Evan Williams has a habit of building software to help people broadcast their thoughts. In 1999, he developed Blogger, the easy-to-use blogging tool that Google snatched up four years later. His latest project is another self-publishing service, a miniblog service called Twitter. Launched in March 2006, Twitter lets people broadcast short messages from computers and phones to anyone in the world. The idea has generated a fair amount of buzz, but while some people love the idea of a constant stream of updates, others are appalled. Williams doesn’t seem too worried about the critics, though. He says he saw a nearly identical response when he introduced Blogger. Technology Review caught up with Williams to discuss Twitter and its implications.
Technology Review: What is Twitter, and what’s the point?
Evan Williams: Twitter is a way to keep in touch with people you’re interested in. And it happens by answering the question “What are you doing?” People do this through the Twitter Web interface, text message (SMS), or one of several clients that are available, such as instant-messenger (IM) or desktop applications. Then you subscribe to the people that you’re interested in to follow what they’re doing. So you get these very short little text updates that go on throughout the day. You get these insights into people’s lives. Updates can be accessed on the Twitter site or through desktop clients such as IM, and they can be sent as a text message to your phone.
TR: Couldn’t that get annoying, to constantly get text-message updates about the minutiae of your friends’ days?
EW: You can stop following at any time. You just turn it off so it doesn’t get overwhelming.
A lot of people just use Twitter through the website, but SMS is where it’s more interesting, because you’re out and about during the day and reporting those things. Twitter is like IM or direct SMS, but the key difference is that replies are not expected. This allows for a different type of sharing. It gives you more freedom. Because replies aren’t expected, you can write things that can be ignored, which allows you to write things that aren’t necessarily important but could be interesting or fun.
TR: What sorts of things do people Twitter about? What do you Twitter about?
EW: I shared earlier today how good my lox bagel was this morning. People share links, they share their insights into their day, what they’re feeling, what they’re excited about, and what they’re sad about. They share their thoughts on the movie they just saw or the restaurant they just ate at. If you know these people, it’s interesting to get these insights into their day. It can even be fascinating if you don’t know them, and follow them because they’re funny or interesting. A lot of people who don’t know me get my updates, and I get updates from people I don’t know, because they’re funny or interesting. It’s a new form of communication that’s about ambient awareness and instant insight into people’s lives. When you get a Twitter update from a friend, you can picture what they’re doing when they report it.
TR: How many people use Twitter, and what type of people are they?
EW: It’s still early, and we don’t publicly report our numbers, but right now many of our users are from the early-adopter crowd.