answering, but they have to wait for lightening to strike in the form of a question to finally … to get their opinion and recommendation or something out”.

And I said, “So, you’re telling me that people like to express their opinion on the Internet”.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

STONE: “This is what you’re telling me.” So I, I said, “Let’s lock our selves in a room an come up with a new idea.” And I knew what I wanted to do and I …but I didn’t tell the guys … I said, “Ben, Kevin meet me, meet me in this … at this place called Cavallo Point — we’re, we’re not leaving until we have a new concept for the team.

And the new concept was essentially to flip this on its head. Instead of question and answer, it was really sort of answer and then a search engine built on top of it.

And the idea was “let’s just create an incredibly creative and fun way that allows people to express themselves and …” and I want back to my roots as an artist and I was inspired by Barbara Kruger, we made this app that is just wildly different from any other app … it, it just throws precious out the window. It’s just wild and crazy and colorful and the idea was … we would … we start you off with a superlative statement … hence the name of the app is called “Super”.

We, we start you off with … you can chose the best … the worst, the craziest, the sexiest … I mean … we got … we started to get longer and I started adding “I love” and this and this … but the idea is you just finish that. You say “the best espresso comes from Italy”. And then we also assume people are kind of lazy, so when you hit “Next” … automatically an image of espresso from Google images … is thrown behind this and you will automatically … you have this kind of little work of art. And, and it’s something that you wouldn’t necessarily have tweeted, because it’s not that … not really that great of a tweet … it’s not very clever and it’s a photo that you would necessarily have sent to Instagram because you’re not trying to capture some beautiful some beautiful moment.

But it’s a celebration of this mashup culture …the two together form something unique. For example, just the other day my friend Brian … he read this …he read this article that … something about Auschwitz that had recently come to light. And so he took the picture from the article and … all he wrote … he didn’t even add anything to it … he just used one of our starters … he, he just layered upon it “Unbelievable” and he pushed that out. And distributed that to some of his other social networks.

And immediately you could, you, you sensed how emotional he was about that. You could, you could feel that he … that, that moved him. And then there was a link, of course, to the piece if you wanted to read it. But with just one word and one image, he made a bold statement. And so, Super really allows ordinary people to create extraordinary content very easily and, and these, these thoughts and these expressions they become little works of art. And, and now we’re going even deeper with our, with our new feature where we’re creating what we’re calling “strips” … which is, sure you can create one of these Supers, but if you want to tell a much longer story, you can go ahead and, you know, it’s a typical feed format … Super where you scroll through what your friends are, are expressing, but then you may get to one that’s a multi-page story.

And then you … now you’re sweeping it to the … see, this is the things you can do on mobile, you know, it’s so great. And so, all of a sudden, you’re reading a story, or a collection or whatever, who knows what people are going to do with it … that’s the beauty … we leave it … we, we come up with some constraint because I do believe that constraint inspires creativity. But then we leave it at that, we see what people are doing with it and we watch for patterns and we’ll add features as, as necessary.

HEFFNER: … and that constraint that you describe which really made Twitter the, the most unique of any of the social media that have emerged, is something you’re applying now …

STONE: Mmm,hmm.

HEFFNER: … and you’re always applying the creativity of your mind. And you talk a bit about how you want to re-define capitalism for this …

STONE: Yes.

HEFFNER: … for this creative age.

STONE: Yes.

HEFFNER: … what does that mean?

STONE: Again, another ridiculously optimistic thing. But I … if nobody says it then nobody will go for it. The idea for what I’d like to see is a redefinition of success in capitalism. Such that capitalism, success in capitalism now has three ingredients. One … traditional financial success. What it is now.

Two some kind of pro-social impact on the world and three, joy … loving your work. And the idea is if you don’t have all three of these ingredients … you are not successful …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

STONE: … and, and, you know a lot of people are going to say “come on”, but you’ve got to put it out there, you’ve got to … you always have to be …

HEFFNER: Life …

STONE: … aspirational …

HEFFNER: … liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

STONE: Right. You gotta, you gotta put it out there or your not going to get … you’re not going to … you won’t … you’ll just say, “Okay, we’re here now and we’re staying here” … let’s move the ball forward you know.

HEFFNER: Well, I love that idea of a redefinition of capitalism. Will it ever work in a metric driven economy?

STONE: I think it has to. It, it will because it has to. Like I said before, you know, it’s not going to be governments that are going to bring about the change we need brought about in the world … it’s going to be individuals and private organizations. And if they … if they have … if they redefine their, what they … what they think of as value, as not just money, but also having some kind of positive impact in the world … then as they do well, they’ll do good.

And as, as they … as some companies make it and get bigger and bigger and bigger … the more good they’ll do in the world. You know the ideal situation is to be, is to be financially like, just amazingly rich and wealthy, but at the same time, bringing so many people with you. There’s, there’s a … there’s a wonderful company in Mexico that, that copied Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank model.

Instead of making it a non-profit, they made it a for-profit. They raised the … you know, this is the micro-lending …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

STONE: … and, and … small groups of women who then go on to create their own enterprises.

So, all throughout Mexico and Latin America they are lending money to these groups of women and instead of a non-profit, it’s a for-profit and they … the … they raise the, the rates a little bit, but not too much. Instead of having 100% payback rate like Grameen Bank, they have a 99.9% payback rate or something like this.

So they have a $3 billion dollar market cap on the Mexican stock exchange and they’re creating a better life for all of these women throughout Mexico and Latin America. So I, I went and I met these guys and I said, “You guys have the best jobs in the world, you’re becoming wealthy and you’re enabling all of these people to have a better life and create a better life for themselves. This is the best thing ever. And you love your job.”

You know, like these guys are a perfect example of what you … what, what, you know, the re-definition of success would look like.

HEFFNER: Are tech entrepreneurs distinct … do you think … in, in this … sharing this kind of sensibility?

STONE: No. Not necessarily. I don’t think so. Ahmm, you know I’m on the Board of a company called “Beyond Meat” which makes meat out of plants. And this again … you know the impact of this product is extremely good. It has environmental impacts that are positive. It has health impacts that are positive. You know, sustainability … all of these things … it’s not a “tech” company … I mean you can think of it as a “tech” company, but it’s a food company. So, it’s not unique and it … you know, it’s the future. I mean … young people, Millennials … people, people coming up now, they want to choose product and services that they know have something meaningful behind them. These days you, you can know everything and anything you want about any product and any company. Not just the ingredients, but what the CEO ate for breakfast. You can find this out. What … you know, they can find out what pro-social campaigns the companies are running, you know.

So if you are choosing between two flavored sugar waters, you chose the one that you think just by buying it, is going to be doing something. And it makes feel better. And this is, this is why I believe, you know, it’s just going to happen … you know. And, and it’s not just on the consumer side, it’s also on attracting talent.

You know, the type of people who are really good at what they do and they can, they can sort of name their price in terms of salary. They want to go to the companies that bring meaning to their life. And so they’ll choose the company that is saying “You know, we’re doing … we’re also doing this”. So I think you just …

HEFFNER: What’s the deterrent to, to having a population … an American population, or generally a global population that is me-centric and that, that finds the fun, not in the form of marrying those two principles … but in the form of … off camera … had some dialogue about “crotch” …

STONE: Oh, right. Yeah. You know, I had this …

HEFFNER: Laughter

STONE: … for me I found out years ago that what brings me the most joy is helping other people. You know, you, you find what …

HEFFNER: Anything …

STONE: … as you get older you figure out what you like.

HEFFNER: There’s a preponderance of people who …

STONE: And I and so I … and, and there is a lot of people … you know when you go volunteer, you donate and you get the thank you … you donate to some children … you get thank you cards or something. You feel great. There’s … you know … I mean I, I like to say that being selfless is often selfish … because you get … the reward is so much greater than what you … what you’re offering.

So I found out that what I like to do … what really brings me joy and my wife … is helping other people. And I sort of assumed that that’s what everybody wanted to do. (Laugher)

HEFFNER: Is that a constraint that you would add to these social media?

STONE: What … what’s that?

HEFFNER: Doing something good? Being a good Samaritan …

STONE: Yeah … hmmm …

HEFFNER: … because … I think about your emphasis on 140 characters …

STONE: MmmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and then we talk about well, what is in the photo, what is in the Tweet …

STONE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: As an entrepreneur … are you … do you ever foresee imposing …

STONE: No.

HEFFNER: … that constraint.

STONE: I don’t think. You can’t … you shouldn’t come at it head on, I think it has to be sort of a side affect or a, or a … something that grows along with it.

If you, if you attack this head on then, then you make people feel like they have to do a chore. You know, you turn it into a chore … as opposed to turning it into just the … a positive side effect like a, like a … you know, you’re winning, you know winning by doing this. That, that’s how it has to feel. If you force it, it doesn’t work.

HEFFNER: Sue Gardner and Mitchel Baker and Sue Herman, the President of the ACLU, when they came here we were talking about issues of freedom of speech on the web, surveillance, net neutrality, how we, we don’t take for granted those things in a digital world …

STONE: Hmmm … yeah …

HEFFNER: … and also the existence of something like Wikipedia which we have …

STONE: (um hmm)

HEFFNER: … so what are your current thoughts. You say in the book that you’re proud that Twitter did not give in to the demand of the government to supply information on …

STONE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … intelligence of private users. In this, in this day and age now … are your, are your thoughts the same?

STONE: Yeah. I feel … I mean over … you know I’ve been doing this now for over 15 years, building these large scale systems that allow people to express themselves and communicate and in some cases a Tweet is the only way they can get their message out.

And I, I’m a strong believer that freedom of speech should be a basic human right. And, and … and …. Yeah I did, I said I was proud … you know we … very early on we said, “You know what, you’re, you’re going to need a subpoena for that kind of information. We don’t have a fax machine so you’re going to have to send some one over …” we just made it as difficult as possible because we said, “This is their information … belongs to them …

HEFFNER: And you were the outlier …

STONE: Yeah … right …

HEFFNER: … compared to the telecommunications companies.

STONE: Well, because it just … I can … I can understand, you know, when the State Department comes to you and says … you want to do … you … you want to do the right thing but, you can’t … you know … it’s difficult. If you want to create a system like this, you have to err on the side of freedom of speech and then have a very narrow policy when it comes to what you should hide or remove.

Because … not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s, it’s the practical thing to do. How do you … how can you possibly look through the number … the billions of Tweets that come through every 48 hours and, and review them for content. It, it’s impractical as well as …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

STONE: … not the right thing to do, you know. So, it just … you know …

HEFFNER: Even though the State Department and the CIA are probably attempting to do that, right?

STONE: Of course. I mean they can look through the public Tweets … just like anyone else if they want to. But, but when it comes to the private information … you know, that’s something that belongs to the individual.

HEFFNER: Finally, what about net neutrality? Is that a freedom of speech issue?

STONE: I don’t know. But, you know, an open and free Internet has just created so much amazing … so many amazing things have happened and people have done so many amazing things. I, I can’t help but think we, we have to let this play out and keep going, you know, we just don’t want to, don’t want to put an end to that, you know.

We’re only just beginning … let’s, let’s see what happens, you know. Let’s, let’s get to that utopian future where everyone’s coordinating and collaborating and like, let’s wait and see, let’s, let’s this play out.

HEFFNER: And that utopian future is … I, I want to read into your answer a little bit more … that utopian future demands a free lane for anyone who wants Internet access, as opposed to monopolies …

STONE: Special lanes …

HEFFNER: Right.

STONE: Yeah, I think so. I think we just have to have open, even fair, you know fair all around … and … well …

HEFFNER: Well, brother … brother, I could call you brother John Adams or Paul Revere from Massachusetts … taking the aspiration of America’s beginnings …

STONE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Into the digital future. Thank you Biz Stone for joining me today on The Open Mind.

STONE: Thank you for having me, I appreciate your time.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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