Esther Dyson: Twitter and spreading genes

Bambi Francisco Roizen · December 17, 2008 · Short URL:

The drive to micro-blog and be ubiquitous is the same desire to mate

How has the Internet changed the way we behave? In many ways, it's emulating our instinct to mate. 

If you ask this question long enough, someone, like Esther Dyson, is sure to come up with an observation that's not often raised.

"What really fascinates me is the evolution, sex, genetics... life produces itself and spreads genes," Dyson expounded, in one of our many interviews on VatorNews. In this segment, Dyson shares her thoughts on how society is changing their behavior online. "We have our intense urge to spread our genes. You're seeing the same thing, but with information. People have this intense desire to be everywhere. It's the same urge to be ubiquitous and present."

Dyson was responding to my question about the side-effect of Twitter, and the constant updating it's ushering in. (See's announcement of its new micro-blogging product)

We also touched on how the Internet is changing the way 5-year-olds will interact once they become adults.

"One of the big changes was back 200 years ago," she said. "Kids hung out with grownups." During those times, children were treated as children in an adult world. "Then 100 years later, there’s a separate children’s world... A different children’s culture." Basically, children, who once spent most of their time with adults started cultivating their own worlds, and just observed adults, she explained.

This has all changed today. Children and adults share the same online world, whereby children can be treated with the same respect as an adult.  "Now, a 7-yr-old can play scrabble with a 30-yr old guy or talk biology. You can have a kid lead a World of Warcraft team," she said. At the same time, as children grow up online, adults have become more playful, she added.

I asked Dyson about whether the Internet is far more transparent than we had initially thought, reversing the original conceit of the Web. I based this question on a NYTimes article, which it was written: "When cyber space came a long, it was celebrated as a place to reinvent your identity. You can become someone new. But actually you can’t play with your identity if your audience is always checking on you.” 

Dyson disagreed with the post. “It’s a medium for truth, but it’s also a medium for lies,” she said. “I can create a fictitious or enhanced self on MySpace or Facebook, you can argue that that’s really my self, I was just not able to realize it. 

“It’s my projection of myself. The Internet is a place to establish a presence. Who’s to say the presence I create – the conceits I invent - are or not the real me anymore than the face I present at cocktail parties.”

The bottom line is that the Internet accentuates the power of people to reinvent themselves.

In this interview, Dyson talks about how the Internet is changing our behavior online.

Here are some highlights:

1) While the Internet has definitely enabled us to interact with more people without having to meet them, one-to-one interaction is even "more valuable than ever," she said. "We were talking about the fact that there’s so many conferences. If online and video conferencing were as good as being in a conference, we wouldn’t have it [offline conferences]." Getting a poke on Facebook just isn't the same as the attention you get when sitting next to someone. 

2) As for a big social change, Dyson said the biggest difference is the power shift. "You can operate a business as a single person," she said. "We can speak back to power and companies have to listen to us." Of course, there's still humility in our days, such as going to the airport and getting treated like garbage, she pointed out.

3) Dyson said because of the transparency, there's a lot less hypocrisy, but "people behaving badly" is more accepted. It's a "pity," she said. "It would be nice to have good behavior to aspire to."

4) The NYTimes article said: "Ambient intimacy can seem like modern narcissism taken to a metabolic extreme." I asked Dyson if there was going to be a backlash? She said there will be. "People have different levels of tolerance. It’s all these things have kind of benign level, and addictive and excessive level… because they’re so cheap… it’s pretty easy to get addicted to Twitter. It’s not easy to get addicted to caviar."

5) Who's going to be the next Bill Gates? I asked. "I don’t think you’ll see the industry as centralized and monolithic in the age of Bill Gates. Certainly, there are Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey and Larry, Google isn’t the end of history. Maybe Anne and Linda will be the next… [referring to the two founders of 23andMe, of which Dyson is an investor and board member). There will always be iconic figures. But the center of interest may be healthcare or elsewhere beyond the Internet... It’s no longer white boys from Iowa or white boys from Harvard.”


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Bambi Francisco Roizen

Founder and CEO of Vator, a media and research firm for entrepreneurs and investors; Managing Director of Vator Health Fund; Co-Founder of Invent Health; Author and award-winning journalist.

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23andMe is a web-based service that helps you read and understand your DNA. After providing a saliva sample using an at-home kit, you can use our interactive tools to shed new light on your distant ancestors, your close family and most of all, yourself.



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What is Twitter?

Twitter is an online information network that allows anyone with an account to post 140 character messages, called tweets. It is free to sign up. Users then follow other accounts which they are interested in, and view the tweets of everyone they follow in their "timeline." Most Twitter accounts are public, where one does not need to approve a request to follow, or need to follow back. This makes Twitter a powerful "one to many" broadcast platform where individuals, companies or organizations can reach millions of followers with a single message. Twitter is accessible from, our mobile website, SMS, our mobile apps for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, our iPad application, or 3rd party clients built by outside developers using our API. Twitter accounts can also be private, where the owner must approve follower requests. 

Where did the idea for Twitter come from?

Twitter started as an internal project within the podcasting company Odeo. Jack Dorsey, and engineer, had long been interested in status updates. Jack developed the idea, along with Biz Stone, and the first prototype was built in two weeks in March 2006 and launched publicly in August of 2006. The service grew popular very quickly and it soon made sense for Twitter to move outside of Odea. In May 2007, Twitter Inc was founded.

How is Twitter built?

Our engineering team works with a web application framework called Ruby on Rails. We all work on Apple computers except for testing purposes. 

We built Twitter using Ruby on Rails because it allows us to work quickly and easily--our team likes to deploy features and changes multiple times per day. Rails provides skeleton code frameworks so we don't have to re-invent the wheel every time we want to add something simple like a sign in form or a picture upload feature.

How do you make money from Twitter?

There are a few ways that Twitter makes money. We have licensing deals in place with Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft's Bing to give them access to the "firehose" - a stream of tweets so that they can more easily incorporate those tweets into their search results.

In Summer 2010, we launched our Promoted Tweets product. Promoted Tweets are a special kind of tweet which appear at the top of search results within, if a company has bid on that keyword. Unlike search results in search engines, Promoted Tweets are normal tweets from a business, so they are as interactive as any other tweet - you can @reply, favorite or retweet a Promoted Tweet. 

At the same time, we launched Promoted Trends, where companies can place a trend (clearly marked Promoted) within Twitter's Trending Topics. These are especially effective for upcoming launches, like a movie or album release.

Lastly, we started a Twitter account called @earlybird where we partner with other companies to provide users with a special, short-term deal. For example, we partnered with Virgin America for a special day of fares on that were only accessible through the link in the @earlybird tweet.


What's next for Twitter?

We continue to focus on building a product that provides value for users. 

We're building Twitter, Inc into a successful, revenue-generating company that attracts world-class talent with an inspiring culture and attitude towards doing business.


Esther Dyson

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Executive Founder, Wellville; Angel investor