Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Biz Stone Interview

Earlier this week, Twitter cofounder Biz Stone was interviewed on a variety of issues about Twitter but especially focused around search. In the interview, he discussed: how Twitter may redesign its home page to better reposition itself as a sharing and discovery service; how discovery might be enhanced by perhaps by allowing people to share “groups” of friends with each other; how the Twitter ecosystem of third-party software and services have helped people have “patience” with the service by adding features it couldn’t yet develop; the importance of SMS and more.

The Hotness Of Real Time Search — But What Is It?

All the major players are reported to be talking to Twitter about everything from buying the service to getting its “firehose” datastream of tweets. What types of deals are being discussed? Stone said that it’s all still talk, that no one quite has figured out how they should work together.

Certainly there’s much discussion that “real time” search is hot, with Google’s Larry Page saying last week that Google knows “they have to do it.” But what exactly is real-time search to Twitter? Does that mean just getting Twitter’s information or gathering information from other places where people post immediately?

Stone acknowledges that Twitter is a big part of real-time search, in the sense of helping people find out immediately what’s going on — but he also thinks Twitter’s used for more than that, such as a communication tool between people. And if it’s the biggest fish in the real-time pond, he expects many more will be jumping in.

“I imagine more and more people will be interested in this,” he said.

He also said that the existence of Twitter putting out information so quickly has caused everyone to reconsider what else should go out at real-time speed.

“Twitter has changed the pace or has alerted us that there is a pace at which we can operate in real time. And then, how can everything else follow suit, and do we want everything to follow suit? So like you said, there’s content being uploaded to YouTube right or Flickr right now, there’s tons of stuff being uploaded. That doesn’t mean you necessarily just want everything as it’s coming in. I think there’s still tons of learning to be had here, what’s relevant, when does real-time make sense?,” he said.

Does Real-Time Need A Pause Button

After watching how the mistaken news that the law in California against gay marriage had been overturned spread so quickly on Twitter, I wondered if Stone ever wished he could push a big “pause” button to slow people down or perhaps issue systemwide “Amber Alert” style messages to everyone on Twitter.

Stone said that even before Twitter, rumors could spread quickly just through blogging. But he acknowledged that Twitter can spread information fast and “balloon out,” though rumors can also be put to rest just as quickly. Still, “that doesn’t mean we don’t want to address that in some way” he said.

A Twitter Genius Button For Discovery?

Where might search go? One key area is to help people discover other people and information that they might not have actively known about.

“I think you can zoom out even more from search. You think of search as a box and a button, but when you think of trends or even an @ reply, those are all exciting queries. Those are all leading to more and more discovering. It just took us long enough to say ‘Here’s search in the web UI.’ There’s a lot more that can be done with Twitter to help people help each other. Right now we have this follow model, but even personally. I’ve been following the same people. Is there a way twitter can show me more interesting stuff? Trends is a rudimentary version of that. OK, everyone’s talking about American Idol. There can be more,” he said.

Of course, Twitter faced criticism when it removed an option allowing people to see replies from those they follow to those they don’t. While Twitter said few used this option, there was plenty of vocal outcry on blogs, from those who found this a great way to discover new people. But those people were having to depend on this due to Twitter’s failure to recommend new people to them more intelligently, he explained.

“Because we don’t actually offer good ways to do that, that was like a hack for people. But I think we could do a better job of serendipity. I agree with that. I wish I could go to Twitter and hit a [iTunes-like] genius playlist button. What information am I not seeing?,” he said.

Friends As Playlists?

Speaking of playlists, Stone also said Twitter’s considering a way that friends could almost be grouped into categories:

“One of the things people have been asking forever for is a way to create lists of accounts, a way to swap lists around,” he said.

He stressed there are no immediate plans for this — it might not even happen. It’s one of many ideas that Twitter is discussing. But it’s an interesting one. In a way, it would turn groups of friends on Twitter into playlists that you could share with others.

For example, I follow a long list of people who are related to search, others who are involved with newspapers and yet others who cover the technology space. Want to follow my search engine people? Get my Twitter “playlist” of people on that topic.

Integrating Keyword Searches Into The Twitter Stream

Early on, Stone said those at Twitter recognized the power of letting people track tweets based on matching keywords, providing an option to get alerts through SMS and instant messaging. “But that’s as far as we got with search,” he said — the company then hooked up with Summize that was doing stuff “light years ahead” of where Twitter was at, leading to the purchase of Summize last July.

Now keyword tracking is fully integrated with Twitter through saved searches, though there’s still an issue to me — matching tweets don’t show in your main Twitter stream. Instead, you have manually click to see the latest results. That doesn’t seem the best experience if Twitter’s trying to promote discovery more fully.

“You’re right. I don’t know where we’re at in terms of the product development, but I agree with you that showing and getting this stuff in front of me, I would like that,” Stone said.

Of course, several Twitter clients can flow matching tweets into a main stream (see How To Track Keyword-Based Tweets Within Your Twitter Stream), which does take some pressure of Twitter having to build this particular feature.

“The the great thing for now is that the people who are really the power users have these things they can go to, but that’s no reason why we shouldn’t figure out better ways to enhance our web experience,” he said.

In the video below, Stone talks further about how the ecosystem around Twitter has reinforced it, noting at one point, “It helped a lot of people keep their patience with us as we took a long time to get ahead of our scaling issues. At least there were other products creating innovative, interesting new UIs for Twitter that kept people happy.”

Old School Twitterer

Talk of clients made me wonder what Stone uses. As it turns out, nothing, at least for when he’s on the web.

“I’m kind of old school. I use Tweetie on the iPhone. I also use Summizer, a dedicated trends tool. If I’m in line at the supermarket, I find myself using it all the time. Other than that, I use SMS and the Twitter.com web site,” he said.

How about others in the Twitter office. Is there any predominant tool or method used?

“It’s all mixed up,” he said, noting the person he sits next to with uses Tweetdeck but all the panels it shows kind of freaks him out. “I think a lot of folks are liking Tweetie around here,” he added.

SMS Is Growing, The Future, Not The Past

Being an iPhone user, it simply never occurs to me to use SMS to access Twitter. But Stone said usage is growing, and that it’s very important.

“For me, SMS is this extra cool thing. It’s not just where we started but it’s also the future. There are 4 billion phones that are Twitter-ready, and Twitter is just as useful on them. That people can use it for access to this real-time network is really inspiring to me,” he said.

The Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck that tweets where it will be in Southern California is a well-known example of Twitter’s real-time network being used by a business, but plenty of others do, such as a bakery in New York that keeps people updated on what’s out of the oven, he said. And SMS can help others do the same.

“Street vendors in India could do it, or places where they aren’t going to have internet access any time soon,” Stone said.

He noted that Twitter struck a deal to bring SMS to Canada a few weeks ago and that overall, “SMS usage is growing like crazy,” especially as more people are getting unlimited SMS packages. Twitter, of course, has also been looking at tapping into some of the SMS fees for revenue, though it doesn’t actually charge users directly for them.

Search Ads “Make Sense”

Last week, a Reuters article quoted Stone saying that the company wasn’t pursuing advertising for a variety of reasons, including that “it’s just not quite as interesting to us” and him noting that “there are no people at Twitter who know anything about advertising or work in advertising.”

That caused many to assume that Twitter either didn’t like ads or wouldn’t do them, which in turn produced an official Twitter blog post saying that Twitter doesn’t hate ads but that taking traditional banners ads is low on the list of ideas.

The reaction to his quote caught Stone by surprise. He’d assumed people understood he was talking about banners.

“People are always asking us, ‘Are you going to put banner ads up?’ We’ve been saying over and over that we’re not going to put those ads on the site. I came to work and saw all these new articles [suggesting Twitter would take no types of ads at all] and said ‘That’s not what I meant. I clarified and said, ‘There’s tons of good opportunity. If you’re on Twitter and looking for something, we’d want to do it in some smart, relevant interesting way.”

So any leading candidates on where ads might go, and how they look?

“The one thing that might make sense are search results pages, but I’m not sure we know exactly yet what that might look at,” Stone said, though stressing there are no immediate plans to ad these.

Twitter Search Versus Integrated Search

Back to search, how have the changes been going? Personally, I find myself constantly going to the dedicated search.twitter.com search page, since until recently, I didn’t have search integrated to my Twitter pages. I also like the cleaner page and bigger search box there. But now that Twitter Search is built into Twitter, are people doing more at Twitter itself?

“We’re still at the beginning of it. People who had been using Twitter use it in a certain way,” Stone said, noting that he has tended to go to Twitter Search himself. “I’d trained myself. But the truth is that there will be more people that join Twitter this year than are on Twitter now. The decisions we make now will have a huge impact going forward.”

Not “What Are You Doing” But “What Do You Want To Find Out?”

This led to Stone’s observation that Twitter’s home page isn’t prepping new users for the service as well as it could, something he hopes may change soon — though he also stressed there’s no set date for this.

“Our front page still says keep up with your friends and family. But Twitter is the place for sharing and discovering right now. I think there’s crazy room for improvement. ‘Welcome to Twitter, what do you want to find out?’,” Stone said.

Indeed, it’s been well noted that plenty of people are turning to Twitter itself, in addition to Twitter Search, to find out information (see How We Search With The Twitter “Help Engine” for more on this). And that ability to discover things is often the hook that helps people “get” Twitter, rather than the concept that they can Twitter things themselves.

“We had to learn that lesson over again. At Blogger, we used to demo the Blogger UI to people [the control panel to create blog posts and manage blogs]. People wouldn’t get it. Then we thought, ‘Wait a minute, what if we show them blogs first?’ We’d get a reaction like, “Oh, I have a bakery, could I make a blog for that?’,” he said.

Search As Key To Understanding Twitter

With Twitter, it’s the same. People see the Twitter interface and don’t really get it, he said.

“Then you show them search. ‘What do you want to know is going on? What’s your business? What do you do?’ We show them that, and they say whoa, this is crazy. Wait, I disagree with this guy. How do I talk to him?’,” he explained. “We need to reposition the product in a way that’s more relevant to people. That’s just obvious. We’ve focused so much on dealing with the popularity and the technical scaling needed that we didn’t have time for the forehead-slapping part,” he said.

But while Twitter might be repositioned to stress the ability to share and discover, Stone also says it needs not to define itself too much.

“There’s actually a certain awesomeness to not putting too much fidelity on twitter early. To say use it for this is to block out a whole realm of possibilities. We got lucky because we built an API early, and that blossomed into an ecosystem,” he said. “One of those key sentence [of what Twitter is] is that we don’t know. We need to leave in some mystery and the concept of emergence. A big mistake would be to think we’ve figured it all out.”

In the video below, Stone talks more on the subject — better positioning the home page to users and repositioning Twitter as:

  • A place to share
  • A place to discover
  • The “don’t know” mystery aspect
  • A platform with an extended ecosystem of tools and services

Finally, after the interview, attention was focused on Louis Gray’s article about problems with Twitter Search — how sometimes tweets are delayed in appearing or won’t appear at all if date-range filters are applied. I asked Stone about the issues, and he replied that Twitter’s aware that problems happen from time to time and is looking at the issues.

“Sub-second indexing is brave new world, and we’re in the trenches inventing it as we go,” he said.

Postscript: In news out today, a Twitter TV show is coming, where “ordinary” people track celebrities through their Twitters (potentially, kind of scary). See Variety, AP and Techmeme for more.

Source: Searchengineland.