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March 15, 2010

The SXSW Keynote With Ev Williams You Had Hoped to See

This afternoon, as most of you know, Ev Williams, CEO of Twitter sat down for a much-anticipated and heavily-attended keynote interview at the South By Southwest conference in Austin. After thousands of Twittering geeks and quasi-geeks alike had settled in to the packed exhibition hall and overflow rooms to hear the latest updates delivered straight from Twitter's leader, their excitement soon turned to boredom and finally, severe annoyance, as the interview's pace, tone and content fell well below expectations. After an hour's time, the halls in Austin were more than half empty, and an opportunity to showcase one of technology's biggest successes in the last few decades was for the most part lost.

For a huge number of attendees at SXSW, Twitter epitomizes a new form of communication. Their friends are on it. It's where they chronicle their lives and connect with like-minded people and businesses. That the keynote was the draw of the week would be a dramatic understatement. As I sat upstairs in the Austin Convention Center, letting my laptop get some electricity in anticipation of live-blogging the keynote, the escalators jammed with hopeful starry-eyed nerds awaiting a visit from their blue-tinged oracle.

I have met Ev twice myself, including quickly Sunday night at the Google Reader/Blogger party, exchanging a few pleasantries and shaking hands, but by no means consider us close. That said, I expect I will see him again, while for many of those attending today's event, this could be their first and maybe only time to hear Ev's words directly. He doesn't do major speaking opportunities often, and SXSW is one of the biggest geek meccas of the year. Even if it was not an opportunity to announce something amazing, both Ev and the interviewer would have a huge platform to talk to the audience and be interesting. And they failed. Ev may not be the charismatic leader in the image of Steve Jobs, but he really had no chance, being served a syrupy mosaic of cotton-ball soft questions that dealt with feeling, culture and "awesomeness."

As I summarized the keynote in a running transcript on Google Buzz, I hoped my own fatigue wasn't seeping through the text, but the pedantic non-inquisitive approach had me fidgety, featuring insightful questions such as:
"It was you or Biz that said if it was awesome people would use it, and when you talk about creating something, it is about awesomeness? What is awesomeness for you guys?"
At other points, I wrote... (Questioner keeps agreeing with Ev and saying that's "cool" rather than asking questions) and (Questioner recaps his own previous blog posts).... When I looked up at the conclusion of the keynote, the once-packed overflow room I was in was tired, quiet, and very empty. The row I was sitting in, once packed elbow to elbow, sported five empty chairs to my left, and a pair of folks to my right with a few empty chairs in between. The talk had clearly missed the objective, and people were sorely disappointed, compared to what they had obviously hoped would be something special.

Here's what should have happened.

For me, the keynote speech fell far short, not because the questioner was friendly, but because there was very little substance. One can question a speaker in an interesting way without being contentious. What failed to happen was any detailed questioning into competitive markets, technology, challenges or relations with developers. Instead, we got questions about management principles, overly long descriptions of Wal-Mart, ambition, whether partnerships should be "win-win", or if Twitter could be a force for good.

I respect Ev and think he had hoped for a lot more. I would have challenged him and asked:
  1. Has Twitter finally escaped the scalability problems that plagued the service in 2008? If not, what's left to solve, and what kind of technical challenges remain?

  2. There was talk that Facebook once was interested in purchasing Twitter, and you chose to remain independent. How do you see Twitter's role in a world alongside Facebook? Where do you compete and where could you potentially partner? How did their acquisition of FriendFeed change things?

  3. When you saw the launch of Google Buzz, did you feel like the old company you once worked for was looking to stab you in the back?

  4. You talked about being an open company hoping to foster strong developer relations. How can developers on the Twitter platform be sure advances in your own services won't compete with them and put them out of business?

  5. While you have opened up the firehose to select partners for revenue, can anybody who wants to pay gain access to the firehose feed? If not, how do you set the criteria for doing business?

  6. There are many different Twitter clients out there. What are aspects of third-party clients which you like the most? What attributes of these clients can we expect to see in Twitter.com?

  7. The Twitter search engine still is extremely broken and only returns a few days worth of tweets. Will this ever be solved, and how big of a priority is it for your team? What is left to do and how soon can we see the true search engine come online?

  8. The company has recently reversed its approach to a Suggested User List, but as you know, many people on Twitter have followings in six or seven figures that benefited from the old model, and have incredible reach or influence because of that approach. How can the playing field be leveled?

  9. It is assumed that your relationship with Betaworks has also led to your use of Bit.ly as the primary URL shortener on the service. How soon until you purchase Bit.ly outright? Should we also assume closer relationships with other Betaworks companies, such as TweetDeck?

  10. So far, it appears you are avoiding revenue models that include advertising in the stream, similar to Google AdSense, but we have also been promised advertising we will love. Can you explain how this advertising will work, and if I can block it?
To sit down with the CEO of one of the most interesting companies in all of technology and not talk about technology or competition or specific tools in any meaningful way was a dramatic letdown. That the interviewer did not recognize the fatigue of the audience as they scurried out of the cavernous halls was shocking, and now, Ev, who seems to be more on the shy side than the screaming and yelling type, like Steve Ballmer, may think twice about another opportunity, which is unfortunate. I recognize a public interview on such a stage can be a real challenge. We all learned about Sarah Lacy's struggles in that space back in 2007. But those of us who use Twitter and really care about these products deserved more. The SXSW community deserved more. They voted with their feet and they voted with their retweets. While one can remain civil and not throw barbs at the speakers, there was no question this could have gone a lot better than it did, and Twitter will have to promote its new @ Anywhere platform in a better way, for today, it was seriously overshadowed by a train wreck we found ourselves stuck watching.