The social-media site valued as high as $13 billion was not all that long ago an idea bounced around among friends at a failing San Francisco start-up. In his book Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal, published in November, New York Times columnist Nick Bilton tells a riveting story of how Twitter became a phenomenon used by 100 million people a day, from celebrities communicating directly with fans to revolutionaries in Egypt and Iran. The men who launched the site in 2006 “didn’t have any concept of the magnitude” it would reach, says Bilton. The author tells DuJour the story of how Twitter came to be.
Why did you focus your book on the origin of Twitter?
When I started, I believed the story I’d heard about how Twitter was invented: by one young guy, Jack Dorsey. But as I set out to do my reporting, I realized it was completely different. There is this tendency in Silicon Valley to come up with a Creation Myth, the idea that something is created in a perfect way, but it never really happens that way. There’s fighting that goes on, there are ideas that come from other people’s ideas. The Twitter story is about four very flawed guys who accidently made this thing.
None of those four guys now runs Twitter. They were once such good friends, but trust broke down.
I think the thing that captured me in a way that I didn’t anticipate was that they all tried to find connections through technology, and while technology does help us reach other people, it doesn’t replace a human connection. When Noah Glass and Jack Dorsey have that moment talking in a car, and Noah has the epiphany that you could use this technology to be connected with people who aren’t there and feel less alone, that’s something we’re all familiar with. It’s something a lot of people struggle with.
Your book delves into those rivalries and how devastating the series of firings were. How easy was it to get the principals to talk?
That was the hardest part. At first people believed I was in one camp or another, and none of them wanted to talk. This book took hundreds of hours of interviews and finding documents and letter and tweets.
How did you come to the conclusion that co-founder Jack Dorsey seemed to be consciously modeling himself on Steve Jobs? That is one of the most incredible things in the book.
I’ve always been a big Jobs fan, although he was an incredibly flawed human being but also a brilliant one. I was a designer for years before I became a reporter, so I’d seen all of the Jobs videos with his philosophy on design and I remember most of those quotes. I saw Jack Dorsey give speeches and there were quotes that were just replicates. I listened to all his talks and picked out quotes that were too similar or too perfect for Jack to come up with. I would search for them and find they were things Jobs had said. There was also someone, I don’t know who, who put together a Tumblr blog doing the same thing. It was an open letter to Jack Dorsey telling him to stop being the next Steve Jobs. It was probably an Apple employee. We all tend to look to people and idolize them, especially in business, but it’s one thing to idolize someone and it’s something different to use their quotes and ideas.
Bottom line: was coming up with Twitter a case of the world’s best timing?
I think so. If Twitter had been invented two years earlier or two years later, it wouldn’t have worked. The timing was literally perfect.
But as you report in your book, in the first years the site itself didn’t work.
One of the founders said to me that Twitter succeeded in spite of itself. Part of its success is just luck. At the same time [co-founder] Biz Stone believes that the chaos at the beginning, the fact that it didn’t work all the time, drove the curious to want to explore what Twitter was even more.
Evan Williams’ commitment to a certain purity for Twitter, to not be bulled by political or commercial interests, seems crucial.
I agree. I think Evan Williams, Biz Stone and Jason Goldman all deserve major credit for that. They had this philosophy that went back to the Blogger days that it was push-button publishing for the people. They believed the Internet could give people a voice and it was for everyone equally. They set up this moral fence they would not cross.
Can that continue?
No. That’s my biggest worry with Twitter—all the people who were there in the early days and had all that influence are no longer there. Dick Costolo, who’s the CEO now, wants to be a good guy and make the world a better place. He also has a tremendous amount of pressure regarding the company going public. When Twitter’s being used in the next revolution and CNN calls to ask how they feel about it, the company won’t be able to say it doesn’t comment.
With the forthcoming IPO and the excitement, people are saying it’s 1999 all over again.
I have no doubt that Twitter will do fine in the IPO, but we’ll see about the other startups because some of them are just drastically overpriced and haven’t figured out how to make a dime. There are questions about whether Pinterest is worth $3.8 billion with zero dollars in revenue.
Some of the financial titans working on the Twitter IPO say they know it’s a phenomenon but they personally don’t understand it. That’s pretty wild.
Twitter’s challenge is not making money or what color the next logo will be. It’s figuring out how to get more people to use the service. Facebook makes sense for everyone, and Twitter makes sense for only some, with the @ symbols and hashtags. Their biggest challenge will be to grow.
This is an extension of an article published in DuJour’s Winter Issue, on newsstands in December.