Title: What's behind Twitter's explosive growth
Publish Date: Feb 2009
Description: 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.
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Time Transcript Action
00:00:18 Four years ago, on the TED stage,
00:00:21 I announced a company I was working with at the time
00:00:24 called Odeo.
00:00:26 And because of that announcement,
00:00:28 we got a big article in the New York Times,
00:00:30 which led to more press, which led to more attention,
00:00:32 and me deciding to become CEO of that company --
00:00:35 whereas I was just an adviser --
00:00:37 and raising a round of venture capital
00:00:39 and ramping up hiring.
00:00:41 One of the guys I hired was an engineer named Jack Dorsey,
00:00:44 and a year later we were trying to decide which way to go with Odeo,
00:00:48 and Jack presented an idea he'd been tinkering around with for a number of years
00:00:53 that was based around sending simple status updates to friends.
00:00:57 We were also playing with SMS at the time at Odeo,
00:01:00 so we kind of put two and two together,
00:01:02 and in early 2006 we launched Twitter as a side project at Odeo.
00:01:05 Now, it's hard to justify doing a side project
00:01:07 at a startup, where focus is so critical,
00:01:10 but I had actually launched Blogger as a side project
00:01:13 to my previous company,
00:01:15 thinking it was just a little thing we'd do on the side,
00:01:17 and it ended up taking over not only the company,
00:01:20 but my life over the next five or six years.
00:01:22 So I learned to follow hunches
00:01:25 even though you can't necessarily justify them
00:01:27 or know where they're going to go.
00:01:29 And that's kind of what's happened with Twitter, time after time.
00:01:31 So, for those of you unfamiliar,
00:01:33 Twitter is based around a very simple, seemingly trivial concept.
00:01:36 You say what you're doing in 140 characters or less,
00:01:39 and people who are interested in you get those updates.
00:01:42 If they're really interested,
00:01:44 they get the update as a text message on their cell phone.
00:01:47 So, for instance, I may Twitter right now
00:01:50 that I'm giving a talk at TED.
00:01:53 It's a normal everyday thing.
00:01:55 And in my case, when I hit send,
00:01:58 up to 60,000 people will receive that message in a matter of seconds.
00:02:02 Now, the fundamental idea is that Twitter
00:02:05 lets people share moments of their lives
00:02:07 whenever they want,
00:02:09 be they momentous occasions
00:02:11 or mundane ones.
00:02:14 It is by sharing these moments as they're happening
00:02:17 that lets people feel more connected and in touch,
00:02:20 despite distance, and in real time.
00:02:23 This is the primary use we saw of Twitter from the beginning,
00:02:26 and what got us excited.
00:02:28 What we didn't anticipate was the many, many other uses
00:02:31 that would evolve from this very simple system.
00:02:34 One of the things we realized
00:02:37 was how important Twitter could be during real-time events.
00:02:40 When the wildfires broke out in San Diego,
00:02:43 in October of 2007,
00:02:45 people turned to Twitter to report what was happening
00:02:48 and to find information from neighbors
00:02:50 about what was happening around them.
00:02:52 But it wasn't just individuals.
00:02:54 The L.A. Times actually turned to Twitter to dispense information as well,
00:02:57 and put a Twitter feed on the front page,
00:02:59 and the L.A. Fire Department and Red Cross
00:03:01 used it to dispense news and updates as well.
00:03:04 At this event, dozens of people are Twittering
00:03:07 and thousands of people are following along
00:03:10 because they want to know what it feels like to be here
00:03:13 and what's happening.
00:03:15 Among the other interesting things that have cropped up
00:03:17 is many things from businesses,
00:03:19 from marketing and communications and predictable things
00:03:22 to an insanely popular Korean barbecue taco truck
00:03:24 that drives around L.A. and Twitters where it stops
00:03:27 causing a line to form around the block.
00:03:30 Politicians have recently begun Twittering.
00:03:33 In fact, there's 47 members of Congress
00:03:36 who currently have Twitter accounts.
00:03:38 And they're Tweeting, in some cases,
00:03:41 from behind closed-door sessions with the President.
00:03:44 In this case, this guy's not liking what he's hearing.
00:03:47 The President himself is our most popular Twitter user,
00:03:50 although his tweets have dropped off as of lately,
00:03:53 while Senator McCain's have picked up.
00:03:56 As have this guy's.
00:04:00 Twitter was originally designed as pretty much a broadcast medium.
00:04:04 You send one message and it goes out to everybody,
00:04:07 and you receive the messages you're interested in.
00:04:09 One of the many ways that users shaped the evolution of Twitter
00:04:12 was by inventing a way to reply to a specific person
00:04:15 or a specific message.
00:04:17 So, this syntax, the "@username" that Shaquille O'Neal's using here
00:04:22 to reply to one of his fans
00:04:24 was completely invented by users,
00:04:26 and we didn't build it into the system until it already became popular
00:04:29 and then we made it easier.
00:04:31 This is one of the many ways that users have shaped the system.
00:04:34 Another is via the API.
00:04:36 We built an application programming interface,
00:04:38 which basically means that programmers can write software that interacts with Twitter.
00:04:41 We currently know about over 2,000 pieces of software
00:04:44 that can send Twitter updates,
00:04:46 interfaces for Mac, Windows, your iPhone, your BlackBerry ...
00:04:50 as well as things like
00:04:52 a device that lets an unborn baby Twitter when it kicks
00:04:55 or a plant Twitter when it needs water.
00:04:58 Probably the most important third-party development
00:05:01 came from a little company in Virginia called Summize.
00:05:04 Summize built a Twitter search engine.
00:05:06 And they tapped into the fact
00:05:09 that if you have millions of people around the world
00:05:11 talking about what they're doing and what's around them,
00:05:13 you have an incredible resource to find out among any topic or event
00:05:16 while it's going on.
00:05:18 This really changed how we perceived Twitter.
00:05:21 For instance, here's what people are saying about TED.
00:05:25 This is another way that our mind was shifted,
00:05:28 and Twitter wasn't what we thought it was.
00:05:31 We liked this so much we actually bought the company
00:05:34 and are folding it into the main product.
00:05:36 This not only lets you view Twitters in different ways,
00:05:39 but it introduces new use cases as well.
00:05:42 One of my favorite is what happened a few months ago
00:05:45 when there was a gas shortage in Atlanta.
00:05:47 Some users figured out
00:05:50 that they would Twitter when they found gas,
00:05:52 where it was, and how much it cost,
00:05:54 and then appended the keyword "#atlgas"
00:05:57 so that other people search for that and find gas themselves.
00:06:00 And this trend of people using this communication network
00:06:03 to help each other out
00:06:05 goes far beyond the original idea of just keeping up with family and friends.
00:06:08 It's happened more and more lately,
00:06:11 whether it's raising money for homeless people
00:06:13 or to dig wells in Africa
00:06:15 or for a family in crisis.
00:06:18 People have raised tens of thousands of dollars over Twitter
00:06:20 in a matter of days on several occasions.
00:06:24 It seems like when you give people easier ways to share information,
00:06:28 more good things happen.
00:06:31 I have no idea what will happen next with Twitter.
00:06:35 But I've learned to follow the hunch,
00:06:38 but never assume where it will go.
00:06:41 Thanks.
00:06:43 (Applause)
00:06:48 Chris Anderson: We're not quite done yet.
00:06:51 So, look, if we could have this screen live ...
00:06:54 This is actually the most terrifying thing that any speaker can do
00:06:57 after they've been to an event.
00:07:00 It's totally intimidating.
00:07:03 So, this would be the Twitter search screen.
00:07:06 Let's type a couple of random words into Twitter.
00:07:09 For example: "Evan Williams."
00:07:12 "... give people more information and follow your hunch @ #TED."
00:07:16 "... currently listening to Evan Williams."
00:07:18 Oh.
00:07:20 "... Evan Williams is just dying on stage here at TED.
00:07:23 Worst talk ever!"
00:07:26 Evan Williams: Nice. Thanks.
00:07:28 CA: Just kidding.
00:07:30 But, literally in the eight minutes he was talking,
00:07:33 there's about fifty tweets that already came on the talk.
00:07:36 So he'll see every aspect of the reaction:
00:07:38 the fact that Barack Obama is the biggest Twitterer,
00:07:41 the fact that it came out of TED ...
00:07:43 I don't think there's any other way of getting instant feedback that way.
00:07:46 You have build something very fascinating,
00:07:48 and it looks like its best times are still ahead of it.
00:07:51 So, thank you very much, Evan.
00:07:53 That was very interesting.