Did The Roots Of AgTech Help Launch Twitter?

Margy Eckelkamp ( Lori Hays/Farm Journal )

It seems we can all be connected via a big web of gravel roads, and thanks to one person who grew up on a Nebraska farm we can also all be connected via Twitter. 

Ev Williams is one of the four Twitter co-founders, which also include Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey and Noah Glass. 

Williams grew up near Clarks, Nebraska (at the time the population was less than 500) and lived on the family’s farm until his senior year of high school. 

He said his earliest memory of connectivity on the farm was having a four digit phone number. 
In the mid-80s, he remembers his dad got an IBM computer to use for the farm, specifically for business-related spreadsheets. Williams says he was completely intrigued and read the manual of the computer to try to figure out how to do more with the machine beyond the farm-related software. 

As a sophomore in high school, his rural school had a computer lab and he learned basic programming. His class size was reported to be 14 students.

He went on to attend University of Nebraska-Lincoln (and pledged Farmhouse fraternity), but he never declared a major and left the university after a year and a half. 

He returned to the UNL campus in 2009 to take part in a series of student-focused campus events.

And in May 2017 he received an honorary doctoral degree, so he became the seventh in his immediate family to receive a degree from UNL.

At the same time as receiving the honorary degree, he gave a commencement speech in front of 2,005 graduates.

That commencement speech provides some insights into how his Nebraska roots really launched his future, and how he views rural America today. Here are some of its quotes: 

  • “I don’t feel like a Silicon Valley guy, especially being around here. I have fond memories of growing up on the farm. I’m proud to be from here. But I always felt different than those around me.”
  • “It turns out, the internet is not a silver bullet, it's just a tool, kind of like the two-way radios we used to use back on the farm, just with a little broader range. It's a tool that reflects us. It's just as good or as bad as we are but despite this, or actually because of it, I'm an optimist.”
  • “There's no such thing as a flyover state anymore. You're just as connected as anyone else.”
  • “I know you're just as smart and as Nebraskans, you actually have some advantages: realness, resilience, and fairness are values we were probably all raised with and in my experience, they go a long way in the real world.”

As Williams said in the commencement speech and other interviews, he felt different than those around him growing up. As direct comparisons, it’s reported his dad (Monte) and brother (Lincoln) still have 100 acres and like to hunt with taxidermy proudly on display at their house.

Ev, on the other hand, has been he’s been a vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian for more than 20 years and as a side note is an investor in plant-based protein maker Beyond Meat. 

As he said in one interview about his childhood, “Looking around me, I think I did not want to be like most of the people I saw. I was always looking for a way out, to be different, to be exceptional.”

Ev Williams on a combine
Ev Williams posted this photo on his publishing platform, Medium.

After leaving UNL, in 1994, Williams started his first internet company in Lincoln. By 1997, he was 24 and had moved to California.

He’d go on to be a co-founder of Pyra Labs (which included the blog platform Blogger), work at Google, co-founded two other startups in Odeo and Obvious Corp., and in 2006 he was part of the team that launched Twitter.  He was the company’s CEO from 2008 to 2010, and he is still on the board of directors.

Most recently, he launched Medium in 2012, which is an online publishing platform. He’s still a partner at Obvious Ventures as well.

In a 2016 interview, a journalist suggests that that Medium is trying to be the Whole Foods of content. He laughed, and said, “Maybe we are. Not that Whole Foods is perfect, and we’re not perfect either, but we are trying to figure out how to optimize for satisfaction and nourishment, not just activity or calories.”

It’s an interesting trajectory from Clarks, Nebraska to Silicon Valley for Ev Williams.