Founder Interview: Steven Williams

Steven Williams (@microedge) is the founder of the Web design Twitter group and runs a Web design business in Liverpool. I resisted the temptation to ask if he was Robbie Williams brother. Listen in to find out why “Twitter is not about the number of followers you have got; it’s about the number of listeners”.



Transcript

Steven Williams:

It’s a great idea.
Adam Loving: Thank you.

Steven:

It’s a great, great idea, because you’re basically grouping people together by interests. When I first joined Twitter, I’m a web designer, and I basically talk to other website designers. So, I don’t use it for looking for business, because the type of business that I’m involved with, it could be anybody. It could be somebody that owns property abroad. It could be a company that sells jewelry. It literally could be anybody, so I don’t go out to try and find specific people on Twitter.
I don’t think Twitter is designed for… Twitter is basically micro-relationships. They call it micro-blogging, but it’s basically forming little relationships. You’re in contact with somebody for a couple of Tweets, and then you might remember the person’s name and then go back and Tweet with them.

So, the good thing with Twibes is that I’ll post a link, I’ll join the web designer’s Twibe, and then people will basically go away, join a Twibe, and then it gives me other web designers to go and follow. Because I had posted once and said, "I’m going off to Twibes.com/webdesigner, and I’m going to follow people that are on the Twibe."

Adam:

I noticed that the Webdesign Twibe has over 400 members.

Steven:

Yeah.

Adam:

Was there anything that you did that encouraged that? Or was it just by virtue of getting there first and having a good name? And obviously, there’re lots of web designers on Twitter.

Steven:

I think it was because most of the people I’m following are web designers.

Adam:

Oh, right.

Steven:

So, pretty much within the first two days of me mentioning it. What I did was I mentioned Twibes to people who were on in the morning, people who were on in the afternoon, and people who were on in the evening, because, obviously, it’s Seattle. Bright and early, Seattle time. You’re there with your coffee and bagels at the start of Tuesday morning, and this is half-past three in the UK.
So, I just did the Tweets, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening, for two days, so that I basically made sure that all my web designer colleagues who I’m following and who are following me went over and joined the Twibe. And then I can look on Twibes. A lot of them actually re-Tweeted it, because then they’ve got friends who are also web designers who joined the Twibe. So straight away, it almost shoots straight up.

Adam:

And have you sort of reaped any rewards from being the founder, being at the center of this?

Steven:

[laughs] No, no, no. I think I’ve probably had more relevant followers because I follow web designers. And I think the reward is that people looking for a good web designer, if they’re a member of the Twibe, they like to follow the founder. And then, obviously, my Tweets appear within the feed. So, I think that the people like to follow the person who set up the Twibe, and also because you can see the feeds in real time. People like to follow the person who set up the Twibe because, obviously, that’s the main area that they are involved in.

Adam:

Right. Right. Is there anything that you wish Twibes did that it doesn’t do?

Steven:

That is a very good question.

Adam:

One thing I’m always amazed with is that people are so successful networking with such short messages.

Steven:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, because that’s Twitter’s business model, where they were thinking of changing accounts to business accounts and allowing 250 characters for people who’ve purchased a business account. So, you could upgrade your account. And one of the ideas that Twitter had of making money was…

Adam:

Pay-per-character. [laughs]

Steven:

Yeah. Because, at the moment, Twitter is not making money. But yes, I think it’s worth something like three billion pounds or something. It’s got some ridiculous price tag to it. And the potential for Twitter to do that is there. I wish I had come up with the idea of Twitter back in 2005, one year before Twitter. So, the business model is there for Twitter to capture on. It’s the same for Google. Just a slight, small change and they can create like a money opportunity.
I think that with Twibes you’re basically allowing people can follow people who are members of the Twibes. And I like the home page. It’s simple. Because you just are broken down into relevant categories. I noticed that you had added a few more categories. And you’re pretty much at the limit of category areas, because I think web design comes under technology. And you’ve broken it down into good categories, because you can’t overkill the categories. Because, I don’t know whether you remember Yahoo in the old days. Their home page used to be…

Adam:

Oh, right.

Steven:

Yeah. Categories. And it was just too much saturated. It was a category within a category within a category. So, I think keep doing what you’re doing, Adam, because it’s good. It’s working. People on Twitter are using Twibes. And it’s a good name. It’s a short URL, so people are able to Tweet it quite easily without losing too many characters. I’m glad that you went for a small URL. I’ll shake your hand for using a small URL.

Adam:

[laughs] I was lucky to get that one.

Steven:

And it’s a great name, Twibes, because you’re using a "TW."

Adam:

Right.

Steven:

And it’s basically a tribe of Tweeters, people who are on Twitter. So, that’s a really good thing. I think that what you’re doing is correct.
Ways forward. If you have a look at FriendFeed, I think FriendFeed do some really useful techniques. And there’re probably some things on FriendFeed that you could look at.

Adam:

I love FriendFeed. You think like maybe aggregating more than just Tweets, letting people put in their blogs and things?

Steven:

Yeah, maybe. Maybe. Yeah. Maybe aggregate people’s… as well as Twitter. But, you’ve got things like either their blog they can aggregate, or they can aggregate their Facebook, because there’s the API for Facebook. You can tell I’m a web designer.

Adam:

[laughs]

Steven:

I can talk about aggregating and using APIs to aggregate and pass through.
Yeah, there’re certain things. You don’t want to turn Twibes into FriendFeed. But there’re certain features on FriendFeed that are useful without it becoming too…

Adam:

Too thick and heavy. Right.

Steven:

Yeah, yeah. Because otherwise, if everybody aggregated, it’d end up slowing your whole service down, and you’d end up with an API stopping working, and you’d need proxy service backing up data. So you don’t want to start going down that route of having a big stream of proxy servers just to monitor data. But I think, maybe adding one or two different features like that…
And on the actual Twibes page, you basically show the founder, you show the avatar, which is good. You do allow sort of a short bio. I think I just put on a place for web designers and web developers. What I’m worried about, from a web designer’s point of view – and you would be – would be people using it for spammy purposes.

Adam:

Sure, yeah.

Steven:

That paragraph of text, you don’t want people saying, "Buy these soft, triangular-shaped, blue tablets online here."

Adam:

Right. [laughs]

Steven:

And you think, "Oh, how many times have I seen you now?"
Maybe allow people to do something so that people can search older Tweets. Because there’s a great website, My First Tweet. I went to it because I’d forgotten how long ago it was that I set up my Twitter account. I had to see what my first Tweet was. And my first Tweet was, "I’ve just set up my Twitter account."

Adam:

[laughs]

Steven:

I’m sure a lot of people’s are.

Adam:

That’s funny. I didn’t realize that was the whole site.

Steven:

It asked me what I was doing, and I thought, "I’m sitting here. I’ve just set up a Twitter account."

Adam:

[laughs] Yeah. It’s funny how Twitter’s ended up being used for so many different things beyond what they originally envisioned.

Steven:

Yeah.

Adam:

Just constraining it to such a short message has been, actually, very powerful.

Steven:

It started when it was mainly, I call it the geek industry. It was basically American, Canadian students. People in the UK partly had. Unless they’d been to South by Southwest, they just hadn’t heard of Twitter. And Twitter was launched, I think, 2006, at South by Southwest. So, that was in Atlanta, at South by Southwest, in 2006. And even then, in the infancy of Twitter, there were just a couple of thousand people that were using Twitter. And it tended to be geeky-style students that started it.
But, by starting with students, it’s the same as Facebook. That started at Harvard University, and it was just Harvard University that started using Facebook. And it spread, because by the students using it and seeing the functionality of it, then it just spread, and the word spreads around.

Adam:

Right. Well, tell me a little bit more about what you do. So I brought up your…

Steven:

OK.

Adam:

I’m going to go to your Twitter profile.

Steven:

Yeah. If you go to my website, which is www.microedge.co.uk. This was established in 2001. I’m a UK-based web designer.

Adam:

Right. Fantastic. So, like you said, Twitter has been more about networking than sort of marketing for you? Is that true?

Steven:

Yes. Yeah, more about networking. And it’s about web designers helping each other. Because keeping on top of web design, it’s always constantly changing. It’s like Google Wave was launched, and using Twitter, I was able to ask, "Has anyone else got a Google Wave account?" And a guy in Technorati got back to me and said, "Yes, I’ve got a Google Wave account." And he direct-messaged me his email address, and then we were able to test out Google Wave. Because I think we were the only two people in the UK that have got a Google Wave account.

Adam:

[laughs]

Steven:

So, we used it for testing out the sandbox of Google Wave. So, that’s been one of the most important things that I’ve found Twitter for is for testing out, with other web designers, an idea or something that’s launched. Because, before Twitter, there was no way that I’d be able to send a message out to over a thousand web designers with one tweet.

Adam:

And do you use any other tools for Twitter, like TweetDeck, or any of these?

Steven:

I use TweetDeck. I tend to use the web mainly because I don’t use Twitter. I find Twitter… I can’t get distracted from my work. If I get into Twitter…

Adam:

[laughs]
Steven … I can waste a few hours on Twitter. And want to send a message, and then people will send the messages back. I can get quite involved with Twitter.

So, I try not to go on Twitter unless I’ve got a free hour or two to spend – because I like to reply to the people who send me a message. I don’t know whether that’s an English thing, or whether it’s me being a polite Englishman or not. But, I like to reply to everybody.

Adam:

Yeah, I know. It sounds like that’s one of the key pieces of advice that people give about how, if you really want to get the most out of Twitter, as you’ve done, and become the center of a big group. You have to participate.

Steven:

Yeah. You’ve got to take part. And people have asked me questions about web design. And I’ve got to basically know the answer, and be able to tweet them. And nine times out of ten, I do know the answer, and they’ve not. Then I’m able to ask the question for somebody else.
And it’s great, Twitter, because sometimes you can either post the URL, or you can even post a short part of code. Because I tend to code in PHP, so the fix might just be a short little piece of code that somebody can post as a tweet, or it might be a problem with CSS, because IE six is still around, and cause some problems for web designers. I wish Microsoft would kill that off fast.

[laughter]

Steven:

And we’ve got to work fixes and work around IE 6. So, sometimes when I come across problems, my task on Twitter is to say, "How do I maintain a footer to maintain it within IE 6." And somebody will give me the answer. And they say, I might get asked the question, "How do I?" I tend to get asked questions like that.

Adam:

Right. Well on the subject of IE six and other aggravating things, is there one thing that drives you crazy about Twitter? What do you really dislike?

Steven:

It’s probably the spamming, which are the bots. The one thing that I hate about Twitter is if I type in, "I’m having a cup of coffee with my bagels this morn." And the next day I’ll have 10 coffee manufacturers and 10 bagel bakeries following me.
It’s just a waste of time for me and for them, because I’ve got no need to follow a coffee manufacturer or a bakery within the middle of Chicago. I’m never going to go into a bakery in the middle of Chicago. And least I don’t think I am.

[laughter]

Steven:

But, it’s basically the automated bots. I’m starting to see messages, how to get 1000 followers. You know those. I just tend to totally ignore. And if they’re persistent, I just block them. And I suggest that to everybody else.
That’s the only one thing is that people think that Twitter is the marketing tool of the future. And that the more followers you have, the better a person you are. And it’s not about the number of followers you have got; it’s about the number of listeners. You can use that as a quote. It’s not the number of followers; it’s the number of listeners.

Adam:

Yeah, I know. You’re absolutely right. That’s a good way to put it.

Steven:

It’s no good saying I’ve got half a million followers. Well, if half a million followers are bots and people who never read your tweets, then it doesn’t matter. But, if even if you have 100 followers, or 200 followers, and all of them do listen when you make a tweet, then it’s great.
I got engaged two weeks ago. And my other half put a Twit Pick of the photograph up. And straight away I think we had about 300 tweets, came back to us with messages of congratulations. That was a really nice part of Twitter, was getting an instant feedback. There were people on Twitter that knew before my own family.

[laughter]

Adam:

Interesting.

Steven:

So if I could get me my grandfather on to use Twitter, then he’d have [inaudible 18:19] them quick.

Adam:

That’s great. That shows how much people actually care.

Steven:

It was good because we both actually kept all the tweets. We just copied and pasted the tweets, because we thought, they’re in a constant feed. They’re going to be lost forever. But, we kept a hold of not a screen shot, but I cut and pasted them into Word. And we’ve kept all the messages, which is really nice.

Adam:

Of course, that’s 300 more people you’ll have to invite to the wedding now.
[laughter]

Steven:

Yes. I don’t think that some people from Alaska are going to travel all the way over to the U.K. But, it is considerably warmer in the U.K. than Alaska.

Adam:

Yeah, maybe. I don’t know, they could just fly just over the pole there. It wouldn’t be that far.

Steven:

Yeah. It’s not that far. Seattle isn’t that far. No.

Adam:

Well, thank you Steven for spending the time this morning. This has been really useful.

Steven:

Good luck with Twibes. Carry on what you’re doing, because what you’re doing is great. All of my information you’ll find on the website I’ve made, post, and put loads of information together.

Adam:

Yeah, I think I’m…

Steven:

Basically, I follow web designers. Reply to [inaudible 19:35] if you ask me a question. Stay away from the spam bots. And it’s not about the number of followers, it’s about the number of listeners.

Adam:

Excellent.

Steven:

And that’s my short little bio for Twibes. What I would say, keep doing what you’re doing. OK, thanks Adam, thanks for the call.

Adam:

Have a great afternoon. Take care.

Steven:

OK. You too. Bye.

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