Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton is a curious and perhaps necessary book. In his introduction, Bilton reminds us that “history is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” Although Twitter the company didn’t let Bilton in the door, he conducted sixty-five hours of interviews with current and former board members, the four Twitter founders, and many more, on and off the record. The author found, as do most historians, that people remember past events differently. Bilton does his best to triangulate various events, using social media in the process to even out discrepancies. The tweets, videos, and photos shared over a decade substantiated the basic narrative.
I am writing this the day after the Academy Awards, during which host Ellen DeGeneres took out her Samsung Galaxy Note 3—a sponsor-- for a “selfie” with a group of celebrities. Her post has been retweeted about three million times, almost bringing Twitter to its knees and wiping our President Obama’s election retweet record. All in all, this was another night at the office. Ms. Ellen used her Galaxy on a number of occasions to tweet photos of other celebrities. Media folks call sponsored advertising that seems intrinsic to an event or brand, native advertising, as if it’s been there all along in plain sight. Who can imagine the Academy Awards without Twitter?
Hatching Twitter offers abundant evidence that this solipsistic Oscar celebration was by no means inevitable. I am not simply referring to the fits and starts associated with a startup, the lack of capital, or even the internal spats, Silicon Valley style, that inevitably bubbles up in that basement apartment or adjacent garage. The drama that engulfed the four Twitter founders, Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Noah Glass, was marked by intrigue, revenge, betrayal, and mendacity. Jack Dorsey could play a mean Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. Other playwrights can accommodate the rest.
Just how does one organize a book about a bunch of really smart, childish adults who write code and act spoiled? Bilton’s answer to my hypothetical appears to be in his choice of a dramatic structure for his book, starting with the ouster of Evan in a board coup on October 4, 2010, led by Jack Dorsey. In a way, this is a smart choice because we already know, more or less, how the story ends. The intrigue is presumably in the early chapters where the restless psyches of the founders are fully on display. That said, there is still something surreal about this book, as we are taken inside the heads and psychologies of the major players, as we would expect in a novel. In a way, this approach is in keeping with the main narrative. There is something surreal and improbably about the launching of Twitter. One can never know too much.
The seeds for Twitter were appropriately sown in or near San Francisco on the heels of the dot com collapse. Evan Williams launched Blogger, push-button publishing for the people, which he sold to Google in 2003, for millions. At this time, Noah Glass, who was working with Evan on an audio extension of the Blogger, turned Audblog into a separate startup. Evan would launch Odeo, a pod-casting startup with decent financial backing. By 2005, the four founders were all involved in Odeo and the squabbling had already begun, especially between Ev and Noah.
Who invented Twitter is a discussion worthy of a book such as Hatching Twitter. Twitter, like success, seems to have many fathers. By Bilton’s account, Jack and Noah, though not in parallel, souring on the prospects for Odeo, began thinking about other business. Jack has apparently been thinking about a “status update” since 2000 when he used a blogging service called LiveJournal. On a primitive level, the status update was in the air. According to Bilton, Noah took the concept to another level: “This status thing could help connect people to those who weren’t there. It wasn’t just sharing what kind of music you were listening to or where you were at the moment; it was about connecting people and making them feel less lonely.”
Ev raised the prospect of Odeo becoming a messaging platform. Biz Stone, who came from Google, had been obsessed with the idea of a “Phone-ternet” for particular communities. The status-thing was getting everyone’s attention. Names like Smssy, Friendstalker, Twitch, Twit, Twitchy were banded around until Noah stumbled across the word to describe the light chirping sound made by certain birds. Twitter was it. The rough, self-conscious tweets began. The internecine struggles would soon follow, with Ev forcing Noah out over management issues.
Existential questions about Twitter remained. What exactly was this business? Jack saw it as a place to say: “What am I doing?” Ev saw Twitter as a mini-blogging product. The 2007 San Francisco earthquake brought some clarity to this question. By this time, 15,000 tweets had been sent, all about status. Sharing the quake on Twitter suggested the platform would also be about a status larger than the individual self. That conversation would continue. While Twitter debated the matter, the outside world used the service in all sorts of adventurous ways, including for hard news, celebrity chatter, fake personas, politics, police scanners and so on. Twitter would become whatever we say it is.
By the time Yahoo knocked on Twitter’s door the service had almost 250,000 active users. The joke around the Twitter offices is that the company should take no less than $100 million. Yahoo offered $12 million, since Twitter was simply a messaging service. And Yahoo could replicate that. That’s the oldest negotiating trick in the book. Twitter would seek venture funding.
Twitter suffered the growing pains many startups endure: lack of strategic direction and focus, tension among management, burn rates, technical issues (servers crashing) and liquidity. This time, the axe fell on Jack, who at the time was trying to make a separate peace with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. That didn’t work out nor did Zuckerberg’s attempt to buy Twitter. The Facebook CEO would have a long memory.
Nick Bolton devotes considerable space to the psychological pain suffered by the founders who were fired or demoted. He seems to give disproportionate attention to Noah and Jack in a manner I thought bordered on bathos. I’m not sure I wanted to go so deep into their loneliness, whether it was well-reported or not. Most of the individuals who were displaced were financially well-off. My heart doesn’t beat any faster learning that in the early days Biz Stone and his wife had to raid their piggy bank, or how Noah and wife have a baby, or about Ev’s rumination or parenting, or Jack dressing and sounding like Steve Jobs.
The founders launched a very successful company and were as ruthless, venial, cutthroat, confused and savage, as many who have come before them. It’s always about the money, the power and bragging rights. A ten-page coda at the end of a very enjoyable book seems an unnecessary and pious redemption.
The trouble with writing a book about a startup, especially a remarkable one like Twitter, is that the book is inevitably going to be all prologue. Success can cancel out even the most delicious narrative.
Just ask Jack Dorsey.