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Summary:

Evan Williams and I have known each other for a long time. From a struggling entrepreneur who started Blogger, to a successful founder who got liberal funding for his podcasting start-up Odeo, to the accidental launch of Twitter — to me, he has been pretty much […]

Former Twitter CEO Evan Williams

Evan Williams and I have known each other for a long time. From a struggling entrepreneur who started Blogger, to a successful founder who got liberal funding for his podcasting start-up Odeo, to the accidental launch of Twitter — to me, he has been pretty much the same person. He prefers to stay out of the limelight, leaving (most if not all the media duties) to his co-founder Biz Stone. And even in crowds he is quiet.

But occasionally he speaks freely. A few weeks ago, he and I discussed the future of the Internet, Twitter and the curse of too much information. It was a long conversation, sometimes rambling, but quite enjoyable. I have edited it down to make it a quick read for you folks. As we enter 2011, Ev’s comments can help you understand what he calls the web of infinite information.

Om Malik: Ev, when you look at the web of today, say compared to the days of Blogger, what do you see? You feel there is just too much stuff on the web these days?

Evan Williams: I totally agree. There’s too much stuff. It seems to me that almost all tools we rely on to manage information weren’t designed for a world of infinite info. They were designed as if you could consume whatever was out there that you were interested in.

Om: A scaling problem?

Ev:  It was true with browsing web and (that is when) Google came in. There was too much to browse on the web. We are thinking the same way about Twitter. Twitter itself isn’t designed for this world of infinite information.  (But) I want Twitter to be an antidote to infinite information, not a cause of it.

Evan Williams with co-founder, Biz Stone (Photo: Om Malik)

We can let people follow as many accounts as possible. We just need to let them find the right stuff. We have been going in this direction. It is just not necessarily obvious. For example, the native re tweet (RT) is a way to share best stuff more widely than that account’s followers. It sort of adds an editorial layer. So do top tweets in search. Here’s what people are saying most about right now. It brings up Twitter in different context. It is only possible when we have enough data.

OM: Do you think that the future of the Internet will involve machines thinking on our behalf

Ev: Yes, they’ll have to. But it’s a combination of machines and the crowd. Data collected from the crowd that is analyzed by machines. For us, at least, that’s the future. Facebook is already like that. YouTube is like that. Anything that has a lot of information has to be like that. People are obsessed with social but it’s not really “social.” It’s making better decisions because of decisions of other people. It’s algorithms based on other people to help direct your attention another way.

OM: If you were starting Twitter today – same service, but in a world that is very mobile, very multi-touch driven and a very portable web – what would it look like?

Ev: I’d have to think about that for a while but i don’t think it looks that different than what we have today. Twitter is a natural fit for mobile – it has the immediacy. There is nothing significantly missing, but (we) need to really boost relevancy. If you can’t read everything, then (what is that) you really do need to know right now. We are working on location because that’s a signal that will help us tell you what’s interesting for you right now.

OM: There is a lot of talk about the web being dead. When you look over next five years into the future what does the Internet look like?

Ev: I think there is misunderstanding of the whole “web is dead” thing. What’s “dead” is the original model of the web, which was completely distributed and decentralized. In the beginning, it was like a million little islands, some of them were bigger islands. If you create something on the web, you’re your own island and you try to get people to visit your island.

Websites realized they couldn’t create everything themselves so they started to import things — advertising, search, and more and more things that were better created by someone else — especially things that had network effects. Companies like DoubleClick or Google owned that whole market. That’s been the case for quite some time. Biggest thing that no one explored until recently was identity. Facebook was the first to be successful in exploring identity. It is obvious why that was a big thing (for them.) On the mobile phone, you don’t have your own island. You’re renting land. It’s a good deal because there’s infrastructure provided (like moving into full service condo).

[Today] there is a completely different pitch. ‘Do I build something on here [iPhone] or on the web?’ There are various options for where to rent. Facebook, Google App Engine — those things will continue to gain traction because consolidation has powerful effects. Things get consolidated because more economical and there are network effects in all these things. The idea of creating something from scratch, which is independent from the web… no one will ever create something that is wholly their own.

There is some risk to the Internet becoming more closed (although it’s not really about closed). It’s that there are fewer players who own, sort of, the land. And that will have implications long term for everything.

OM: Do you have any views on the design and user experience over next few years?

Ev: If you think about user interface (UI) paradigms over the next few years, you have to think of the mobile handset. I think most of the web still isn’t prepared for mobile in general – especially when you look at content sites. There are apps — lots of apps are great — but other than maybe video, there aren’t really great apps for consuming content.

The way we’ve gotten used to consuming content on the web, it’s a lot more broken than we realize because there’s so much stuff around it. Big monitors, multiple tabs… we do that unconsciously now. All that stuff won’t work on here [picks up his iPhone]. We need a different way to navigate. People are doing interesting things, especially on the iPad. I’m interested in all that stuff because they’re trying to figure out a different way to consume web information and it’s pretty cool. I don’t think they’re doing that on phones yet though.

OM: How should technology industry and entrepreneurs be thinking about the information consumption problem that is coming onto us?

Ev: I think we need to design (our products) for a world of infinite information. Gmail’s priority inbox is a great example. They’re recognizing we may not read all our email. I don’t know what the others would be. :)
We should also think about — for the good of society — how do we actually help people? Google has always wanted people to come to Google and then go away. They don’t want you hanging out on Google. That’s very different than lots of other services that measure success by time on site.

If you’re more of a utility — a site where you come in, get what you want, then leave. We want to be that. It’s how do we deliver the most value. Because info is infinite and there’s always somewhere else to go, delivering more value in less time should always be the focus.

OM: So what does a start-up or even Twitter take into account in this scary new future?

Ev: It’s a really significant decision about what platforms you’re building for. No one is going to limit themselves to one platform, which is actually kind of annoying — costs go up because have to build for android, iPhone, web, etc. It’s hard to decide. You want to be everywhere.

OM: So how do you think people should think about Twitter? Like electricity — you don’t even think about it; it’s just there?

Ev: [Laughs] I would like people to know they’re using Twitter but they shouldn’t have to think about *how* to use Twitter.

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  1. Marshall Kirkpatrick Wednesday, December 29, 2010

    Though it really scares me to hear talk from people in our industry about there being “too much info on the internet” I do look forward to seeing algorithmic solutions to our need for recommendation, discovery, etc. However, if “social is the OS” I sure hope the OS doesn’t end up looking closed and shiny like iOS or Facebook at the expense of those of us who would like to push the envelope and discover new ways to process all these information streams and social connections for ourselves. New Twitter’s new pagination makes it much harder to scrape for research, analysis and journalism, for example, and the company’s policy for some time to block iFrames has inhibited some interesting things that small startups have tried to do. Twitter is an incredible collection of information, but every time it closes a little more for the convenience of Justin Bieber fans, it loses some value for the future of humanity. Good luck and thanks for all the Tweets.

    1. I think if “social is the OS” then I think the interface is really an API…but overall I of course love this conversation and direction since it’s very much what we are trying to tackle with http://knowabout.it (and yes we also will be offering up an API as well as a few other interfaces) =D

  2. Twitter is a fantastic place to discover new people, important news and get updates from all your connections. Ev and his colleagues were pioneers in terms of mastering reverse chronology at Blogger and now at Twitter, and the adoption has been fantastic. It is equally important, as he mentions, to find personal relevance in the streams. That’s what my6sense (where I am VP of Marketing) is trying to do with Twitter and all your other streams. We agree with Ev in finding the best stuff per individual.

    We were first to rank Twitter by relevance at the end of 2009, and more is coming. Just at your Twitter stream to the my6sense app on Android or iOS, and see what we mean. The challenge may be infinite info, but the challenge is also getting the right info at the right time for the right person.

    1. Louis

      Thanks for that summary and yes, you, I and Ev are on the same page. I think the challenge is to find individual signal in such a huge amount of data and then make it relevant to one. I am glad you guys are pursuing this, and will be keeping an eye on mysixsense!

  3. For what it’s worth, location based focus would not work for me. Twitter is valuable for me because it is global, it allows me to discover information beyond the limits of my own limited ability to search and be exposed to it. It is organic, which is why despite the torrent of information it seems second nature for me to use. It still needs to be up to the user to filter his/her own experience, otherwise the entire experience is limited. Algorythms, curation, the same principles that apply to successful media and info sites apply to Twitter. My two cents.

    1. Leandro,

      I think you are agreeing with Ev here. he is of the same opinion as well and during our chat we discussed that — twitter is many things to many people and the company has a challenge of finding the right relevance and use case that is a starting point for one and all.

      Not sure if that makes sense to you. If you want, I can dig through my notes.

      1. I’ve been following updates pretty closely, I think that the iPad app for example is a great direction, and the enhanced threading via conversations and RTs on the .com is also helpful. But, like I said previously, it’s the organic chaos mixed with my own curated follow list that keeps me coming back. The main problem I see at this juncture is the dilution of information via the follow. On one hand, building your own list brings pertinent info in, but unless a user is judicious with whom to follow the stream loses focus. Lists seem like the most obvious solution here, but at the same time one would want them to be present, but not dominating over the overall stream, which is what allows for the discovery factor. Longwinded I realize, it’s a complex problem and I think that inevitably new things must be tried out and modified if necessary. On location, geo info filtration beyond voluntary hash tag use may be needed, IMO. Thanks.

  4. Ev seems to be throwing out a paradox. On the one hand available information is scaling to approach infinity. On the other hand economies of scale naturally drive distributed systems towards consolidation. Implicitly, I believe he is also saying that consolidated platforms cannot scale infinitely, though distributed systems can. At least until the ensuing wave of economic consolidation occurs.
    The resolution of this paradox should be a new distributed system, that will do for information what the web did for documents. Like my6sense its principal use case will be personalised filtering, but its algos must be simple and open. This system should start out de-centralised and remain so as TimBL’s web actually has done. Though again consolidation would likely occur over time. The system should present a new UI metaphor that is native to this brave new world, that has such infinite information in’t.

    1. Henchan,

      Good points. I would love for you to elaborate on the UI metaphor. it seems you have some thoughts here and I for one, would love to know more.

      Also, can you elaborate on “This system should start out de-centralised and remain so as TimBL’s web actually has done.”

      1. Yes, I’ve designed the system that I describe above. It comprises just one data type and three algos. In private, I’d be very pleased to describe it in detail. It’s an open spec which is already available on the web. Few know about it as yet. I am currently prototyping a web app based on this system design. Every tag in the system’s data format has a distance (in units of Shannon entropy) from every other tag. UI takes the form of a ‘scope’ resembling a circular radar screen. My app lets one zoom in on data more related to the scope’s central tag or zoom out to max entropy and see all tags in the database.

        The only one of Ev’s points that I disagreed with was that the original distributed model of the web is dead. I can see why he might say so from his perspective, but I doubt Tim Berners Lee would agree. www remains a distributed application.

      2. Henchan

        Can we talk sometime about your efforts? Can you drop me an email and I can get in touch directly.

  5. If I read about thinking machines, I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.
    They don’t understand points, data and information and how they correlate and want to build something thinking.
    Thinking is about creation, which requires abstraction first, if your machine can not build it’s own abstractions, which is out of reach of “normal” algorithms, it will not think!
    But one does not need a thinking machine to organize points. But what he is talking about is shared context anyway, which is just a intermediate to personal context. If they don’t get that good luck.
    That’s the problem we are facing, a lot of blah without understanding what is what and how it’s created and correlates. Then there is the small problem that our programs are the equivalent of global variables in spaghetti code when used with context.

    1. Ronald,

      I think Ev is agreeing with you on the need for balance between human thinking and machine actions. If you mean otherwise, please elaborate, and I will try and answer your questions.

      1. So what is information? If we get infinite of it (which is not possible), we should at least know what it is. Or how do data and points relate to it, is it all interchangeable like the SV crowd likes to do?

        What’s the most overlooked problem to integrate human machine interaction for the background (model) of a system? Is it good enough to slap a new UI (algorithms) onto old models?

        All should not only apply to tweets, but also to playlists for example.

  6. Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Data Wranglers Wednesday, December 29, 2010

    [...] too much”? Venerable blogger Om Malik and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams agreed in an interview today that it is. Williams, as a founder first of Blogger.com and now of Twitter, is probably more [...]

  7. @Ev – create a delicious-like ontology building tool for tweets. that way, users can not just “star” their tweets, but store them in folders. old tweets that have wisdom or helpfulness value or link into stories worth remembering should be treated as data objects with more persistent value than tweets get today. keep it up, though, twitter is rockin as far as #tinyvox is concerned ! :)

    1. I’m pretty sure this is the idea/motivation behind Twitter Annotations (which they announced at Chirp this past year, but as far as I know haven’t actually rolled out yet)…but yes, I agree with you and it’s one of the reasons I was so excited about annotations when they were first announced.

    2. Totally agree Srini… that would be awesome. But how about finding a way to integrate with delicious rather than create another tool? I love delicious and worry that it’s on the decline now… which is such a shame!

    3. You can already do this, just learn PHP.

      This way, when Twitter ends up like Fidonet and Geocities at least you have some useful code you can take with you.

  8. Twitter latest round assures eventual failure and only sorry it will further embarrass one of the valley’s great VC firms rather than the Russians who are almost exclusively backing the rest of the ridiculousness.

  9. Marx Layne » Blog Archive » Digging out from being buried in a world of “too much” Thursday, December 30, 2010

    [...] admits in an interview with Om Malik that there are challenges in a web of infinite info. Malik opines, “Ev, when you look at the web of today, say compared to the days of Blogger, what do you see? [...]

  10. William Mougayar Thursday, December 30, 2010

    Om, This is a seminal interview in my books, for the future of information consumption at least.

    When Ev said “I think we need to design (our products) for a world of infinite information.”, do you think he meant “we” as Twitter Co., or “we” as “all of the rest of us”?

    There’s a big difference depending on who is the “we”. If it’s Twitter Co., they would be sending another mixed message to its ecosystem of developers.

    Who will be solving that connumdrum of optimal consumption of infinite information? Will it be Twitter or other apps that use Twitter’s and other social triggers data? This calls for another more elaborate post I think.

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