Dick Costolo: Twitter Is a Reinvention of the Town Square—But With TV

CEO of Twitter Dick Costolo delivers a speech during The Twitter Seminar as part of Cannes Lions 59th International Festival of Creativity on June 20, 2012 in Cannes, France Photograph by Francois G. Durand/Getty Images

Twitter Chief Executive Dick Costolo gave a lecture earlier this week at his alma mater—the University of Michigan—where he talked to a crowd at the Ford School of Public Policy about how the real-time information network has changed the nature of communication and media in the 21st century. Costolo spoke a lot about how Twitter has leveled the playing field for celebrities, many of whom can now talk directly to their fans without having to go through a media outlet or other intermediary. But he also talked about Twitter’s relationship with existing media, and it was clear from his speech that he sees it as a very symbiotic one—especially when it comes to broadcast television.

Much of the coverage of Costolo’s talk has focused on the numbers he provided during the speech, including the fact that Twitter now handles more than 1 billion tweets every couple of days (it took more than three years for the service to hit its first billion) as well as the promise he made that users would be able to download their entire archive of tweets by the end of the year—although Costolo hedged his bets about whether the company would be able to meet his deadline.

But apart from those headline numbers, and some history about Costolo’s experiences at the University of Michigan, much of the hour-long talk was devoted to how the Twitter CEO believes the service has reshaped and disrupted media. Ever since the invention of the printing press, he said, we have had what amounts to broadcast media of one kind or another: It is one way, and while it achieves broad distribution, it loses some of the benefits of the original town square, or what the Greeks called the “Agora,” where townspeople shared the news of the day.

“The interesting things about the Agora, the interesting characteristics of it,” said Costello, “are that it was multidirectional, it wasn’t someone standing on a stage like I am with you and just dictating. So there was a conversation, a real dialogue, [and] it was unfiltered, it was not interpreted … and it was real time.”

Along with all those benefits, Costolo said, there were also disadvantages—in the sense that there was a lot of noise, a lot of mistakes and rumors, and the information took a long time to be distributed. But while the invention of newspapers and radio and television solved the distribution problem and much of the accuracy problem, it dramatically increased the costs of distributing news or information, and it lost the multidirectional and unfiltered aspect that the town square used to provide. It also made the news very “outside-in,” with observers providing the details instead of participants.

In a nutshell, that’s what the Twitter CEO says his network provides now: a way of injecting the real-time, multidirectional, and unfiltered nature of the town square back into the media. And the best part, Costolo said, is that while most new technologies are disruptive to traditional forms of media—in the sense that they disintermediate them—Twitter is actually complementary to mainstream sources of media such as television. More than once, the company’s CEO referred to the “second screen” experience that Twitter provides for real-time events such as the Olympics and Hurricane Sandy.

Although Costolo said that the town square aspects of Twitter apply to all kinds of media and not just television, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of examples he used to demonstrate where he sees the company going—and the power he believes it has as a media player—involving television and Twitter’s ability to drive viewership of real-time events. This was most obvious when he talked about the Olympics and how, despite criticism from Twitter users about NBC tape-delaying events, the viewership for those events was still the highest NBC had ever seen. And it raises questions about where Twitter is focusing its attention as it tries to reinvent itself (it’s also worth noting that if Twitter is a town square, it’s one that is owned by a single company).

“So along comes Twitter, and Twitter reinvents the Agora,” Costolo said. “We once again start to see multiple perspectives on a particular news story or event that’s happening. We once again start to have a shared experience across the globe about what’s happening and what we’re viewing right now. We once again get an unfiltered perspective on what’s happening. But at the same time, it complements all these traditional forms of broadcast media, in all sorts of fascinating ways we would have never predicted.”

Costolo also talked about how the company sees Twitter as “the pulse of the planet” and said that one of the biggest challenges for Twitter is to figure out how to handle the massive flow of content it gets every day—and to sort through and filter that in a way that allows people to find the things they are interested in and avoid some of the noise. But if you try to present just the best tweets, he said, you lose what he called the “roar of the crowd” during events like the World Cup, which is also an important part of the experience. Costolo said Twitter now has 1,400 employees, and half of those are engineers.

The Twitter CEO also said that the large volumes of information and the large numbers of people participating in the network actually help, because “it helps us do things like dispel rumors more quickly.” After the riots in Britain last year, Costolo said, the Guardian newspaper did a study showing that Twitter was particularly good at dispelling rumors about the riots—even though the CEO admitted that Twitter was also a source of some of those rumors to begin with.

“Again, if you think about going back to the Agora, what if everyone in the world is at the Agora?” he said. “The benefits to that are we can see each other as people and not as cardboard cutouts. We don’t see these two-dimensional media-filtered perspectives of people; we see the real person. The downside of that is, man, it’s noisy when everybody is there.”

Costolo said that solving the problem of managing the noise in Twitter while still increasing the signal for users was one of the biggest challenges the company faces in the future—along with the need to generate enough revenue to justify its $10-billion market value, presumably, although the Twitter CEO didn’t get into the details of how it plans to do that.

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