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Steve Case: I Start My Day With Twitter

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The blogs and social networks were all a-twitter, if you will, chatting about the latest billionaire to donate the majority of their fortune to charity.

AOL Co-Founder Steve Case joins the ranks of Warren Buffett, Carl Icahn and Bill Gates as the tech titan announced he and his wife were joining The Giving Pledge. I caught up with Steve on the heels of his announcement and we dished on everything from philanthropy, the evolution of news gathering to the economy.

LL: You and your wife have a history of giving back. What made you decide now was the right time to join The Giving Pledge?

SC: Jean and I decided a long time ago, when we were in our thirties, to start a foundation and we created the Case Foundation in 1997. We decided to align with The Giving Pledge because we thought there was some value in taking public and reaffirming our commitment we made years ago (in an old BusinessWeek interview we talked about giving our money to charity), particularly thinking it would inspire other people to make a commitment.

It's not the size of the check you write. Rather its the impact and outcome. We thought it was a good group to figure out ways to compare notes and to get that type of collaboration and leverage.

LL: Every dollar does count. You don't have to be a millionaire or billionaire in order to make a difference with a contribution.

Steve Case
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Steve Case

SC: Exactly. We posted our statement on our site on and on The Giving Pledge and we tried to make that point. We recognize large gifts of a few really are trumped by the small gifts of many. One of the key focuses of the Case Foundation is to democratize philanthropy. Make it easier for people to give their time and money.

Things like America's Giving Challenge which we did through Facebook. Using social media to remind people we of course are proud to be a part of this group and we are blessed to have this level of resources and feel a certain responsibility to give back in a smart, constructive and impactful way, but we also want to celebrate the giving of millions of people and want to make sure that that message came across as well.

LL: More and more people and companies are using social media as an extention of their message. How are you seeing social media evolving?

SC: For me when we started AOL 25 years ago, what was then called "community" really was a killer app. We were kind of unique.

CompuServe, for example was mostly about information. Prodigy, backed by CBS and IBM , thought it was mostly about commerce. KnightRidder, which was doing Viewtron, thought it was mostly electronic newspapers.

Citibank was doing something mostly about home banking. We thought it was more about people interacting with each other to stay in touch better. We launched instant messaging, chat rooms, message boards. All those things that were designed to stimulate that sense of community.

That aspect has continued to evolve and social media like Facebook and Twitter really are just the latest manifestation of that. They are powerful because they have figured out ways on how to organize things.

Particularly looking at Facebook having 500 million users with a relatively clean and simple interface and providing just a core focus on building that community around your network of friends that has proven to be very valuable.

Twitter is different. Its more about sharing ideas and links you care about. It has evolved more. It is less about what you are doing at the moment which has some value although I think limited value. Its more about a network of friends or people you respect. You want follow them because the messages they are posting, which are the links they are sending you. Your twitter feed becomes a curated newspaper. Every morning I wake up and look at the Twitter Feed usually before I pick up the newspaper or go online to different websites. It''s a quick way to get a sense of what's happening, what kind of subjects are being discussed from people I know either personally or just have respect for.

LL: Twitter has definitely grown into a newsource. They even have a link on the Drudge Report. But despite all this, they have yet to figure out how to profit. Will this continue to be a challenge for them?

SC: I think its gong to be a challenge. I'm not saying they won't figure it out, but its going to be a challenge. It has always been a challenge. For instance, when we started integrating things at AOL 15 years ago, advertisers were reluctant to have their messages in areas where there was discussion. Whether it was chat rooms or instant messaging, that was less valuable real estate for advertising because that area was something that was not edited which while it is powerful for the users its scary for advertisers.

One of the reasons why Facebook has had some success (and I don't know what their current numbers are but my guess is they have well in excess of a billion dollars in advertising revenue) is because it's done in a smart, conceptual and personalized sort of way that makes it more relevant to the user and also more useful and productive for the advertiser.

So the social media starts with a challenge because people are more comfortable putting messages on essentially web pages where there has been some editing from a trusted brand, like CNBC, New York Times, or what have you.

They are more skeptical about the people powered aspects of the Internet but they are recognizing that more and more people are spending more and more time on these sites. So advertisers have to adjust their strategy and get out of their comfort zone and show more flexibility while at the same time, companies like a Facebook and Twitter, also have to flexible and strike the right balance for their users while also being good for advertisers so there is a reasonable path to monetization.

LL: Another big technology advancement are Apps. How can a company effectively use one to grow their business?

SC: I think the apps are very important. I think in some ways the apps are going to be more important than having website. Especially if they have a great app that resonates. I think it depends on the company and depends on the relationship that company has with their customers. The app has to do useful things for people in a habitual kind of way. A great example of that is Zipcar. Their app is terrific because it really allows people to use the Zipcar in a much more efficient way.

You could be walking down the street, pull out your cell phone and find out there is a car a block away, book it immediately and drive away. So it is a very powerful app because it is so closely tied together to that service.

But there are other apps that are in essence a form of advertising and not that compelling to consumers and I think those will struggle. I think with media apps, it is a mixed bag. Some have done a good job, others I think are going to have a hard time. They may get people to download the app but it will not necessarily become a habit. Instead, they will tend go to media aggregators. This is similar to what we saw in entertainment 30 years ago when the movie studios hoped people would subscribed to movie channels that were specific to the studios.

The Warner Bros. Channel and theParamount channel and so fourth. But instead, people gravitated toward the aggregators: HBO and Showtime. I think that's what's happening with some of the apps that do a good job from aggregated content from multiple sources.

That's not to say there are some stand alone apps, I think the Wall Street Journal has done a good job, TheNew York Times is getting better, there are some doing a really good job of it but I'm not sure there are that many consumers who are going to specifically make it a habit to go to a single source apps on a daily basis.

LL: The WikiLeaks story has put hackers back into the spot light.

What do you think of these "cyberanarchists" who are infiltrating companies like MasterCard as a form of revenge on WikiLeaks?

SC: In truth, this has been an issue for decades. This is not a new issue, but after WikiLeaks it has taken this battle more public. These battles are between companies trying to maintain their platforms, data integrity, privacy and so forth. These are battles that have been fought since the Internet came into being. We had dozens of people at AOL working full time on this issue trying to protect our system from hacker attacks.

LL: How would you characterize the economy right now based on what you are seeing from your companies?

SC: Its improving slowly. Whether it is Exclusive Resorts or Zipcar, or from the social commerce side with LivingSocial, there is a sense we've probably hit a bottom but we haven't really recovered in any meaningful way. We are seeing some glimmers of hope, Exclusive Resorts had a tough couple of years, but the last two to three months have been the best months in terms of sales in over two years. I think that is positive.

Also when you look at the entrepreneurial engine which is America—LivingSocial, didn't exist two years ago. It along with similar sites were created during the melt down. Now, this category has tens of millions of people, revenues in excess of a couple of billion dollars, I think that just shows you that even in a tough economy there are ways to break through and build significant companies.

Historically some of the greatest successes were started in the most difficult times. A lot of the silicon valley companies started in challenging times.

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A Senior Talent Producer at CNBC, and author of "Thriving in the New Economy:Lessons from Today's Top Business Minds."