The distillation of one human life into a few hundred pages is a task herculean enough to trip up even seasoned biographers. Expanding that to include four co-founders and a company with as explosive a history as Twitter’s is begging for disaster.
A new book called Hatching Twitter: A True Story Of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal, from New York Times reporter Nick Bilton attempts to do just that. It’s around 300 pages and packs in the nearly seven-year history of Twitter as a company and a bit more.
The introduction rips along, introducing us to the four people most responsible for Twitter: Noah Glass, Evan Williams, Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey.
A quick portrait of each of them is painted, albeit in fairly broad strokes. All talented, all intelligent, all searching for human connections and a way to enhance those connections using the Internet.
Bilton is also careful to note in his introduction that when he attributes emotional states or thoughts to the subjects within, they’re based on things told to him directly by those subjects. This is an interesting inclusion, in light of the recent controversy over Brad Stone’s approach in his book The Everything Store, on Amazon. Stone was criticized by CEO Jeff Bezos’ wife MacKenzie for attributing emotional states to Bezos which he was not privy to. Stone notes in his book that he was denied a direct interview for the book by Bezos.
The Twitter story would be a lot less rich without the scene setting and insight that this close third-person narrative brings. The efforts taken to nail down details like clothing brands, decorations of offices and locations all add to the enjoyable picture that’s painted.
One of the most interesting aspects of Bilton’s book is how he used social media to piece together the goings-on of the founders and other employees of Twitter.
The triangulation of these various bits of public record isn’t exactly new, as it’s a technique that journalists and writers (hi) use quite a bit now. But it takes on an especial poignancy when the subjects themselves posted corroborating details to a network that they helped construct.
“I found it fascinating that I could piece together the interviews with dates of tweets and blog posts and then Flickr and Facebook pics, and in some instances YouTube videos,” Bilton told me. “It was as if the people in the book helped write it, too.”
The book contains plenty of fodder for those interested in corporate machinations. Williams is positioned as a sympathetic, but driven serial entrepreneur that continues to learn hard lessons about the control you give up when outside investment is taken. After forcing Dorsey out of the CEO slot and into a silent Chairman role, Williams is himself deposed for a CEO more equipped to take the company to IPO.
From what I’ve heard from early Twitter employees, the credit given Williams in the book is well deserved, if not light. At every turn he treated employees and investors with respect and was the first to see Dorsey as something more than a quiet engineer. Bilton continuously points out his willingness to help out friends and co-workers financially as well, with no desire for return.
Glass, as much a part of the early genesis of Twitter as any other of the four, finally gets a fair share of the limelight. He’s credited with naming the company and product, and with helping to define some of its core concepts.
Biz Stone is the Jiminy Cricket of this particular production, acting as a conscience for both the company and its investors. He’s positioned as an early advocate for user protection and data privacy, as well as a fierce protector of his friend Williams.
Dorsey, of all of the original founders, gets the roughest treatment in the text.
His part in the removal of Noah Glass from the company, and his willingness for Williams to take the blame is used to set the stage for a series of apparent machinations designed to position himself as the sole inventor of Twitter, and to place him back in control of the company. There is too much evidence here to discount the way that Dorsey has been portrayed altogether. Indeed, the trail of public appearances and documents that make up Dorsey’s time as ‘silent Chairman’ clearly indicate that he made no efforts to disabuse people of the notion that he, alone, was responsible for Twitter.
His transformation from a quiet scruffy hacker to a carefully coiffed ‘auteur’ founder is treated as nothing more than artifice. Everything from his choice of shirt to lack of furniture to his fixation on Steve Jobs as role model is interpreted less as a personal transformation and more as an effort to build on this creation myth. In a culture like Silicon Valley, where so much value is placed on re-invention and the importance of design, why is it so outlandish for a man to re-design himself?
The facts of the situation are well documented, and Bilton’s book refrains from passing judgement for the most part. Still, there is plenty of room for other facets of this story and I’d love to see those explored.
But the book handles almost every aspect of Twitter’s founding with what appears to be a fairly even-handed approach. There will doubtless be many small inaccuracies (which may be interpreted to hold varying levels of importance by those actually involved) in the book, but the evidence and perspective set forth for all of the major events speaks of an intense amount of research, and solid insights throughout.
Thankfully, Bilton handles one of the most important questions very well: who actually created Twitter?
Despite what Dorsey was implicitly pushing all of those months, there was no sole creator of Twitter. Dorsey’s core status concept was far from the way that Twitter ended up, and it owed a debt to many earlier experiments like the ad-hoc text-message network TXTmob created by Evan ‘Rabble’ Henshaw-Plath, and the ‘portable Blogger’ concept Stone had worked on at Google. And without Williams’ insistence that it was about broadcasting ‘what was happening’, not ‘what people were doing’, the focus would have remained insular. Stone offered a moral core that set the tone for future legal positions on giving up user data. And without Glass, the company may never have existed or moved beyond a hack day project at all.
And, in the end, without Costolo – pictured as a no-nonsense and very well-liked leader – Twitter would likely not yet be going public, if ever.
The truth behind Twitter, as it is with any human life – or human endeavor – is massively complex. Bilton’s book is a fantastic, well written and well-researched narrative of the invention of Twitter, but it’s only one narrative. There are other stories out there, other truths about Twitter. Each of the founders no doubt has their own, and some have told it in one fashion or another over the years, and will likely do so again.
And really, who are we to disagree? We’re all inventing ourselves, writing our own stories. Twitter’s story gets an intense examination here, and it’s interpreted through dramatic set pieces of boardroom drama, motivational signs, clothing-as-personality-trait and infighting. Though it’s only one version of the truth, It’s a fantastic read, and worth absorbing for yourself.