Chaos Theory: An Interview with Nick Bilton About "Hatching Twitter"
By Shaun RandolDecember 3, 2013
The story revolves around four founding members: Evan “Ev” Williams (@Ev), Nebraska farm boy-turned-inventor of Blogger (and the word “blog”); Jack Dorsey (@Jack), newly minted billionaire and wannabe Steve Jobs; Christopher “Biz” Stone (@Biz), the diplomat; and Noah Glass (@Noah), the shy forgotten founder. Today, Twitter is run by Dick Costolo, a 50-year-old former comedian. How did this come to be?
I spoke with Bilton over the phone, two days before Twitter went public and became the latest multi-billion dollar tech company to plant its flag on Wall Street. We spoke about Twitter’s chaotic beginnings, the cultural impact of the social media giant, and why Bilton learned how to write thriller novels.
Shaun Randol: Has Twitter changed the world?
Nick Bilton: It absolutely has. Look at how it’s used today: you have the Pope, you have the presidents of Iran and the US responding to each other on Twitter. You have revolution on Twitter. It’s had a huge impact on pretty much everything that we touch, one way or another.
SR: When did you first hear about Twitter and then when did you start using it?
NB: I first heard about Twitter in late 2006 or so, but I didn’t start using it until 2007. A friend and coworker of mine at The New York Times went to the SXSW festival. He came back and said, “You gotta check out this Twitter thing.” We spent most of the meeting joking around about the name, about how ridiculous and silly it sounded. But it was also very catchy.
But we started using it. I went back and looked at my old tweets, and the first few tweets were of me having a conversation with my friend. We weren’t using @ symbols or anything like that, because we weren’t following anyone else. It was just the two of us, almost like a chat service.
But it took me a long time to really understand the importance of the media aspect of it.
SR: What is that importance? Getting your story out?
NB: For me it’s getting my story out, but it’s more than that. It’s engaging with readers. Twitter is just a different kind of printing press.
What’s amazing is that in the past you would have reporters go to an event when it happened and they would report it. Now you have people that are essentially stringers for those reporters at these events. When the plane crashed at the San Francisco airport earlier this year, while it was a reporter that wrote the story, the initial people that were on the scene were the people that were on that plane. They were tweeting images and updating us as to what was happening. That is a drastic change that I never anticipated.
SR: Can you speak about writing a narrative using at least four competing memories?
NB: There were over 100 competing memories. Everyone has a different viewpoint of what happened. I interviewed not only the founders and the board members; I interviewed also the people who worked there in the early days, their spouses, their ex-spouses, ex-girlfriends, and ex-boyfriends. I found people who worked at nearby coffee shops. I spoke with anyone who I could have a conversation with.
What I found the most fascinating was that I could go back to social media and use that in my reporting. For example: There’s a moment in the book when Twitter launches at the Love Parade, a rave in San Francisco. Everyone I spoke to believed it happened in June or July, or the beginning of summer. I looked up the Love Parade online and discovered it was in September. So then I went through and searched Jack’s tweets and those of other people from that time, and I ended up finding references of them at the Love Parade in September. Their memories believed it was the beginning of the summer, but they had actually documented it was the end of the summer.
That was the moment I realized that I could use these tweets and social media as a reporting tool for this book. There was a treasure trove of stuff that existed online, whether it was tweets, Flickr photos, videos on YouTube, Facebook updates, or Foursquare updates. These things existed everywhere and allowed me to pinpoint almost with exact accuracy where people were at certain points in time. I was able to untangle all of the somewhat different memories.
SR: There are significant implications of leaving that digital breadcrumb.
NB: Yes. If you want to write a book about me and I won’t let you interview me, you could potentially say what I was doing at certain points in time just by looking at my social media feeds: Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter. For this book, I had access to thousands of emails and other documents, but there were certain events that I could find via social media. The places people had gone. Videos of boat trips they took. Writing and reporting this story was a real eye-opening experience.
SR: I’m reminded of Gay Talese’s famous portrait of Frank Sinatra, “Frank Sinatra has a Cold,” in which a vivid portrait of the singer was drawn without ever speaking to him.
NB: That’s the piece that everyone attains to when they write a story like this. Imagine how Talese’s piece would have looked if Frank Sinatra was on Twitter and there were photographs on Instagram of him. As you see in my book, there are incredible details about what people were wearing, the temperature that day, and even the gusty wind. I used the internet to find these things. I could look at almanacs to find what the weather was that day and the photos on Flickr of what people were wearing that day.
SR: Not only does Twitter impact what’s happening in the now, but you uncovered the ability to build histories, stories, and narratives using trails left in social media.
NB: In the introduction to the book, I use the quote from Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. He says, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” There were very few instances in this book where there wasn’t adequate documentation.
SR: Was the most difficult part of this book being able to tease out the mythology from the actual history?
NB: Yes. The most difficult part of writing this story was trying to get the mythology aspect. The story I set out to write is not the story I wrote. I believed that Twitter had been created by Jack Dorsey alone and that it was an idea he came up with when he was a very young boy. The reality is he did not build it in a vacuum on his own. He built it with a number of people and they all had input and a say in what this thing became.
If it wasn’t for Noah Glass who came up with the name, then it wouldn’t exist today in the way it does. If it wasn’t for Evan Williams, who had the money to finance it, it wouldn’t exist today. If it wasn’t for Biz Stone, who had worked at Blogger and pushed some of the blogging ideas behind it, it wouldn’t exist. And if it wasn’t for Jack’s “status” concept, it wouldn’t exist. There were also six or seven other people in the room who were able to play a role in building this thing and making it work.
SR: I had the sense that if you took away one of the four main protagonists in this story, you would have a three-legged table.
NB: That’s a great way of putting it. I think that’s incredibly true. If you were to take away the slightest role of one of those four, it wouldn’t have been a table that stood for very long.
SR: Do these four guys belong in the pantheon of great inventors?
NB: I think they do, but I don’t think they belong there with intention. There were inventors of the past who set out to build the telephone or the television or nuclear fusion; whatever it was, they had a goal.
These guys were just trying to build something fun and interesting. They did not set out to change the media landscape or the way we communicate the way they did. That doesn’t negate what they built, but it also puts a little bit of realization into the fact that what they made was somewhat of an accident.
SR: What do you think is the most important characteristic all four shared, if they shared one?
NB: They’re human. They were all very flawed, human individuals. We all are. We all have issues, histories. This is the fault of Steve Jobs, who created this nonsensical delusion in Silicon Valley that he had it all figured out. That it’s all perfect together. They all want to be the next Steve Jobs because of that. The reality is we’re all broken in some way. These four guys were more so than most founders I’ve written about.
They come from somewhat broken homes or some were from low-income housing. They all have a story, and they all found a connection with technology at a pretty young age. That speaks to a generation of people. As a result, I think it was their striving to get out of the world they were born into that helped them end up at Silicon Valley. Their connection to technology helped them build Twitter.
If you look at Mark Zuckerberg, he set out to build something that was going to break things. And he did it. With these guys, they are much more human than he is. The product is successful because of that. I’ve written a thousand articles on social media for The New York Times and very, very rarely have those pieces concerned Twitter and privacy, and that’s because the company — from the very beginning — made a decision to put the user first and put money second. That’s something that really stood out.
SR: I attended a conversation with Jobs’s biographer Walter Isaacson recently and he cautioned that the Jobs biography was not a how-to book for managerial success. Would you apply the same caution to would-be startup folks who pick up your book?
NB: My advice would be “embrace the chaos and find a way to make it work.” If it wasn’t for that chaos, it would have been a very different company. That’s a really important thing to note. Chaos led Twitter to kind of figure out what it was and discover the aspiration to connect people. When I started to write the book, I quickly saw that they had tried to hide all the turmoil. That turmoil is what led Twitter to become what it is.
SR: One element that isn’t discussed in your book is the daily grind of what it means to build a startup — the in and out of every day drudgery and minutiae. The 16- and 18-hour days.
NB: That’s definitely something people who cover these companies lose track of. There are certain people who have ruined the impression of what these startups are for others. For example, there are people in the Valley that make it seem like they are god’s gift to the world and they invent things, and that’s what it’s all about. They brag about their private jets and their multi-million dollar mansions. They ruin it for the real entrepreneurs toiling away on a daily basis.
SR: Was there an a-ha moment in the creation of Twitter that really propelled the product forward?
NB: The earthquake in 2006. There weren’t many people using the service — maybe 10,000 or so. Jack was sitting at work, Ev was home, Biz was on the subway, and everyone for the first time tweeted the same thing: “earthquake.” It was the moment where they realized that this thing is kind of like a thread that can pull things together. People said that at that point, they felt like they weren’t going through that experience alone. It wasn’t a big earthquake, but it was a scary moment.
At that moment, Jack had the realization of real time. Ev had the realization of it being news. Biz saw the importance of it being able to clarify what was happening around you when you weren’t with the people that were usually around you.
SR: That is the beautiful tension that brings Twitter to fruition. Is it an update on you, the ego? Or is it an update on what’s happening around you? It turns out that it’s both.
NB: Yes. If Twitter was just about what you were doing and updating your status, it would probably have died. That’s a certain kind of ephemeral communication that dissipates and goes away. If it was about, on the opposite side, just what was happening around it would have been a glorified news and RSS reader. Meld the two together and you get the beautiful experience that is Twitter.
SR: That’s a major difference between Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is very much about “I.”
NB: Yes, that’s all that Facebook is. On Twitter, there is the “humble brag,” where you boast about your marvelous life, but undermine the comment with one that is self-effacing. [e.g., I couldn’t see where I was going because of all the paparazzi camera flashes.] With Facebook, there’s no such thing as humble brag, because you’re supposed to talk about yourself. That’s a big difference.
SR: Your book reads very well, almost thriller-like. At the end of each chapter I was left on the hook. I always wanted to know what happens next.
NB: I appreciate that. I did a lot of research into how to write murder mysteries.
NB: Yes I did. When I started out to write the book, I believed the plot was completely the other way around: that Jack had created this thing on his own and had been pushed out by Ev, a power hungry CEO. The more reporting I did, I realized it was a much deeper story that was somewhat flipped.
I knew there was tension and drama in this thing and I wanted to be able to write in a way that showed that. I also knew that I had this unbelievable, endless treasure trove of information as far as details, these miniscule details of what they were wearing, where they were, what the weather was, etc. I thought I could create a narrative that would keep the reader wanting to go to the end. Because you know the end. You know Twitter goes public.
SR: There are winners and losers in this story. In the foursome that co-founded what would become Twitter, there is one big winner, two middle winners, and one definite loser. I found myself feeling really sad about what happened to Noah Glass.
NB: I agree with you, but I also disagree. I don’t necessarily see the people who ended up with a lot of money and power as the winners. I see the winner as the person who grew the most, and that was Noah. Noah today is an incredibly sweet guy who understands the importance of friendship more than anything. He has been through a lot. He grew a lot as an individual. He learned more than anyone that technology will not connect you with people in a way that we hope we will attain by looking at people’s tweets all the time. Granted, he didn’t make money in the way the others did, but he grew as a human being.
Ev grew a lot, too. Ev has this moment at the end where he felt this regret for some of the things he did earlier on. At the same time he also learned — with his kids — the importance of technology and when to let people use it and when to not.
That being said, I did feel incredibly sad for Noah, who arguably had one of the most important roles — and they all had important roles. But Noah coming up with that name — if they had called it Status, it never would have existed. Can you imagine asking people to sign up for a company called Status or Friendstalker or other names they had in mind? The Twitter name helped tremendously.
SR: Jack Dorsey comes off looking like an asshole.
NB: [Laughter] Yeah, he, for whatever reason, believed he was unjustly thrown out of the company for power and control and did whatever necessary to get back in there. There are just some things I don’t understand. Here’s an example: Florian Weber is an early employee. He’s literally the guy that sat next to Jack Dorsey and they coded the first version of the website together. He left because of some visa issues and wasn’t given some stock, or he didn’t buy it because he didn’t have the money, whatever it was, but these are two people who sat next to each other and built the first codes for this thing, and now Jack will be worth a billion dollars with Twitter and Square together, and Florian didn’t get a penny.
The thing I wonder is, how much do you need? Why can’t you make amends and say, “Hey, if it wasn’t for Florian, this thing wouldn’t exist” and give him a little bit of money? If it wasn’t for Noah, this thing wouldn’t exist, and give him a little bit of money. I have a hard time understanding how people don’t do those things.
SR: Is Twitter the story of idealism being rocked by corporatism?
NB: I think you’re right, but corporatism didn’t come along until late in the game, until 2011. I think that the idealism was without a doubt the thing that created this thing. It was also the thing that kept it going, that idealism of people who didn’t really know how to run a company trying to run a company. It led into a chaotic experience. Without the chaotic experience it wouldn’t have become what it became.
It was integral that Jack Dorsey was there in the early days struggling, because it allowed the users to create what Twitter was. It was integral that when Ev was there he was overwhelmed with trying to keep the site alive and all the press that was going on around it, because the product updates he made were somewhat limited (like changing the status question to “what’s happening?”).
Without all that chaos in the background, they probably would have made more changes and probably broken the idea of what Twitter became. Chaos is good.
SR: Is this Twitter story in Silicon Valley common or uncommon?
NB: It’s incredibly common, but never to this degree. This story is a novelty in some respect, in that so many people that were there in the early days were pushed out. With every company, there’s someone who gets pushed aside. It happened with Facebook. It happened with Snapchat. It happened with Apple. It happened with Foursquare. I’m sure if you go to Pinterest or any of these companies that there will be that story. You have people who are friends that try to build something together and it’s fun. If it fails it’s a good story and they learn a lesson. But if they succeed, which person wants to be in charge?
SR: Did you uncover anything surprising about the company that wasn’t pertinent to the story of how Twitter was built? For example, did you come across documents on how they would decide which hashtags are represented in or removed from the Trend list?
NB: No. I came across documents where they explored different things themselves. For example, they talked about creating new systems. Rather than “follow” they had things called “worship” where you would get every tweet from every person no matter what. They were thinking about replacing the @ symbol with something else — they wanted to come up with something completely different. They didn’t want to use hashtags at first. So I came across a lot of documents where those things were part of the story.
SR: What are people not asking about Twitter that needs to be known?
NB: From a reader’s standpoint? An investor’s standpoint? Who is asking?
SR: A curious, culturally savvy, average American.
NB: There’s an assumption that people are still using Twitter to share what they had for breakfast. Go back to the very first blog post ever written about Twitter, which was written by Noah Glass. He talked about this moment where he had a realization where this thing could make you feel less alone. One of the things he says at the very end is, essentially, Twitter can be whatever you want it to be.
Shaun Randol is the founder and editor in chief of The Mantle.
Shaun Randol is the founder and editor in chief of The Mantle. He is also an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, and a member of the National Books Critics Circle.
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