Is there some rule that the founders of social networks have to behave so anti-socially?
The twists, turns and double-crosses in “Hatching Twitter,” Nick Bilton’s absorbing, occasionally appalling account, echo the well-known story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s founding.
Only here, there isn’t one guy at the center. There are four or five, whose constantly shifting allegiances and betrayals make for a saga that’s as much “Game of Thrones” as “The Social Network.”
Twitter’s initial public offering this week is certain to make many of the figures in this book more fabulously wealthy than they already are. But this isn’t so much a story about money as about power, ego and revenge.
The microblogging site emerged from a faltering San Francisco startup called Odeo funded by Evan Williams, the man responsible for both the word “blogger” and the website of the same name that he sold to Google for tens of millions of dollars.
Fueled by Red Bull and vodka, a core team of scruffy hackers and misfits coalesced around Williams and the idea of a service allowing users to share information with each other in short bursts.
Friends all, they included Jack Dorsey, a nose-ring wearing programmer who had just failed to land a job at a shoe store; Christopher “Biz” Stone, who styled himself the conscience of the project; and the ebullient, uncontrollable Noah Glass, whose contributions included naming the new service.
The betrayals started early. Williams, whose money fueled the project, clashed repeatedly with Glass. But it was Dorsey who secretly went to Williams with the him-or-me ultimatum that led to Glass becoming Twitter’s co-founder manque.
Bilton, a New York Times reporter and columnist, has a knack for storytelling that keeps things moving as the bodies pile up. For comic relief, there’s a hilarious account of Oprah Winfrey’s inept on-camera effort to join the service, accidentally erasing her first post without sending it. During a commercial break, a panicked Williams recreated the message and posted it, with few the wiser.
The heavy in Bilton’s tale is Dorsey, Twitter’s first CEO, who was beset by crashing servers and mounting expenses. Dumped from the job and replaced by Williams, he was given the empty title of chairman, without even a vote on the board.
Shrewdly, he exploited public confusion about his role, casting himself in interviews as Twitter’s inventor and intimating that he remained a force within a company where he lacked so much as a desk.
In truth, Twitter had no single inventor; each of its founders contributed significantly to the formula that ignited its explosive growth. While Dorsey presciently recognized the importance of mobile devices, Williams pushed to expand the idea of the tweet from a simple personal-status update to a vehicle for conveying “what’s happening,” broadly defined.
But no one really comes off well. Not Williams, who seems an oblivious ditherer. Not even Bill Campbell, the legendary mentor to Steve Jobs, Larry Page and other Silicon Valley luminaries.
Brought in to tutor Williams, he is portrayed as a foul-mouthed Janus, leading cheers when the CEO was within earshot while privately urging the board to can him.
Eventually, Dorsey’s carefully crafted fiction became reality as Williams’s inability to make decisions, combined with his former friend’s relentless campaign to undermine him, shook the board’s confidence and led to his own ouster.
Dorsey returned in triumph as “executive chairman,” while the CEO job passed to Dick Costolo, a former comedian who had been brought in by Williams to be his loyal No. 2. As if.
Costolo remains at Twitter’s helm. But if even half of “Hatching Twitter” is true, he’d better watch his back.
“Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal” is published by Portfolio/Penguin (302 pages, $28.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is the technology columnist for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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