Fall 2010

The World in 140 Characters

Twitter co-founder and creative director Biz Stone explains the Twitter effect and considers the impact of tweeting on the entertainment industry.

Biz Stone1. It’s been said that half the world has access to Twitter—is that an exaggeration? Do you have an idea of how many people are using Twitter?

When you talk about registered users, people who have created an account in order to tweet on Twitter, there are over 145 million accounts. However, many people around the world are accessing Twitter on their mobile devices or on the Web just as an information network to find out what’s happening right now. So not everyone’s a registered tweeter, but there’s something like five billion mobile phones in the world now that all have SMS capability, and we designed Twitter to work over SMS. That’s the origin of the 140-character limit.

2. What is the Twitter effect?

The Twitter effect is really just something that’s been around a long time but magnified. It’s just word of mouth. When it comes to something like a film release, back in the day you’d wait the entire weekend before getting a sense of whether or not it was worth seeing. Now, while the credits are rolling on the first screening, people are tweeting whether or not they like that film. And the information spreads very quickly. So the Twitter effect is word of mouth sped up to a modern pace.

3.  A lot of directors like to tweet about this and that. Have you heard about directors who use Twitter to promote their work?

Yeah, I have a friend who is a director and executive producer on House, and both he and his team use Twitter to share just enough information about the program, but not so much that they completely pull away the curtain. So you get people interested in upcoming episodes and some of the behind-the-scenes activities, and that keeps people connected to the show in a way that’s different than watching it. There is some tweeting between him and the people who are working on the show for team building and camaraderie. But I think the key thing is that it keeps people engaged when the program is not currently airing. It extends the world of the show out to the 24/7 space.

4. Are there ways to use Twitter as a creative tool?

Oh, yes. I think its simplicity and openness make it the perfect blank canvas for creative types to think of new and different ways of telling stories of promoting those stories, and of gathering feedback to do better next time on those stories. There’s been some really interesting stuff that’s happened with the Mad Men TV series where a kind of fan fiction has emerged; for every character on that show, there’s a Twitter account that a fan operates. They’re coordinating their tweets and creating their own kind of alternate storyline that’s patterned after the current storyline, but it’s like the characters are literally taking on a life of their own outside the bounds of the show. And it’s all done by fans. I think the folks over at AMC are really proud of this and love it.

5. How do you think the industry could use Twitter in new ways that it hasn’t tried yet?

From a studio perspective, I think we’re still going to see some experimentation on the marketing side. We’re still in the beginning stages of being able to offer comprehensive tools that allow businesses to really measure the impact tweets are having. Right now I imagine the studios are using third parties to measure trends, as well as just doing good old-fashioned Twitter searches. I would love to see somebody timing tweets so they’d sort of become part of the show. I’d love to see a character say ‘Hold on a second,’ and look down at his phone. Then I would receive a tweet on my phone and, at the same time, the character actually looks like they’re doing something. That would be fun. That would really bring you into the show and make it feel real.

6. Have you gotten any feedback from content creators about the instant exposure they receive via Twitter?

I did an experiment with a director friend of mine a couple of years ago, before very many people really heard about Twitter. He had a pilot air and he told a few thousand folks, ‘Hey, watch the pilot, and I’m going to tweet along with it almost like it’s a DVD commentary.’ And I went down to L.A. and sat down with him and some of the actors and just showed them what people were saying about the show as it was airing. To have worked for so many months and then to get this real-time reaction that was like for a play, that was very thrilling to them.

7.  Do you think the industry is afraid of Twitter?

I would like to say no because I think the more people interact with us, the more they begin to understand we’re here to help. If a show or a movie isn’t good, people are going to let you know. In the past, you might have had a few days of padding before they let you know; now they let you know right away. I think it’s just going to be a fact of life. We’re living in a time now where the pace of business, and even democracy and politics, is coming up to real time. It’s just something we’re going to have to adjust to. Somebody once asked me, ‘How do you counteract the Twitter effect when people aren’t going to see your film?’ I think the answer is you make a good film.

8. So do you think Twitter can have a role in encouraging the industry to produce better movies and better TV shows?

I think that’s an interesting role that social media can play, this idea that you’re getting real-time feedback like never before, and you can use it to your advantage. You can’t rest on your laurels and hope for a solid weekend of tricking people. You have to say, ‘This has to work; this has to be great right out of the gate.’ Maybe you embrace Twitter earlier on in the process, and maybe the earlier you embrace people’s reactions, the better off you’ll be down the line when it comes time for the finished product because the audience would have been somewhat involved and active in its creation.

9.  In the future, what do you think the relationship will be between the new media platforms and network TV?Since everyone has an opinion and on Twitter they have a place to voice it, is tweeting crowding out traditional film and television criticism?

Roger Ebert is one of the strongest twitterers out there, but he continues to review. And I think more than anything these tweets offer traditional reviewing some seasoning, some new angles to use when writing a review. But this gets to the bigger question of how does Twitter fit with journalism, and I think they’re very complementary. Say there’s an earthquake in China, what does it all mean? We can find out very quickly, but we still want that context and that storytelling. And for that we still need professional journalists to put it together for us.

10. So where does Twitter go from here? Is there a business plan to translate all this activity into assets?

Twitter has become this cultural phenomenon and that’s Part 1. Okay, check. Now Part 2 is we need to make it into a profitable and sustainable business. And that’s always been the plan; that’s what we’re doing with our promoted trends and promoted tweets and some other stuff we’ve got planned. It’s advertising, but the ads are very native to our overall system. So that’s where we’re headed next, along with constant work on reliability, and uptime, and making Twitter as available and ubiquitous around the world as possible.

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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