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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. “As we saw in the Arab Spring, the response to Hurricane Sandy, the way that the government is using Twitter to communicate within its own offices — it’s becoming still very much useful in social aspects, but very important in disseminating news and information fast.”

Costolo cited the use of hashtags on television shows, such as “The X-Factor,” to aggregate viewers around a certain topic. On election night, Costolo said more than 15,000 tweets per second occurred over “extended periods of time,” showing how Twitter acts as a complement to television and current events.

“It’s increasingly the case that people realize that (Twitter) is where the shared experience happens while the broadcasters are talking about or showing us something else that’s happening,” Costolo said.

Costolo discussed the communication Twitter fosters between “Very Important Tweeters” and the ordinary citizen. He added that conversations between people in different spheres, like the famous conversation between Canadian rapper Drake and oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, could not have occurred without Twitter’s agora.

“There’s all this fascinating change when the playing field is completely leveled and everyone speaks with the same volume and the same access,” Costolo said.

On a more serious note, Costolo discussed Twitter’s global relationship with governments and policy, a topic at the forefront of events such as the Arab Spring and the current conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Costolo showed a clip sampling the mass amount of tweets sent between Japan and other countries across the globe after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. He added that governments plan to formally use Twitter as a tool to help citizens in the event of an emergency.

“Instantaneously, in the event of a disaster, the government in Japan has a mechanism they can bring up on Twitter to communicate with people and allow those people to communicate with each other,” Costolo said. “Once we get a good sense of how this is going to work in Japan, we’ll of course take that capability around the world. We’ve already got governments in the U.K. and Spain and elsewhere wanting to leverage that.”

In Iran and China, Costolo noted that the government blocks Twitter. While he said Twitter is not working to become unblocked in Iran, it hopes the service will be fully available in China in the future. In regards to the use of Twitter by Israel and Hamas during the recent conflict in Gaza, Costolo said there have been no requests to remove any tweets.

“As far as I know, we haven’t had any requests to take down content there,” Costolo said.

In an interview after the event, Costolo discussed how Twitter is evolving in order to keep up with user inventions.

“The whole history of Twitter is users invented the hashtag, users invented ‘@’ replies and the ‘@’ name, and we’ve improved the technologies to support the inventions that the users have brought to the platform.”

A new invention that Costolo revealed is an archival system for tweets. He told the audience that by next year, users will be able to download the “entire history of your archived tweets.”

LSA senior Carla Uhlarik, who attended the event, said her own use of Twitter brought her to the presentation, and Costolo’s speech gave her new ideas for using the platform.

“Twitter is used more as a vis-à-vis medium for people. It’s more of a one-on-one interaction,” Uhlarik said. “(Costolo’s lecture) made me want to be more proactive in the people I follow. Maybe expanding beyond just NPR … and branching to also like celebrities, because it kind of gives you a grander scope of what is going on in the world.”

LSA senior Wenjie Zhu, an international student from China, said he personally doesn’t use Twitter because he isn’t accustomed to having the opportunity.

“Honestly I just don’t feel accustomed to have a voice, that’s how I feel about it,” Zhu said.

School of Information graduate student Benjamin Olger said before the lecture that he was excited to hear what Costolo had to say about his field of study.

“I’m studying human computer interaction and I’d like to be a user experience designer,” Olger said. “I’m not necessarily sold on working on any particular product, but it would definitely be really cool to work on a social media platform.”

After his speech, Costolo noted how new jobs in the marketplace will reflect the increasing popularity of social media.

“(Social media) is only going to grow … and you’re seeing the emergence of all sorts of new kinds of social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat,” Costolo said. “And as younger generations specifically are concerned less and less about ‘Well, I would never share that information’ and they do it frictionlessly, there will be more and more social media companies, services, platforms and opportunities.”

Costolo closed his lecture by answering a question from the audience: “What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve ever received?”

“It only makes sense to do what you want to do and what you’re passionate about, because that will be how you end up at a place where looking back, you can connect the dots and see you landed where you wanted to land,” Costolo said. “And I mean, you’re not going to hear from anyone who that’s more true than from me.”