Ev Williams: The Challenges of a Web of Infinite Info

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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