Q&A with Twitter's Biz Stone

Q&A with Twitter's Biz Stone

Summary: While the Twitter stability debate is intense, I got back to basics with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone about what’s on the radar in terms of features, battling bots, community engagement — and why he isn’t afraid of a “Twitter killer”.

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Q&A with TwitterÂ’s Biz StoneTwitter has received a truckload of criticism over the last month for its frequent service outages. Some members of the microblogging community even organized a Twitter tough love protest (aptly dubbed a "Twit-Out"), which sparked some intense discussion about the service, its features, seeming lack of communication and future. While the stability debate is intense, I got back to basics with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone about what's on the radar in terms of features, battling bots, community engagement -- and why he isn't afraid of a "Twitter killer":

Q. [Jennifer] Once Twitter stabilizes, what is next on your plate?

A. [Biz] Our first priority is reliability and getting that nailed is no small feat. But there are a lot of new features that our users have been asking us for. We are listening.

Q. What is the most requested feature?

A. Grouping has consistently been high on the request list and is high on the list of what we are considering. We've been giving it thought and examining how people have been using Twitter for a while so we can best approach that feature. People have their work contacts and their friends and they want to be able to follow and update separately.

Q. Some third-party applications, such as Summize, are providing intuitive search functionality for Twitter users. Will look to bring in or partner with some of the third-party application developers to improve this feature?

A. Not sure we're looking to bring in any third-party application features. But tied into search improvement would be more location-type stuff. We have location in the interface and there is very simple work that can be done to allow people better share that. We also want to connect it to individual posts. When I see a Twitter update I look to see if its text or Web; text it colors it in a different way. I visualize the person out doing what they are posting. We want to find a way to better convey this contextual information.

Q. So something similar to what BrightKite is doing?

A. No, it's less about the user reporting on where he or she is, but being able to post as they normally would but offer additional context and color around it.

Q. I've seen some concerns pop up lately about the combination of Twitter bots / spammers and URL redirection sites (a la TinyURL). Are you concerned about an infiltration of malicious links into the Twitter feed? Have you considered creating a way to post smaller links that allows users to preview the originating URL?

A. User security is absolutely a concern and we're working to make the interface safer in that regard. We are looking into other ways to display shared links, for example noting whether a link goes to a picture or a video or some other media element. While more a feature, this could help in addressing some of the risk with the URL redirection.

Q. What about the bots? Wouldn't eliminating some of these offenders help both improve the user experience and diminish some of the pings to the API?

A. Absolutely and we're working on that now. We analyze friend/follower ratios and frequency of updates and this alerts us to whether or not something is spam. We're very intolerant and have no problem deleting massive amounts of accounts doing anything of that nature. It ruins the tool and makes it inefficient.

Q. One of the largest cries from the Twit-Out members was that Twitter was not communicating with its users and they felt left in the dark. Since there has been a noticeable improvement in user outreach. Was this reactive or already in the works?

A. When I was at Blogger we did a lot less communication than we do at Twitter but we never received negative feedback. Here at Twitter we have the Twitter Blog, the Dev Blog and our community at Get Satisfaction. We all read and respond and felt as if we were being open but our slow response had more to do with being busy addressing the technical difficulties. People were getting upset that we weren't being as communicative about the specifics. But we're really digging into the community now and have begun more proactive communications with our users. When we're suffering from Twitter downtime it's not a great place to be, but at least our users are then in it with us and they know what is going on. By sharing more information we can educate everyone else and keep improving our efforts as well.

Q. With all of the downtime there have been talks about a "Twitter Killer", whether it be FriendFeed or Plurk or any other service. Are you concerned about losing your user base?

A. We definitely don't want to disappoint our users. But I do not think its right to have our innovation and progress be driven out of fear of what might happen; that isn't a healthy way to work. Getting the reliability issues resolved so we don't disappoint our current users is critical and we know our success is directly affected by our reliability.

Q. Have you seen a drop-off in users with the outages?

A. Every time the site has a hiccup the usage numbers take a dip. The most important thing we can do is to stay focused on the new architecture. Looking over our shoulders is not a good way to go about it.

Q. So is there a "Twitter Killer?"

A. Even if a company is inspired originally by Twitter, it takes on its own character and evolves strengths in areas different than what we are doing. There is room for lots of different companies in this space. The focus needs to be on community and connecting and there are a lot of ways to go about it. We are all different.

Q. Are you beefing up your development team in order to improve the services and functionality?

A. Historically we had a ridiculously small engineering team; only three people until about six months ago. We now have a stronger, more robust team and we're continuing to build up with strong systems engineers.

Q. Finally, the big question seems to be... is Twitter considering a paid model?

A. No. Not for the usage we are talking about now. It is very important that Twitter remains free for people to remain connected. Some people are suggesting a paid model so that we can improve the service but money is not our issue; we have plenty of money. It's about getting the right architecture in place and boosting reliability. We want to keep it free.

(Biz Stone image by Mai Le, CC 2.0)

Topics: CXO, Social Enterprise

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