Evan Williams: “Twitter Is the Ecosystem”

Twitter is holding its first developer conference, Chirp, today in San Francisco. Co-founder Biz Stone opened with now familiar stories of how Twitter has been used for the betterment of humanity. He also (to his own chagrin, since he’s not a numbers guy) dropped a few stats about the service: 105,779,710 registered Twitter users; 300,000 signups per day; 180 million uniques/month. And 75 percent of traffic comes from outside twitter.com.
Next up, Twitter CEO Evan Williams addressed the company’s relationship with developers:
“Twitter has always been about developers,” Williams said. “Twitter is the ecosystem more than any other web services that has ever existed. You’ve helped define it, poured in your time and energy all the while putting up with our growing pains. And for that we thank you. there’s been a lot of changes lately, we’ve been getting into areas people never thought we would — making money for instance — but we’ve also been releasing more products.”

There’s a fundamental philosophy that’s not changing with Twitter. We’ve always believed in openness. we believe in an open system and the power of ideas. And that is not changing. Twitter is truly a collaboration and that is not changing.

Williams said Twitter released an API just a few months after launch, in September 2006, because he thought that was a thing you do for web apps and services, having created one at Blogger to solicit outside contributions when it was just he working on the product. Williams described how the first Twitter desktop app, Twitterific, and a map visualizer, Twittervision, helped the company understand what it was. First, people’s preference for Twitterific over the web showed “Twitter is ultimately a different experience for different people,” he said. And then Twittervision was a way to show how people used Twitter to those who didn’t understand what it was.
“Ever since then there’s a been an explosion of clients, visualizers, business apps, stat apps, discovery tools. We can’t keep up, the numbers are just staggering,” Williams said. “Twitter now gets 3 billion API requests per day and is seeing 1,500 percent growth per year.” The company also handles 600 million search requests a day, he said. Twitter has grown by 1,500 percent a year for three years, he told the conference, and “to deal with that level of growth has been difficult.”
A year ago this week “there was some wacky stuff happening” at Twitter, Williams said. Ashton Kutcher was racing CNN to a million followers. Oprah did a show about Twitter and had Williams on. Those rogues from 4chan attacked, and meanwhile traffic was up 90 percent after SXSW. The company had just 30-35 employees. “It was surreal… not a normal startup experience.” Now, things have “evolved,” said Williams, and so the company — which now has a team of 175 employees — can provide developers much better guidance. “While we’ve largely been dealing with uncharted territory, we’re going to start painting out the map.”
Twitter’s fundamental tenet, Williams said, is that “The open exchange of information has a positive impact on the world. Our goal as a company is to maximize this impact, that’s what we’re about and it’s what drives everything we do.” That’s why Twitter made those deals with Google (s GOOG), Bing (s MSFT) and Yahoo (s YHOO), though investors worried that the licensing deals would be “giving away the farm.” Williams said his team was swayed by the idea that putting the Twitter firehose in front of those engineering teams and their millions of users would “maximize value for end users.”
Next, Williams laid out the company’s four core strategic priorities: infrastructure, friction-free, relevance, revenue. He provided a progress report on infrastructure: Twitter has reduced error rates by two thirds, released tweet delivery failures by two orders of magnitude and killed bugs. It has written a tool based on BitTorrent to transfer lots of files. It took the average time from 40 minutes down to 12 seconds, Williams said.
When it comes to the goal of being friction-free, Twitter is still too hard, Williams said, noting that if you type “I don’t get” into Google, the number two thing people don’t get is Twitter. The company has a new “onboarding” team to try and help get people used to the service, and a recent new sign-up revamp increased retention by 20 percent. Improvements are based around the fact that “Twitter is different things for different people. you can build specialized experiences that make twitter relevant for different people.”
But mobile, said Williams, is “clearly where most people will use Twitter,” and it’s the best way to “take twitter to the weakest signals around the globe.” After canceling international SMS on Twitter due to rising costs a while back, carriers are now seeking out Twitter and signing deals for cheap SMS — 65 of them now. “This is something I’d encourage people to think about,” Williams told the developers. “You can use Twitter’s SMS reach, which normally takes a lot of money and it’s hard to get these deals.”
Next, Williams turned to its hot-button moves to create an “official” BlackBerry Twitter app and buy Tweetie. He said that Twitter not having these apps is a big problem. “Or else we’re just failing users, we’re failing the ecosystem because we’re not getting people engaged.” Williams’ rationale for the deal: “The best thing we can do for you guys in our minds is to grow the user base. That’s going to create an order of magnitude more opportunities than exist today.”
Today there are about 55 million new Tweets per day, and vast majority are open to the public. “We want to start building relevance into search,” Williams said, using factors like understanding the value of a link and location or “points of interest,” a new feature the company is launching today. “Our goal is to make twitter a tool for finding what people care about, not just more information,” he said. Lastly, the Twitter CEO had just a couple of words on revenue: he said it will be organic to Twitter, it will be “user beneficial” and it will be “ecosystem friendly.”
Williams ended with three takeaways, and he offered them in less than 140 characters: “Keynote takeaways: 1. Twitter is evolving. 2. the goal is to serve users. 3. There is much left to invent.”
You can find Evan Williams’ keynote video at Justin.tv
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