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.