Note: Most people can probably skip the first 15 minutes of this talk, but the last 15 minutes is such a wonderful explanation of human nature, what drives behavior, and the internet that I believe it's worth listing here.
Evan Williams cofounded Blogger in 1999, Odeo in 2004, Twitter in 2006, and Medium in 2012. This speech was originally delivered in September 2013 at XOXO, an arts and technology festival in Portland, Oregon.
Hi, friends. I want to talk to you today about the Internet just generally because I think I've figured it out. I have some theories anyway. I'm also going to need the clicker I think. You were ready for that. Thank you. So to tell you about my theories, I'm going to tell you how I got to my theories, which involves telling you a story that is a lot of my life. And it starts here from a small place in the middle of the country. Well, the place isn't that small. It has lots of land. It's as big as any other place. There's just not a lot of people in that place.
My school growing up was probably less than 60 people in the high school. They were all white. All the boys played football except for me. And that and in many other ways, I felt very different there growing up, and I yearned for the world outside. I didn't feel like I belonged there. I yearned for different perspectives and ideas and people. And it was pretty isolated feeling, especially because I never traveled anywhere either. I don't think I saw the ocean in person until I was 20 years old. I didn't leave the United States until I was 29.
But there was one way I discovered growing up in that small town literally in the middle of the cornfields. I discovered a technology that could take me out of there for periods of time. It was combination of a form of time travel and mind reading that allowed me to tap the knowledge and ideas of people who are much wiser than anyone I thought was around me and learn amazing things. Of course, this technology was books.
I wasn't that into the books assigned in school. I thought they were mostly kind of made up stories that I didn't see the point of or facts that weren't particularly useful. But at the library, I could find cool books, books that would teach me how to do things like juggle. I check out a book about juggling, and I went home, and I learned how to juggle. And I'm not very good at juggling, but it impressed my friends. And I learned it from a book, and I thought, “Aha, this is power.” And I read other books that were cool like a Benjamin Franklin biography, this amazing inventor and publisher and idea man.
And I remember when I read my first business book, I was 15 or 16, and I bought a book actually about how to make money in real estate because that seemed like a reasonable thing to do for a 16 year old in rural Nebraska with no money. But the amazing thing was when I was reading that book, I just had this epiphany. And I realized, years of experience and knowledge had gone into this little device in my hand, and I could read that in a few hours and gain the benefits of that experience and knowledge. And I thought, “That's incredibly powerful. Why aren't people reading books all the time? What else might I learn?” And so that was cool.
And I guess I enjoyed all kinds of media that would give me a glimpse of the outside world. And though there were only three channels on the television, magazines were cool because magazines could give me real time information about things happening in other parts of the country where there were cool people. And the coolest people to me were people with BMX bikes and skateboards and those guys that did tricks. And I obsessed over that stuff and tried to emulate it back on the farm, and I couldn't afford the bikes or the skateboards. I tried to make my own, but that was harder to learn than juggling from reading about it, so I moved on.
But later, I always kept this love of magazines and books. And a few years later, I walked into the bookstore in the mall, and I was looking around where the computer magazines were, and there's this new one that I'd never seen before. And it was different than the others and had these bright colors, and it didn't have computers on the cover. It had people on the cover. And I took that home, and I read it, and it was fascinating. And of course, that was WIRED magazine. In fact, it was the second ever issue of WIRED magazine. This was in early 1993, and I was 20 years old, and it gave me a glimpse of a whole another world. And I had dabbled in computers by this time. I'd even been on Prodigy, but this was something different.
And when I was a sophomore in high school, I took the required basic programming class, and I was phenomenal at it. I ended up teaching most of the class because the teacher wasn't really paying attention. I went way and beyond my assignment, and I just decided, “This is it. This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to be a computer programmer.” And unfortunately either because of lack of discipline or friends who are also into computers or lack of having a computer, I didn't follow that up right away.
But when I picked up this WIRED, it wasn't just about computers. It was about this world. On the other side of the computer world you could get to from anywhere, and that world was full of knowledge and ideas and people. One of the articles in that magazine was about this guy named Dave Hughes who was working on wiring up the Internet. And there's this quote, “My life's mission is to hook up the 5.5 billion brains on the planet,” which was a pretty audacious statement in 1993. And this was the kind of stuff WIRED magazine talked about.
There was another article I was just looking through it recently by Paul Saffo, which talked about text as the hot new medium. I realized this magazine may have influenced me more than I realize, but in that, Saffo says, “Words have been decoupled from paper. In fact, our electronic novelties are transforming the word as profoundly as the printing press did half a millennium ago.”
So this was exciting. This was clearly the future, and I needed to be part of it.
And by this time, although my real estate ventures hadn't worked out, I was an entrepreneur, or at least I consider myself one. I had dropped out of college and had no money and had no intention of getting a job. And I saw the Internet as the future. So I thought, “Well, I got to be in there. I got to do something. What's my role here on the Internet? What can I sell? What can I create?”
And lacking those computer skills or really knowing anyone who had the computer skills or would have any idea how to actually put something on the Internet, I decided, “What is better than the product of knowledge? I can empower other people to get on the Internet.” So I decided, instead of using the old fashioned technology of books, and there were a couple of books about how to use the Internet on the shelf, which is how I figured out how to get on the Internet, which was not a trivial feat in Nebraska in 1993, I thought, “We'll use even better technology to teach people. We'll make a video.”
So I got some buddies together who were in the journalism school at the University of Nebraska, including Paul Bausch, who's here, and we borrowed a camera, and we went down in my basement, and we recorded a video. I'll show you the little clip.
This growth has occurred not only in the number of Internet citizens, now estimated between 20 and 50 million worldwide, but also in the number and variety of Internet applications, services, and resources available. A seemingly parallel growth is the amount of information available about the Internet and the interest level of the general public and media about it.
Indeed, the Internet has finally come of age.
So that was 20 years ago. I basically lived in fear for a decade that this would hit the Internet. And I got an email from Andy Baio a few years ago, said, “I found this video,” and my heart sunk. I was like, “No, God.” And because Andy's a gentleman, he asked permission if he could put it online, and I denied him that permission, so I could show up at his conference years later and reveal it to the world.
Yeah, so the important thing about the video wasn't the production quality exactly or how much money we made from that. The important thing that this launched me into being an Internet entrepreneur, which I've been ever since. And I don't think I used that word at the time or anyone did in Nebraska anyway, but I was on my way, and it was still a struggle for awhile. And eventually, I realized like Jed Clampett in sophistication though not having made my fortune yet, California was the place I ought to be.
So I made it out to California. I got a job at O'Reilly, the book publisher, and a couple years later, Meg and Paul and I started Blogger. And so the origin of Blogger came from… We were actually working on something else. It was a much more complicated project management thing. But we all had blogs, and I'd written a little script for my personal website that made it so I could just type in a box and a new thing showed up at the top. And basically, this was after reading Dave Winer and Peter Merholz in this world of weblogs. And I thought, “Oh, that looks kind of fun.”
And so we did this little thing on the side, and it eventually worked. It was also a struggle for a few years, but I ended up working on Blogger for about six years, four before Google, and then two after selling it to Google. And during that time, I came to think about, why did this work, why was blogging important, why was this democratization of publishing important? And the way I described it at the time was, it's not about Blogger, about blogging. It's really about the realization of this great promise of the Internet, this idea that is about the democratization of knowledge, of ideas, even of influence. The idea that anybody could share their thoughts with everybody was a profound idea, and that idea was there in the beginning of the Internet. And what blogs did was just kind of made it more real and more possible.
So that's the way I described that, and I was happy about that, and I was proud of that and thought, “That's awesome. The Internet is awesome, and it works.” But I think I missed something actually back then. I missed something because I didn't really know what the Internet was. I mean, I thought I did. And back in my video, I had to explain what the Internet was before explaining how to use the Internet. So I explained it thusly, I said, “The Internet is a puzzle comprised of three things. It's computers. It's information, and it's people.” And I guess all those things are involved, but we probably wouldn't describe it that way today.
So I was thinking recently, what is the Internet? And I decided that the Internet wasn't really computers. I mean, the computers are there apparently. It's kind of funny. They're there more than ever, but we never see them anymore, even those of us who work on the Internet. And we don't even see the wires that connect the computers. I think those are there too, but the Internet is literally in the air. And information, of course, it's all about information, but it's not. That's such a quaint and static word. That doesn't describe the stuff of the Internet.
And even people, when we talk about people on the Internet, it's much different than when we talked about people on the Internet back then. Because then, there used to be people on the Internet and then people who weren't. And generally, the people you knew in real life weren't on the Internet. And there is virtual communities of people out there on the Internet. And now, it's just this thing. It's just in the air, and we all connect to it, and we use it for all kinds of things.
So the thing that's really makes up the Internet is these connections. And there's the hardware connections, and then there's all these connections that are mapped in data and software. And if you look at any big Internet thing, you see it's basically a big pile of connections. I mean, even the link, the humble HREF from one page to another is a connection. A follow on a service is a connection. A like is a connection. And what the Internet is doing now is it's connecting everyone and everything and every event and every thought in multiple ways with layer upon layer of connection. And increasingly, everything that happens in everything you do, every place you go and check in and every thought you have and share and every person who liked that thought and faved it and every song you play, is all connected. It's all mapped in the software and the databases. And it keeps multiplying relentlessly.
So that's what I think the Internet is. But why? Why are these connections growing like they are? Is there something more than it's just possible and people think of cool new things? Is there some sort of organizing force or a principle that's driving all of this? And I don't mean a cosmic principle but just something that helps explain what really thrives on the Internet and might even predict what will thrive and what will come next.
And I decided that the Internet is simply a giant machine designed to give people what they want. That's what these connections do. And another way to say that is that the Internet makes human desires more easily attainable. In other words, it offers convenience. I learned that the Latin root of “convenience” actually means assembling and agreeing. Isn't that what the people who created the Internet did? They got together, and they agreed on how to assemble their computer networks, which assemble us all. They convene us all, and they offer conveniences for getting whatever we want.
So human desire of course doesn't change that much over years or generations or millennia depending on how much you abstract, and people want the things they've always wanted. They want love and money and status and a sense of belonging, and they want to influence, and they want to get answers. They want to create, and they want solutions to their problems, and they want stuff. And convenience on the Internet is basically achieved by offering two things, speed and cognitive ease as in, I don't want to wait, and I don't want to think. And if you study what the really big things on the Internet are, you realize they're the masters at making things fast and not making people think. They also take out steps. That's another way to define convenience, a thing that you want used to take several steps, and now, it only takes a few steps.
So going back to Blogger, I realized Blogger and blogging tools in general didn't enable anyone to do anything new that they couldn't do as long as the web existed anyway. It just made it more convenient. And of course, when you drop the barrier, that causes people to do stuff, or it's then worth the effort. And then Twitter came along and obliterated a lot of blogging because it fulfilled the same desires more conveniently. And part of the reason it was more convenient was that it reduced cognitive strain because it eliminated tons of choices.
So then you look at the really big Internet companies and services, and you see this pattern over and over. Look at Google, the biggest. They are really good at speed. They cover a wide range of human desires, answers, solutions, information. They make it so easy. There's one box. You don't even have to come close to spelling anything correctly, and it's amazing. It's fast, reliable. They always have the answer fast, and you don't have to think about it. Look at Facebook. Why is Facebook successful? They cover a huge part of our human desires, all those involving connecting with other people, the sense of belonging, the influence, the recognition, the validation. And they do that more conveniently than anyone else because they've connected all the people in the world who are online.
Amazon are just masters of speed and convenience. You look at everything they do from the famous 1-Click to the huge selection, the low prices, Amazon Prime, free shipping. It's all about making things faster and more convenient. Even Apple, lauded for the great design, they make very pretty things, but they also take out a lot of steps. They don't make you think, and they make it fast. They realize the importance of convenience so much, they license that 1-Click patent from Amazon, so they could put it in iTunes, so you wouldn't have to take another step to buy a song. And they ruthlessly negotiated with the record companies so every song would be 99 cents, so you didn't have to think, “Should I buy this song or that song?” In fact, they were so successful of making purchasing music convenient that a lot of people started purchasing music who had previously considered it free, but that was too much of a pain.
So here's the formula if you want to build $1 billion Internet company because I know that's what people come to XOXO to learn. It's simply this, identify a human desire, preferably one that's been around for a really long time. We often think the Internet enables people to do new things, but people just want to do the same things they've always done. So you identify that desire, and then you use modern technology to take out steps and make them not have to think. And so to use [inaudible 00:22:02] an example, look at Uber. How old of a desire is getting from here to there? And how hard was it really to do? They took out some steps to that process, and they're worth three and a half billion dollars. They formed a connection between you and the drivers.
Shortly after I moved to California, my older sister came to visit, and we were at the Marriott downtown in San Francisco. And if you've ever been there, you know it has these vast panoramic views of the city. And this was when I still lived in Sebastopol, which is a sleepy town about an hour north of San Francisco. This is where O'Reilly is based. And we were looking out over the city, and I was dreaming and hoping and wondering, “Could I move to San Francisco? How amazing would that be?” And my sister, who I'm sure was paying for our drinks on her school teacher's salary because I was still broke from my first company, was encouraging. And it was a scary thought for a farm boy to move to the big city but also an exciting one. And San Francisco seemed so full of possibilities, kind of like the Internet seemed back then.
And I made it to San Francisco just a year later, and I've been there for 15 years. And of course, something happens when you move to a place that you've only dreamed of. It's human nature that the exciting becomes routine, and you just get used to things. And maybe you failed to notice the amazing things, but you still notice the annoying things. And it may even go from routine to mundane.
And it's possible to feel that way about the Internet today. It's harder when you're at XOXO to feel that way about the Internet, but in our daily life, it may seem that way especially if you accept my premise that it just makes things easier. If you accept the premise that the information super highway just led to a convenience store, it seems kind of mundane, may even seem depressing. And so I thought about this and wondered, “Well, is that true? And if so, how should we feel about this?”
And I decided to a certain extent, it's true that the Internet is not what I thought it was 20 years ago when I started working on it, may not be what you thought it was. I decided it's not a utopian world. It's simply like a lot of other technologies, a lot of other major technological revolutions that have taken place in the history of the world, for example, agriculture. Agriculture was obviously a tremendous invention. It made life better. It not only got people fed, it freed them up to do many more things, to create art and invent things, conquer other lands, what have you. So that was tremendously valuable, and it moved us forward, and it helped us evolve.
Of course, the technology of agriculture taken to an extreme where we have industrialized farms with little regard for the environment or animals or nourishment purely in the pursuit of profit. Or you look at a country full of people that have had such convenient access to calories that they're addicted and obese and sick. You think maybe convenience can be taken too far. There's certainly lots of examples with agriculture, with the industrial revolution of the inconvenient consequences of convenience. So what might that mean for the Internet?
Well, I don't think it means that convenience is bad. I love Uber. I love Google. I love Amazon. I love that all these things do free me up to do other things. I don't have to worry about lots of stuff. I love that those things are possible. But the convenience is only bad if we miss the point, if we miss that it's about nourishment and freeing people up and doing better and better things, and if we only focus on the clicks and the connections and the retweets and the likes for the sake of more and more connections. And I think that's easy to do if you come from a time when it seemed like anything that would be successful on the Internet would be a good thing because the Internet seemed like it had a bias toward good.
So the way I think about it now is just as there is still great artisanal, healthy, amazing food choices despite the industrialization of agriculture, there is the potential and reality of amazing, positive, good things coming from the Internet even though it's driving force is convenience. Because humans don't only have mundane desires. They have amazing desires. They have desires to make art and music and funny card games. And they have desire to help people and to do science. And the Internet makes all these things more possible too. And you look at Kickstarter and Change.org and Etsy and all these things are even using the power of the Internet to make it possible for people and individuals to compete against the conveniences that have been offered by mass manufacturing and capitalism. So if we don't lose the point, that's a very good thing.
And the Internet is still awesome. And after 20 years in cyberspace, today I think it is mundane because it's ubiquitous, but it's also powerful and now real unlike it was back then because it's ubiquitous. So let's go make it worthwhile.