Book review

‘Hatching Twitter’ is a revealing account of the social network’s founding

Updated: 2014-01-19T02:34:43Z


The Washington Post

Once upon a time, books about American inventor-founders were invariably reverential. Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel Morse and the Wright brothers were depicted as men who lived among us but were unlike us: geniuses with a practical vision, who could see a future that others could not.

The founder, moreover, was usually virtuous and patient, tolerating years of lonely experimentation before finally finding redemption. That’s decidedly not how the story is told in Nick Bilton’s captivating and fast-paced “Hatching Twitter.”

His book joins “The Accidental Billionaires” (Facebook) and “The Everything Store” (Amazon) as treatments of highly successful tech firms with far less veneration than was once traditional. The founders of Twitter — Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass and Christopher Stone — are, we find out, a collection of mediocrities, narcissists and mopers who seem to spend as much time on scheming, self-promotion and self-destruction as on anything else.

There is no founding genius in this story, for Twitter’s invention was not, in Bilton’s account, the kind of great leap forward one associates with the light bulb or the iPhone. In 2006, the four founders were working for a dying startup named Odeo when they launched Twitter as a side project and something of a Hail Mary pass.

Based on a brainstorming session, they decided to build a mobile-phone version of the “status updates” popularized by AOL. Twitter’s subsequent growth into a global publicity machine seems to have happened almost by accident, as users found purposes the founders never envisioned.

If there was a visionary moment, it might have been coming up with the name, chosen by Glass, who was later fired. Thinking about brain impulses led Glass to look up “twitch” in the dictionary; he kept going until he found “twitter,” described as “the light chirping sound made by certain birds,” which came with the verb form “to tweet.”

Nor is Twitter’s story one of elegant execution; at least as Bilton tells it, the company lurched from one operational fiasco to another. There is no particular reason to doubt the accuracy of his account, based as it is on extensive interviews with principals, each apparently eager to get his or her side of the story told. Yet Bilton makes Twitter’s founders seem so incompetent that one wonders how the company got anywhere.

If there is little sign of genius or invention in Bilton’s tale, there is even less of virtue. Schoolchildren were taught to revere Bell and Edison, but it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to emulate the Twitter founders, with the exception of the even-keeled Stone. As Bilton sees him, Glass is an erratic moper given to panicked screaming at work, drunken media leaks and hijacking of engineering time; he gets fired early.

Williams gets some credit for his free-speech principles and for hiring general counsel Alex Macgillivray, who resisted government intrusions and safeguarded Twitter’s role as a tool for dissidents. Yet Williams is also depicted as a slow and indecisive leader, who spends months debating whether to buy the Tweetdeck platform, costing the firm millions.

In this gossipy book — Bilton prefers personal drama and embarrassing stories to strategic or technological details — it is Dorsey who is cast as the book’s villain, a shameless schemer and desperate narcissist whose fame, Bilton suggests, is premised on deceptions.

As Twitter’s first chief executive, he is incompetent and inept — “like the gardener who became the president,” committing such basic operational errors as failing to ensure that the site had a backup. Given three months to prove himself, Dorsey, instead of fixing constantly crashing servers, decides to invest in a fancy 2008 election website.

He is fired and demoted to “passive chairman.” But instead of retreating, he starts a whisper campaign to destroy Williams, the new chief executive. Relying on the gullibility of the tech press, he credits himself as Twitter’s sole “founder, inventor, architect and creator” and later instigates a media campaign to have himself considered “the next Steve Jobs.”

Bilton has said in an interview that he was among those duped by Dorsey’s “sole inventor” fable, which may in part explain why his account is so damning. This time, Bilton seems determined to set the record straight.

The strength of his book is that it does an excellent job of depicting the emotional atmosphere at West Coast startups: a cycle of exhilaration and hopelessness shadowed by the persistent fear of missing out.

The painful dying days of Odeo, marked by constant firings, are well contrasted with the giddiness as Twitter gains users, wins awards and suddenly has the Russian president and Snoop Dogg hanging out at its headquarters.

As for missing out, pity poor Glass, who, after being fired in 2006, cannot escape hearing about the company he named or the billions his old friends made. In comparison, Sisyphus got off easy.

In the end, Bilton’s book does a service. In a society that idolizes tech founders, it is healthy to be reminded that they are so often ordinary young men who just happened to be the ones pulling the lever when three bars came up.

Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School and the author of “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.”

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