Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams are the hottest geeks in Silicon Valley. But there’s one title they can’t claim: coining the word “tweet,” the zeitgeist slang for Twitter updates. The term was invented by some anonymous user and, truth is, they don’t want the credit anyway. “I never wanted to endorse it,” Stone says, “I didn’t want people thinking I was trying to be cute.”
Though Twitter has been around since 2006, celebritweets last year transformed it into the most cloying obsession of the navel-gazing nation, and the fastest-growing community online – up more than 1300% this year, and outpacing Facebook and MySpace combined. But there are problems. Though using Twitter is free, a Nielsen study found that 60% of the people who sign up never return after the first month. And a lack of an apparent business plan is only fueling the speculation of coming flameout. One tech industry analyst recently questioned whether the company would find a way to survive "until the next cool Web 2.0 social networking concept comes along and Twitter tweets no more."
Now the pressure’s on Stone and Williams to make sure Twitter doesn’t go the way of Friendster or other over-hyped start-ups. “When you’re moving this fast, it’s very exciting, but it’s easy to trip yourself up,” says Williams, “our biggest danger now is a self-inflicted wound.” Stone agrees. “We risk being that child actor who grows up all weird,” he says, “it’s important that we think about that now, and how the culture at the company reflects the product.”
That culture starts with their digs - open, airy loft offices overlooking the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Flocks of birds are silhouetted on the walls, along with puffy clouds, deer, and trees. The interior design, created by Williams’ wife, started out as a play on the idea of tweeting birds. “It reflects the aesthetic of the site and brand – playful and simple,” says CEO Williams, a clean-cut former farm boy from Nebraska.
For Stone, who plays the role of company visionary and is prone to Deadhead style soliloquies, the surroundings have deeper meaning too. “It reminds us that people are animals,” he says, “this is about the triumph of humanity, not the triumph of technology.” Rather than modeling Twitter on Facebook or Google, they’re taking cues from nature. “The idea is based on biology and emergent behavior,” says Stone. At the office, he and Williams eschew hierarchy for group-think, and host weekly “Tea Time” gatherings with guest speakers from scientists to MC Hammer (for real), just to see what ideas might bubble up.
This kind of crowd-sourcing strategy spills over online. Despite rumors of buyouts by Google or Apple, Stone and Williams claim to be more interested in empowering people than selling out. They believe the key to Twitter’s success – and future – isn’t built on the code, which really just comes down to 140 characters of text updates. It’s about creating a simple tool that can be easily modified and shared. “We’ve really adopted some of the things that Twitter has taught us,” Stone says, “that creativity can come from constraint, that, with a few things, you can make something really cool and beautiful.”