Twitter's Evan Williams: The revolution will be tweeted

The usage of social networking site Twitter as an agent for political and social change will only increase in upcoming years, predicted cofounder Evan Williams at a public debate today, as the service continues to reach more people in real-time.

“It’s always been our goal to reach the ‘weakest signals’ all over the world, such as the recent usage in Iran and Moldova,” when those countries were undergoing violent unrest and saw little local media coverage of protests, said Williams.

At the same time, however, Williams and cofounder Biz Stone, Twitter’s creative director, both took issue with a recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell that posited “the revolution will not be tweeted.”

Stone agreed that in order to effect real, meaningful social change, “you need strong ties, such as real friends in the real world, and a real hierarchical, military-like structure … to really get things done.”

But he added that with a real-time exchange of information like Twitter, it would be “absurd to argue that those are not effective and helpful and complementary, to disseminating information.”

“It’s not going to be technology that will be the agent of change that changes the world — it will be actual people making actual change,” said Stone.

Williams and Stone were speaking at an INFORUM–Commonwealth Club event that focused on creating debate around civic issues. It was moderated by Businessweek tech writer Brad Stone.

As for taking on all autocracies at once, Twitter is apparently not quite ready to tackle China as a test case for free speech.

“We believe passionately in the free exchange of information across the world. We get the sense, however, that that is not exactly how the Chinese authorities see them. Hence, we are going to hold off for now,” said Williams, adding the company has no immediate plans to tackle the country’s restrictive speech policies. “China is big, but there are a lot of other places in the world where we want to focus.”

Williams touched only briefly on the news last week that he was stepping down as CEO of the company, handing the title over to former COO Dick Costolo. The move was a strategic one, said Williams, and designed to help the company keep growing in “the right directions.”

“I just realized that the demands for the CEO going forward would be much more about a typical CEO role” that would involve planning and organization, which “was a lot of the reason why I brought Dick on as COO last year.”

“I just thought Dick could do a better job than I can, while I can do a better job in products,” said Williams, who described himself as fundamentally a “products guy.”

Twitter has experienced booming growth since its founding in 2006, leaping from mere thousands of users in its first year to more than 160 million tweeting over 100 million a day. The privately held company has also seen its employee roster jump from dozens of employees at its start to over 300.

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