Not How Twitter Can Change Health Care

Biz Stone started his HIMSS12 keynote by telling the audience that he was going to talk about a few personal stories and a few assumptions. Before anyone could silently groan at the thought of the co-founder of Twitter rattling off his assumptions about the health care industry, Stone quickly added that he wouldn’t do that.

“I didn’t actually want to get into the business of telling you what your business is,” he said.

Instead he stuck to what he knows and shared insights spanning from technology to art to community. Stone’s anecdotes describing how he started Twitter translated well to a health care conference because Twitter is fundamentally an altruistic service.

This isn’t obvious on the surface. Similarly, a lot of the products and services at HIMSS don’t have altruistic aims, but they’re made to improve health care — also a fundamentally altruistic service.

Stone explained that he first started believing in Twitter’s potential when he saw it mobilize people right in front of him. He was sitting in the middle of a lecture, and suddenly people got up to leave one by one as if there had been some announcement that told them it was time to move.

“But there had been no such announcement,” he said. “I realized that people were using Twitter on their mobile phones and on their laptops to communicate amongst one another silently that there was a lecture much more interesting happening across the hall.”

In this case, Twitter allowed people to disseminate information, act on it, and temporarily move as one. A similar phenomenon would happen on a much larger and graver scale during the Arab Spring last year when protestors used Twitter to organize demonstrations against oppressive regimes.

“That became sort of the mantra for me. That if Twitter was to be a triumph that it wasn’t to be a triumph of technology. It was to be triumph of humanity,” Stone said. “And that applies to most of technology.”

Another story Stone told had nothing to do with Twitter. He explained that when he was a kid he played lacrosse, but when he got older that sport didn’t exist at his high school. Unwilling to try something new and suck at it, Stone just decided to start his own lacrosse team. Naturally, he was was the best player. His takeaway: opportunity can be manufactured. You don’t have to sit around and wait for it.

“It’s so simple, but you don’t think of it that way. You always think of opportunity as coming along,” Stone said.

Stone wrapped up his keynote by laying out some assumptions he repeats at the Twitter office. In the mix were these two: assume that you don’t know what’s going to happen, and assume that you will win if you always do the right thing for your users.

During a Q&A, Stone was asked how Twitter can change health care. He didn’t look too comfortable answering the question, and so he reframed it to answer how social media and Google can influence health care. Personally, I don’t think Twitter can’t have an impact on health care, but I think it’s one of those things we have to assume we don’t know.

As I left the room on an inspired high I heard two men talking behind me. One of them said, “You know, that really affirmed for me what we’re doing …”

I was hoping he’d say that he, like Stone, felt that what he was doing was a triumph for humanity.

He continued, “The part about creating your own opportunity. I think we can do that.”

Ah well. Even though I know altruistic aims aren’t actually the first priority at HIMSS, I’ll continue to believe that millions of people are going to be affected for the better as a result of this shiny new tech.

Health 2.0