By Denise Montgomery
In a social media universe where it sometimes seems that everybody is sharing every bite, sip, jog, quip, tune, or clip, it’s easy to conclude that we may be witnessing the death of privacy. But one Silicon Valley CEO — the founder of not one, but two of the top 10 most successful internet companies of all time — has managed to preserve an aura of genuine mystique around himself, even while the rest of the planet seems packed with over-sharers.
Evan Williams, along with a small handful of close collaborators, is an “accidental billionaire” twice over. Blogger and Twitter, two of the most ubiquitous brands in social media, are his brainchildren.
“Starting a company,” he wrote on his personal blog (evhead.com) in 2008, “is like landing on the shore of a deserted island. You have a certain amount of provisions, which you have to make last until you find a way to make the island sustain life — or convince someone to send you more. You don't know how big the island is at first or what predators lie in wait. There's always a chance someone else will raid your island if it looks fruitful, so you need to shore up your defenses. Eventually, if you're successful, you'll be king of your own prosperous world. If not, you'll die — or, at least, have to go home. Either way, it's a fun adventure (until you get eaten by a tiger).”
Williams and other internet luminaries will offer guided tours of such islands at a gathering of visionaries being brought together by The Atlantic Media Company and UC San Diego Extension this fall. The October 17-19 “The Atlantic Meets the Pacific” event will feature three days of provocative conversations exploring new frontiers in science, medicine, art, technology and energy.
In 2010, Williams identified what he perceives to be a key problem for online services as the era of information continues to emerge: “There’s too much stuff.” In an interview with his long-time friend Om Malik (Gigaom.com), Williams shared his observations about the need for social media simplicity. “It seems to me that almost all tools we rely on to manage information weren’t designed for a world of infinite info…(When) Google came in[,] there was too much to browse on the web. We are thinking the same way about Twitter. Twitter itself isn’t designed for this world of infinite information. I want Twitter to be an antidote to infinite information, not a cause of it.”
Unlike many famous founders like Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Williams has kept an intentionally low profile in each of his entrepreneurial endeavors. While he is frequently honored by industry media, he has worked largely out of the spotlight for more than a decade, which is what makes his public appearance at The Atlantic Meets The Pacific particularly intriguing.
Writing on his personal blog on the day he announced he would be stepping aside from everyday operations at the second wildly successful company he co-founded, Williams said, “…Now that Twitter is in capable hands that aren't mine, it’s time to pick up a whiteboard marker and think fresh. There are other problems/opportunities in the world that need attention, and there are other individuals I’d love to get the opportunity to work with and learn from. (Details to come.)”
A select handful of Atlantic Meets The Pacific attendees may well be the first to learn what Williams’ new picture may look like. If he stays true to his chosen metaphor, however, it’s safe to assume that image will involve beaches, sand, and water.
“In the beginning, [the web] was like a million little islands, some of them were bigger islands,” Williams told Malik in 2010. “If you create something on the web, you’re your own island and you try to get people to visit your island…On the mobile phone, you don’t have your own island. You’re renting land. It’s a good deal because there’s infrastructure provided (like moving into full service condo).”
In addition to an editor interviewing Williams, The Atlantic editor James Bennet will interview Deepak Chopra and Caltech physicist and Leonard Mlodinow, a recent collaborator with Stephen Hawking.
For many years the Atlantic Media Company and The Atlantic, along with the Aspen Institute, have annually gathered the nation's intellectual leaders to discuss the ideas and trends shaping American’s future as part of the Aspen ideas Festival and the Washington Ideas Forum. The Atlantic Meets the Pacific expands upon that tradition.