Twitter Founders: Gladwell Got It Wrong

“Laughable,” “absurd,” “ludicrous” and “pointless” were words Twitter founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone used Monday night to describe a recent Malcolm Gladwell story in the New Yorker about the futility of social media to create real social change. Of course, you wouldn’t expect those two to agree with Gladwell’s thesis, but they offered valid critiques while speaking at an event for the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

Stone said he could see validity in Gladwell’s point that effecting meaningful and sustained social change requires strong relationships and hierarchical structure. But he added,

The real-time exchange of information — a service like Twitter — it would be absurd to think it’s not complementary to activism. When it really comes down to it, it’s not going to be technology that’s going to be the agent of change. It’s going to be people; it’s going to be humanity.

Williams, for his part, said of the Gladwell article, “It was a very well-constructed argument but it was kind of laughable. He pointed out that you don’t ever get much of anything done by just telling people you’re going to do it; you actually have to do it.


Twitter's Biz Stone and Evan Williams


“Anyone who’s claiming that sending a tweet by itself is activism, that’s ludicrous — but no one’s claiming that, at least no one that’s credible,” said Williams, who stepped down as Twitter CEO last week to focus on product and cede the role to more of a manager and business operator, former Twitter COO Dick Costolo.

“If you can’t organize you can’t activate,” Williams said, criticizing Gladwell for at one point conflating the editability of Wikipedia with Twitter. “I thought [the article] was entertaining but kind of pointless.”

Stone (at this point basically piling on) said he gave Gladwell props for mounting an argument against Twitter. “He could have stuck to email and texting,” Stone pointed out, which probably wouldn’t have instigated nearly such a large and viral discussion of the article.

[inline-pro-content]The Twitter guys said they don’t want to take as much credit as some people have offered them for playing a role in catalyzing the Iranian election protests last year. Even though Twitter may have had little to do with actual citizen organization in Iran, it helped bring global attention to the events, they said. Williams disclosed that #iranelection was Twitter’s No. 1 trending topic in all of 2009.

As another example of Twitter being applied for social good, Stone brought up usage of Twitter after the Haiti earthquake in January, which included emergency services coordination but also was a major driver of publicity for text-message donation campaigns that generated record contributions.

Other tidbits from this Twitter founders’ conversation with BusinessWeek’s Brad Stone:

  • Williams pointed out that his new product role is his fourth position at Twitter (in as many years). He said of promoting Costolo, “I thought I could be more useful doing that role, and Dick could do my role better.”
  • Biz Stone said that Twitter doesn’t have too much of a problem with censoring pornographic tweets. “It’s hard to get super porny in 140 characters,” he said, joking, “That ASCII art is going to have to be pretty sophisticated.”
  • Twitter is not prioritizing making its service available in China, where it is currently blocked: “China’s very big but there’s lots to do in the rest of the world,” said Williams.
  • Like Facebook expects to hit 1 billion users, Williams said Twitter will get to 1 billion members too. Biz Stone added “Not the same billion.” Brad Stone asked when. Williams replied “In the future.”
  • Williams said that he thinks an interesting and unexploited use of Twitter would be to create an account that “just retweets other tweets” on a topic, like the best of San Francisco or baseball. Not everyone has to produce content, he said; you can also help curate and spread good stuff.

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Image courtesy Flickr user evhead.