Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Evan Williams on listening to Twitter users

By Rebecca C.

Evan Williams has helped create one of the most popular communication sources of the 21st century. It started from such a simple concept, and grew from media, from need for communication at times of natural disasters, and from the Twitter users themselves. Twitter has become something that millions rely on to express to the world serious news and issues or one’s own thoughts and feelings. It has been one more thing to shape the world of technology and Evan wants to share Twitter’s potential and all it has to offer on TED.

Evan Williams started out on a TED stage discussing his company, ODEO. This led to an article in the New York Times and other media attention. He became CEO of this company and hired an engineer, Jack Dorsey. When trying to decide where to go with ODEO, Jack pitched an idea he had for a side project. It was based around sending simple status updates to friends. Turns out, in 2006, ODEO launched Twitter as a side project that did exactly that. Evan was skeptical on whether it was a good idea to start up with a side project but he had experience from doing the same with another side project “Blogger” with his previous company. Blogger ended up taking over his life and the company itself. Evan says, “So I learned to follow hunches even though you can’t necessarily justify them or know what they are going to do. And that is what has happened with Twitter, time after time.” (Evan William | Video on

Twitter can be used for a variety of different messages, whether they are special occasions (Evan shows an example of news of a child being born) or mundane messages (Evan shows an example of someone tweeting “My phone fell in the toilet!”). People can say what they are doing or feeling in 140 characters or less and it makes them feel more connected to the world around them. This was what the company saw as the primary use, to help people stay in touch despite distance. They did not, however, realize the many other uses Twitter would become beneficial for. Evan says, “When the wildfires broke out in San Diego, in October of 2007, people turned to Twitter to report what was happening and to find information from neighbors about what was happening around them.” (Evan Williams). Not only was it individuals who used Twitter for these purposes but the L.A. Times, as well as the Fire Department and Red Cross started using it to dispense information and updates. Politicians have even started "Tweeting," including 47 members of congress who have Twitter accounts. At events or occasions, thousands of people follow on Twitter because they want to know what it feels like to be there or know what’s happening.

One of Evan’s fascinations is how users have shaped Twitter. In the beginning, you could send out updates, and receive ones from people you were interested in, but people started to respond to other updates by putting a “@username” before their messages. Evan gives an example of Shaquille O’Neal using this to respond to one of his fans. This became popular and was created by the users themselves. Twitter didn’t actually build it into their system to make it easier until after it became so popular. Another is the API. Twitter has created an application programming interface that goes into pieces of software to send twitter updates. Now they have these in Mac, Windows, iPhones, Blackberrys, etc. There are even devices that will let an unborn baby Twitter when it kicks or a plant Twitter when it needs water. One of the biggest developments based on Twitter though, came from a little company in Virginia called Summize. They created a search engine just for Twitter and what everyone on Twitter has “tweeted.”

Twitter has gone beyond what they originally had thought it was going to be; just a way to communicate with family and friends, and it has become a way for people to help one another. When there was a gas shortage in Atlanta, people would tweet when they found good gas so others could go where they had gone. Also, people on Twitter have raised money for homeless people, or have dug wells in Africa. “It seems like when you give people easier ways to share information, more good things happen.” (Evan Williams). Evan tells us that he doesn’t know where Twitter will go next… but he knows to always follow the hunch. After Evan says “Thanks” to his audience and dismisses himself, Chris Anderson comes onto the stage and brings Evan Williams back on. During Evan’s talk, Chris had gone onto Summize and searched Evan Williams. Chris pointed out that as Evan was speaking, already 50 people had “tweeted” about listening to Evan William’s talk! He points out that there is almost no other way to get instant feedback like that, and what Evan has helped created is a great and interesting thing.

As much as Evan’s talk was fascinating, it was also a little monotone. Evan didn’t talk with a lot of expression in his voice and had no facial expression. I don’t know if I saw him smile once, or even change the look on his face. He didn’t connect with the audience very well and I think that affected his talk. He had pictures and picked tweets that gave humour to his talk but I felt that he didn’t display them in a humourous enough way. His pictures and his tweets were funny, but he was not. Evan Williams had good facts, and an interesting story on how Twitter started out from just a basic idea, but I don’t feel, with his lack of facial expression and lack of enthusiasm in his voice, that he was selling his company very well. He stood still for most of the presentation and didn’t use gimmicks, or a hook to reel the audience in.

All in all, Evan, with his facts, proved Twitter to be a world changing phenomenon. People all around the world use Twitter, and you can communicate with anyone! Our world is changing so fast and technology is a big part of that change. If we don’t learn how to communicate over these systems and help one another out in serious situations, we are going to fall far behind the rest of society. People don’t always know what they can do to help, but with systems like these, it makes it easier to help and easier to communicate with the rest of the world.

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