Every March, tens of thousands of people from around the globe flock to Austin, Texas, to learn and connect over panels, parties and tacos at South By Southwest's interactive, film and music conferences. America Tonight's SXDiaries Q&A series highlights interesting and inspiring figures at SXSW.
Biz Stone was one of Twitter’s co-founders, earning him a spot among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2009. After helping develop the 140-character social media giant, Stone is now CEO of smartphone app developers Jelly Industries. He describes his new app, Super, as an “evolution in social communication” – an effort to promote empathy in a digital setting.
In an interview with America Tonight, Stone discussed his successes and failures, and where STEM innovation is heading. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Your childhood wasn’t easy. Your mom was on welfare and your dad was mostly absent. How can young people who have dreams but are growing up in tough environments overcome those early struggles like you did?
I read somewhere there’s a gene where people [who] are really traumatized in their youth, they either bend or they snap. The ones who bend usually come out stronger for it and the ones who snap usually turn to drugs or something like that. I must have been the one who bent. But I tell people about this theory in my book called the bright spot theory. Look, everything around you might be dark. It might be terrible but there’s got to be something that’s good, one tiny little speck of your life that’s good. Zoom in on it and make that your whole thing. That goes for anything. Someone stuck in a job they don’t like, a middle school student struggling in school. What one class do you like? Once you find that and hold on to it, you can say, “OK, I have something I like.” That keeps you hanging in there.
The same is true for a startup. No matter what you do and no matter how many insults you get about how it’s stupid and no one is using it, it’s water off a duck’s back because you are totally emotionally invested in it. That’s what saved us at Twitter. If we had been building Twitter just because we thought it was a good product but not because we used it, we would have quit way early on. Everyone said it was the stupidest thing, unilaterally. I remember we had 5,000 people for the service. I thought this was massively successful. “Could you imagine that many people in a room?” We were having tons of fun.
Now that I’m older, I realize it has to be fun, you have to be emotionally engaged and you have to look for the bright spots. Otherwise, you’re miserable.
Your most recent product that launched last month, Super, has been described as a change of pace for you – going from disruptive projects to one that's been described as fun. What brought about the shift?
Twitter was fun, too, you have to admit. If something is fun, then people are more likely to use it. If a lot of people use it, then it’s important. But you can’t start out with important. “Use this in case you need to topple a dictator.” I’m fond of saying: If you want to build a platform capable of helping people topple despotic regimes, it also has to support fart jokes. People need to build a daily muscle memory of having fun in using an app. And when something happens like a plane lands in the Hudson, they go, "Whoa, I should tweet this." So with Super, we said we got to make this really fun so people will use it a lot. If a lot of people use it, then it will become important and then we'll figure out what [it's] important for and double down on that.
This sounds eye-rolling and optimistic, but what we’re trying to do at a very philosophical, head-in-the-clouds level is build technology that fosters empathy, because that’s the beginning of the 100-year journey toward mankind’s unity. This is our crack at it. People will say, "Oh God, look at this hippie from Silicon Valley, thinking he can create empathy from this stupid app.” But that’s what we’re trying to do.
Your previous project Jelly was called an attempt to fulfill what you believe to be the true promise of a connected society. What is that promise and can it still be fulfilled somehow?
The idea behind Jelly is that the true promise of a connected society is people helping each other. I thought, “Mobile phones are hyperlinks of humanity so why not build a search engine out of real people since most of world’s knowledge is not on the Web?” Even the vice president of Google Search said if you search long enough, most of the knowledge is not on the Web; it’s in people’s heads.
You’ve been a big proponent of Internet freedoms, which are being tested in the U.S. and abroad. How do you see these freedoms evolving in the next few years? Are we headed to a good place or a riskier place?
I’m all for an open-level, free playing field, so everyone can innovate and have it be merit-based. Everyone should have a chance. One guy in his mom’s basement can make eBay. That’s awesome. I support this group of women in Afghanistan who are studying digital literacy so they can do jobs and work from home on their computers. If it weren’t for the Internet, they couldn’t do that stuff. The things the Internet unlocks is just fantastic. I’m all for that openness. I think that’s where it’s going to go. That’s where it has to go. It’s just not fair otherwise. It’ll cause too much angst and confusion and red tape.
Stay tuned for more SXDiaries Q&As featuring activist Lyn Ulbricht, young inventor Shiva Nathan and astronaut Gene Cernan.