‘Hatching Twitter’ is a Silicon Valley drama of feuding founders
The first time I saw a man killed in front of me, I tweeted about it.
I was a freelancer, covering a street battle in Cairo two years ago, and Twitter was the only means of publication immediately available. I wasn’t getting paid, but my duty was to get the news out, so I got the news out on Twitter, instantly.
During the Arab uprisings in 2011, the power of corporate-sponsored free expression was exhilarating, but I now wonder what we’ve given up to have it.
The ability to share anything at any time without permission to a potentially limitless audience has now made Twitter one of the most important companies in the world. Tweets have brought down Congress members and made nobodies famous. A well-tended feed breaks news faster than any other medium.
Yet Twitter’s success is only the latest chapter of Silicon Valley’s most radical and least-understood story: The mass accumulation of public expression by private companies, a free-speech land grab that will make a few people incredibly wealthy at a cost none of us yet understands.
New York Times tech columnist Nick Bilton’s new book, “Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal,” offers an inside account of the Silicon Valley screw-ups who stumbled, bickered and betrayed their way into creating a media empire.
Twitter was first born in 2006 after its creators’ previous company, the podcasting service Odeo, was instantly wiped out when Apple decided to add a similar feature to iTunes.
Bilton’s book pegs the light-bulb moment to a drunken exchange between Odeo employees Jack Dorsey and Noah Glass as they are mourning Odeo’s demise. Both men would help develop the idea for Twitter but did not survive its growth, which is where “Hatching Twitter” draws much of its drama.
Glass, depicted as a lovable loser in search of human connection, would be ejected over creative differences and largely scrubbed from Twitter’s official history. Dorsey became Twitter’s first CEO but did such a poor job that he also got forced out.
Though much of “Hatching Twitter” is hobbled by weak anecdotes and schlocky metaphors, the book is carried by Bilton’s excruciating account of Dorsey’s evolution.
First, Dorsey is a willowy eccentric with an inappropriate romantic fixation on a co-worker. Next, he’s demoted to powerless figurehead. Then, Dorsey starts massaging his image with every reporter who will listen; he starts calling himself Twitter’s “inventor,” creepily repatterns his speech after Steve Jobs and fumes to Barbara Walters about being left off Time magazine’s 100 most influential people list.
Ultimately, Dorsey’s successful comeback to the company happens by way of a boardroom coup against co-founder and former friend Evan Williams.
“I invented Twitter,” Dorsey protests to Williams before the coup in one of the book’s most compelling passages.
“No, you didn’t invent Twitter,” Williams replied, adding that nor did he. “People don’t invent things on the Internet. They simply expand on an idea that already exists.”
All the Dorsey drama is irresistible, but this exchange contains the book’s most important message: Twitter is an authorless text.
Throughout “Hatching Twitter,” Bilton frames the service’s development as a competition between Dorsey’s vision of Twitter as a status-update service and Williams’ concept of a unique news platform. But this is the Great Man version of Twitter’s history.
In reality it was Twitter users, not the founders, who informally invented the use of @ symbols, the hashtag and the retweet, the service’s three most powerful functions.
The company’s real managerial success appears to have come from channeling users’ creative energies and formalizing their habits. It’s worth dwelling on what would have happened if Bilton had written a people’s history of Twitter rather than another get-rich-and-crush-your-friends story.
Much of social media has grown by leaps and bounds by offering ostensibly free services that exploit users in more subtle ways — either by quietly collecting and reselling user data or by claiming licensing rights to user content that can then be republished or resold without royalties.
Just look at the telling array of verbs in a portion of Twitter’s terms of service, in which users grant Twitter “a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).”
Twitter hasn’t even become profitable. What happens when Twitter goes public and simply selling ads doesn’t make investors happy enough? What kind of data can be mined from its users and resold? Twitter’s servers already automatically store private information such as log data that includes users’ physical location. And those records are held on private servers, whose contents are also vulnerable to government arm-twisting.
When a New York judge forced a resistant Twitter to hand over data on an Occupy Wall Street protester for a criminal prosecution in a disorderly conduct case connected to a political demonstration, the judge noted that Twitter, not the user, held his tweets; the record of his speech was a piece of property he no longer owned.
Twitter has been a model service among Silicon Valley companies for its defense of users’ rights and free expression but has already shown that it will dethrone any executive that gets in the way of expansion. Can the company handle the power as it faces the pressures of profit-making?
Throughout “Hatching Twitter” co-founder Biz Stone, treated as the company’s moral conscience, insists that Twitter remain a “neutral technology,” which is, of course, impossible. The old rap on traditional journalism is that the posture of impartiality actually conceals hidden biases: a symbiotic relationship with the government, a deep-seated acceptance of the status quo.
During the Iranian protests in 2009, when the U.S. State Department urged Twitter to put off service maintenance during a planned protest, Stone remarks, “We don’t know who the good guys are or who the bad guys are,” then adds, “Wait, are there any good guys?”
Good question. In either case, Twitter did as the State Department asked.
A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal
Portfolio: 304 pp., $28.95
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