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Twitter CEO, University alum talks power of technology

Tracy Ko/Daily
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By Haley Goldberg, Daily News Editor
Published November 16, 2012

Rather than 140 characters, it took one, grainy photo for Twitter CEO Dick Costolo to reveal his connection to the University.

“Here’s proof that I actually went to Michigan. That’s my 1985 Student ID card in the Computer Science department,” Costolo said, showing an image of the card in a slideshow before a crowd of about 1,000 students and faculty members in Rackham Auditorium on Friday afternoon.

During the event, which was sponsored by the School of Information and the Ford School of Public Policy, Costolo discussed the history of his work on Twitter and his experience at the University, with many attendees tweeting with the hashtag #twitteratumich as he spoke. After an introduction by Dean of Public Policy Susan Collins and Information School Dean Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, Costolo took the stage for his presentation, which was also streamed online by the School of Information website.

Costolo graduated from the University in 1985 with a degree in computer science, but his passion for elective work in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance took him to Chicago as an aspiring standup comic. Costolo’s work as a comedian showed in his lecture, as he critiqued his own speaking habits to a chorus of laughs from the audience.

MacKie-Mason explained how Costolo began his work with the Internet in 1996, ultimately creating three companies. Costolo sold one company, FeedBurner, to Google for $100 million in 2007. In 2009, Costolo joined with Twitter as COO and became CEO one year later.

The core of Costolo’s presentation discussed Twitter’s ability to reinvent the agora, a reference to the ancient Greek meeting place where citizens could gather to discuss the latest politics and news in their community.

Costolo described the benefits of the Greek agora in creating functional discourse within communities.

“It was multidirectional, it wasn’t someone standing on a stage as I am with you dictating, so it was a conversation and a real dialogue,” Costolo said. “It was unfiltered. The news was not interpreted and written down and handed to people. And it was real time, you were hearing what real people were talking about right there with each other.”

Costolo went on to chronicle how the advent of radio and television created a form of discourse that was “outside-in,” removing the ability for viewers to provide their voice in the media.

“The fascinating thing about these new technologies is they all start out with the idea that they are going to be multidirectional, and we even get the illusion … with things like talk radio,” Costolo said. “But of course, it really is an illusion because there is an editor who gets to call in … and we’re only listening to the kinds of conversation that come in from people that agree with us.”

Costolo said Twitter is helping bring back multidirectional forms of media.

“Along comes Twitter, and Twitter re-invents 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 now. We once again get an unfiltered perspective of what’s happening. But, at the same time, it complements all these traditional forms of broadcast media.”

Cliff Martin, meeting and special events planner at the Public Policy School, said both schools wanted to bring Costolo to speak as Twitter becomes more important in the world of policy and news.

“(Costolo) certainly has ties to the University so that’s a draw, but … (Twitter) is becoming a tool that is increasingly useful in disseminating policy information and people’s reactions,” Martin said.