SAN FRANCISCO--The atmosphere, predictably, was one of sunny world-changing collaboration as Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams took the stage on Wednesday morning for Chirp, the company's first-ever developer conference. The two spoke separately: Stone discussed the company's past, and Williams went into what it's working on to get to the next level.
They had to keep things positive. Much of the audience consisted of developers who aren't really sure what will happen to the flexible communication platform now that Twitter has begun announcing official mobile clients and rolling out an advertising program, dual moves that have alarmed many creators of Twitter client and advertising apps.
"Twitter has always been about developers," Williams said. "Twitter is the ecosystem much more than any other Web service that exists. You guys have not only made Twitter better, you've helped shape it, you've helped define what it is for us and millions of users."
Twitter, by the numbers, is getting huge: 105 million registered users (note that that's not active users, the metric that Facebook uses), 180 million unique visitors to Twitter.com (and Stone said that 75 percent of Twitter traffic comes from outside the Twitter.com domain), and it's adding 300,000 new users per day. It's experiencing 1,500 percent growth per year and fields 600 million search queries and 3 billion calls to its application program interface (API) per day.
Plus, on Wednesday both Google and the Library of Congress announced plans to index Twitter's archive, further adding to the significance of the service's trove of 140-character messages.
Both Stone and Williams talked about the company's whirlwind four-year history: from a sketch on a piece of paper in 2006, to a runaway geek hit at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in 2007, to a central focus of news in 2008 when a journalism student was jailed in Egypt and posted a tweet to seek help. "Just a year ago this week, almost to the day, there was just wacky stuff happening," Williams said. "We found out that Ashton Kutcher, of all people, had decided to race CNN to a million followers."
Then, in June the political unrest in Iran led the U.S. Department of State to intervene in making sure that Twitter's servers stayed afloat during what had been a planned outage. "We're reminded that no matter how sophisticated these algorithms get, no matter how many machines we can add to the network," Stone said, "ultimately Twitter is not a thing that's a triumph of technology, it's a triumph of humanity."
Williams at first spoke mostly in generalizations. "The open exchange of information has a positive impact on the world," he said while describing the company's ultimate decision to ink search deals with Google, Bing, and Yahoo, despite internal concerns about making partnerships rather than just opening the floodgates. "Maximizing this impact drives everything we do."
But then, while describing the company's goals, he got specific about challenges. Much of this has to do with getting Twitter over the final hurdle into the mainstream--just about everybody's heard about it, but not everyone uses it. The audience erupted into laughter when Williams brought up a screenshot of a Google search suggestion box that reveals the No. 2 suggestion for "I don't get" is "I don't get Twitter" right after "I don't get drunk I get awesome."
"Getting users from awareness to engagement--this is something that we weren't doing very well," Williams said. "This is a really tough problem because Twitter is different things for different people."
This ties into the root of some significant developer discomfort right now: Twitter's decision to build an official BlackBerry app and acquire Atebits, manufacturer of iPhone app Tweetie.
"I know this is a controversial decision to many people, because there were Twitter apps on these platforms. You guys had built these Twitter apps, and they're fantastic, and we love the innovation that's happening there and lots of users love them," Williams said to the audience of developers. "But when we did the research we found that we were really underserving users. We had to have a core experience on these major platforms, just like we had one on the Web, or otherwise we're failing users, we're failing the ecosystem because we're not getting nearly as many users started and engaged."
He showed a user test video of a prospective Twitter user who sounded interested in the service but was flummoxed by the selection of Twitter clients in the iPhone app store.
Williams announced a new feature called "Points of Interest," a directory of locations that will aggregate tweets around specific geographic points (CNET was the first to cover this development in February), but said that he doesn't intend for Twitter to compete with "geolocation" services like Foursquare and Gowalla.
He also hinted at the company's fledgling advertising program, which was slated to be a topic of discussion later that day. "Revenue is happening at Twitter this year," he said, and insisted to developers that "it's not just about us but it's about you if you choose to participate in that."
The somewhat eyebrow-raising spirit of self-congratulation and collaboration permeated the keynote address to its end, when Williams said that this is really just the start. "I want you to imagine the future a couple years out. Because while Twitter has come a long way in a short time from a simple idea to a global network with millions of users, thousands of developers, thousands of apps, we are really at the beginning," he said. "It is really early and we can do it together."