The media’s in trouble. The microblogging sensation is on fire. Can Biz Stone’s latest gambit help prop up a financially crippled industry? Howard Kurtz reports.
Biz Stone, the funny and engaging co-founder of Twitter, had an unusual message for his communications chief when he finally broke down and hired one last spring:
“We don’t need PR.”
Stone’s view, he recalls telling Sean Garrett, who grinned at the memory, was that “if reporters want to write bad stories, they should totally call us out and shame us.” A tech reporter later explained that he looked “like a schmuck” to his editors when the company ignored his questions. “That’s when I thought, oh my God, we have to get back to these people.”
Now fabulously wealthy at 36, clad in his usual uniform of black shirt, jeans, and running shoes, Stone has seen his life become a whirlwind. Wolf Blitzer interviewed him at CNN this week while he was in Washington to receive the first innovation award from the International centre for Journalists. NBC’s Ann Curry took him to lunch in New York and introduced him to Jimmy Kimmel, whose show he did Wednesday night.
Stone was not particularly surprised when Twitter took off among the media crowd, because he and his partner Ev Williams had designed blogging tools that many journalists adopted a decade ago. Now he sees an emerging partnership—but also a sense of wariness.
“It feels like journalism as an industry was somewhat—what’s the word?—I don’t want to say afraid, but sceptical: Who are these guys now? Are these Internet guys who are going to make all the money but not share any?
“We provide the information. That’s when we hand off the baton to journalists, to provide context.”
Toward that end, Twitter has quietly formed a number of partnerships—some legal, some informal—with top news organisations. On Election Night, for instance, the company provided a steady stream of seconds-old tweets about the midterms to The New York Times, which posted them online. (Sample: “Goodbye Speaker Pelosi. Your power is gone. That’s your karma for not listening to the people! Good riddance!”)
On the same night, The Washington Post became the first news outlet to buy one of Twitter’s “promoted trends,” under the hashtag symbol #election, which linked to a continuous list of stories, headlines, and video.
“It was a great experiment,” says Katharine Zaleski, the paper’s director of digital news products. “We went straight to an audience that is already very engaged and talking to each other, and put our content at the top of the most important conversation of the day. We had tons of stuff we could tweet and were treating Twitter as another home page.”
CNN’s John King used his magic wall to show graphs categorising 200,000 tweets, dating back to April, in such statewide races as California and Nevada. “It’s as if you could just parachute into diners around the country and listen to what people were saying,” CNN reporter Tom Foreman told viewers. And Twitter plans to ramp up these efforts for the 2012 campaign.
Twitter executive Chloe Sladden says there are “three major areas we discuss and explore with our journalism partners: How Twitter impacts how journalists source and shape stories. How Twitter has changed how news breaks and how audiences follow breaking stories. How papers engage their audience via Twitter.” She declined to discuss financial details, but Stone says the goal is to share revenue with the news outlets.
Is Stone’s ego bruised by non-believers like Tom Brokaw, who recently said of Twitter that “an awful lot of it seems to be… just stuff that fills air”? Stone views such attitudes as a byproduct of the four-year-old company’s explosive growth. “The gap between people who’ve heard of Twitter and those who understand the value of it is still pretty wide,” he explains. “We have to get people to understand it’s not just for saying ‘I had a bran muffin today,’ that it’s an information network.”
That is his preferred phrase, rather than social network, though in my experience there is a strong sense of community within the circle you choose. Stone’s point is that anyone can play: “CNN doesn’t have to approve you. Kanye West doesn’t have to friend you for you to get his tweets.”
With 95 million tweets uncorked each day, Stone is conscious of what he calls the “noise” of Twitter. He says the company plans to make the rivers of information more navigable, not just by suggesting people to follow, as it does now, but by suggesting relevant tweets you should read—based on some algorithm that assesses your interests.
(By the way, Stone gets overwhelmed by technology just like the rest of us. He insists on crafting polite replies to strangers who send him notes, and occasionally gets so backed up that he declares “email bankruptcy. I tell my communications team, ‘I just deleted all my email. If you had anything important, resend it.'”)
When he gets in a groove, Stone can sound a bit starry-eyed. The global surge in mobile phones, he says, means Twitter can reach millions where there is no Internet access. “We can empower farmers in rural areas to have a better of idea of grain prices or weather. We have tremendous growth potential, not just for business purposes but for the purpose of real social change.”
But first he’s trying to change the company’s image in Washington. He recently hired Adam Sharp, a former congressional staffer, as his first ambassador to the capital. Sharp won’t be lobbying but serves as more of a chief hand-holder, helping lawmakers master the art of tweeting and posting Twitpics.
That, of course, could foster some goodwill in Congress, where nearly every lawmaker has a Twitter account, including Nancy Pelosi (23,000 followers) and John Boehner (72,000). The same goes for Sarah Palin (297,000 followers) and Barack Obama (5.9 million, though he’s acknowledged that “some 20-year-old” does his tweeting). Stone met this year with Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill (43,000 followers) and Republican Rep. Darrell Issa (15,000 followers). He told them he hasn’t been ignoring Washington but that Twitter was tiny, just 150 people working out of a San Francisco loft (it’s now up to 300).
Stone doesn’t seem confrontational by nature, but he did take a swing at Malcolm Gladwell—despite being a “huge fan”—after The New Yorker writer’s recent piece “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” Despite all the publicity over Twitter’s role in the Iranian street protests, Gladwell dismissed the “grandiosity” and “outsized enthusiasm for social media,” saying activists were more effective in organising the Woolworth’s sit-in in North Carolina in 1960. Stone responded to his 1.6 million Twitter followers (“Mr. Gladwell, I totally dig your hair but…”) and at greater length in The Atlantic, insisting that real-time communication “allows many to move together as one.”
“It was a straw man,” Stone told me. “He paints it in black or white. No one ever said forwarding a tweet is like the civil-rights movement in the 1960s… It’s absurd to say Twitter doesn’t have some complementary role to play.”
In the meantime, Stone is having a blast. He recently shot a commercial for Stolichnaya vodka in which he debated his double—playing both parts—about whether Twitter is “just a constant stream of meaningless babble.”
Stone recently saw The Social Network alone because his wife, Livia, who runs a wild animal hospital in California’s Marin County, wasn’t interested in the Facebook film. Stone laughs at the notion that he, like Mark Zuckerberg, might one day be the focus of a major motion picture: “I think maybe they’ll make a bad CW comedy about us.”
He is diplomatic when I ask whether Facebook’s moment has passed. “People could say, ‘Facebook’s not cool anymore. I think the Facebook guys would say, ‘Great, we’re not a fad anymore, we’re part of people’s lives.’ I don’t know that you want to be cool. That’s just a burden.”
If Twitter still has a coolness factor, it’s a burden that Stone wears lightly. He looks slightly amazed to find himself rubbing shoulders with famous politicians and television anchors, as if it’s a dream from which he might wake up.
So how does it feel to be an obscure geek one day and have worldwide influence the next?
“It’s weird,” says Stone. “Sometimes we feel nauseous. Sometimes we feel elated. Sometimes we don’t know what to feel.”