Twitter is reaching that inevitable stage of Silicon Valley success: the time to question whether credit for its invention has been doled out correctly.
The New York Times Magazine is running an excerpt from a book by tech reporter Nick Bilton undermining Twitter’s generally accepted creation story and painting everyone involved in a rather negative light. It’s dramatic reading. The cast of characters were all working for Odeo, a podcasting startup facing ruin because Apple had decided to get into the game. Here’s Bilton’s dramatis personæ:
Jack Dorsey, the villain: A shy employee at Odeo, Dorsey comes up with the idea for the messaging feature (which isn’t really new). He undermines everyone else involved, in this telling, even as he can’t commit to the project because he wants to be a fashion designer. At one point he flirts with the heretical idea of joining Facebook. Dorsey’s powers of self-promotion reign supreme, though, and Bilton ends his account with a quote from an anonymous former Twitter employee: “The greatest product Jack Dorsey ever made was Jack Dorsey.”
Ev Williams, the hapless prince: Williams, Odeo’s chief executive, helps get Dorsey’s basic idea running with experience he brought from Blogger, a startup he had sold to Google. He helps chase Noah Glass out of the company, at Dorsey’s urging. Also, he realizes that news would be Twitter’s main use. But he’s a terrible manager and is eventually ousted in a coup led by Dorsey and the board.
Noah Glass, the tragic exile: Glass serves as Dorsey’s confidant and also comes up with Twitter’s name, saving the world from some truly awful alternatives such as “Friendstalker.” But Glass ends up getting kicked to the curb, and the story ends with him living in an “apartment that was built as an earthquake shack”—making as much money as Dorsey’s secretary. (Breaking Bad fans, of course, will want to insert Walter White/Grey Matter comparisons here.)
Dick Costolo, the ruthless king: Costolo comes onto the scene and immediately reveals his evil intentions in a jokey tweet: “First full day as Twitter COO tomorrow. Task #1: undermine CEO, consolidate power.” He soon does so, and gets the company humming along as it moved towards the big payday.
This type of tale is hardly unique to Twitter. Many successful ventures, inside and outside of Silicon Valley, have some version of it: Steve Jobs appropriated other people’s good ideas while berating the people who came up with them; Facebook and Snapchat’s origins are obscured in petty dorm-room politics; there are numerous fifth Beatles. It’s no surprise that this is coming to light during the final countdown to the company’s long-awaited initial public offering.