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How a Fledgling Start-Up Became a Multibillion Dollar Business and Accidentally Changed the World
In 2009, two thirtysomething Twitter executives called Biz Stone and Evan Williams were invited by Al Gore to his apartment at the St Regis Hotel in San Francisco. The former vice-president offered them 'Whisky, beer, wine, champagne?...Shots?' As Stone and Williams's higher mental functions faded, Gore made his move - he offered to buy their company. Drunk as they were, the pair turned him down. 'We gotta stop meeting famous people,' Williams said to Stone once they'd made it back to the lobby, 'they keep trying to buy us!'
Gore was just the latest in a long line of people trying to muscle in on the Twitter act. Before him, Ashton Kutcher and Sean 'P Diddy' Combs had both tried to acquire the company. Oprah Winfrey had even had Williams on her show, where she emitted her first Tweet (it was a fake; she's a techno-klutz, and Williams had to do it for her in the ad break). Twitter was the hot new thing - an internet gizmo that was hard to understand at first but then utterly addictive.
Today, of course, not even these A-listers could afford the company. Twitter currently has 500m users and the value put on it for its upcoming stock exchange listing is $12.8bn.
Until you use it (reader, I tweet) Twitter is baffling. But it is in essence simply a way of broadcasting brief accounts of events, insights, news, whatever. Like Facebook, it is technologically unremarkable, but psychologically it is clever - very.
Even hardened users, however, are probably still baffled by a further Twitter mystery: who did this? Facebook has Mark Zuckerberg, Apple had Steve Jobs, Google has Larry Page and Sergey Brin, but there seems to be no such figure at Twitter; or, rather, there seem to be many. This unauthorised book explains all this, but, be warned, you will emerge disliking, often intensely, almost everybody involved. Nick Bilton is a New York Times columnist who is fully possessed of American journalism's highest virtue, diligence (he also exhibits one of its worst faults - excruciating attempts at 'fine writing'), and diligence of the highest order is required to unpick this mess.
Twitter was created by an ill-dressed bunch of layabouts and dreamers who had come to San Francisco to surf the golden dotcom wave. They came together to create Twitter in 2006. The two key figures are Williams and Jack Dorsey. Williams had arrived in San Francisco penniless, a tinkerer in the virtual world who got involved in the creation of the vastly successful Blogger (now owned by Google). From that 'macro' blogging service, it was a short step to the 'micro' blogging system of Twitter. Dorsey was a programming prodigy with a nose ring (now discarded) who reached Twitter via a system he developed for organising courier and taxi services.
In Bilton's version - and I do stress it may only be a version - Williams is earnest, indecisive and idealistic; Dorsey is obnoxious, calculating, cold and a Jobs wannabe. Towards the end of the book we are presented with two tableaux: Williams cosy and cuddled with his family and all the screens turned off; Dorsey alone in his icily stylish house, tweeting. (The irony of the Williams tableau is lost on Bilton. Williams's cosiness is cushioned by his $2bn fortune, made from creating a method for keeping us all staring at screens, the very screens he refuses to let his own children watch.)
After its 2006 launch, Twitter languished for a year, a niche device that, initially, few people understood. It started taking off among techies in 2007 and, by 2008, 100m tweets per quarter were being posted, rising to 50m per day by 2010.
The rift that opened up between Dorsey and Williams is part ordinary corporate blood feud and part theological-type dispute about what Twitter is actually for. The nub of the argument is best expressed by the seemingly trifling little box that pops up when you tweet and asks, 'What's happening?', implying a general interest in the world. This was Williams's idea. Dorsey wanted something more narcissistic, basically an update of one's present condition. In practice, the box and its question probably doesn't matter, because Twitter is now both narcissistic and newsy. But it mattered to these two because each apparently wanted to destroy the other. They were never that close in the first place, but corporate life has driven them ever further apart.
Dorsey, for the moment, has won and has, according to Bilton, revised the entire history of Twitter to make him look like the sole progenitor. He is executive chairman, and Williams has been toppled, though still with a large shareholding (hence his $2bn nest egg) and, as a result, he has been supporting the upcoming public offering. The story of how this all happened forms the core of this book, and what a horribly readable story it is.
The most queasily alluring character in the tale is Bill Campbell, a corporate fixer brought in to teach Williams how to behave as CEO. He is first asked by Williams what's the worst thing a boss can do to his company. 'Hire your f****** friends,' he replies. Campbell then proceeds to mentor Williams, while being sympathetic to Dorsey's plan to oust him.
The shenanigans of Campbell and the suits that move in and now run the company prove - as if it needed proving - that there's nothing special about these new tech companies. It is just business as usual. The Twitter gang are, as this book portrays them, all horribly flawed as people, particularly the two main protagonists; Dorsey is ruthless and disloyal, Williams, in spite of Bilton's best efforts, appears self-involved and often downright irritating. I don't think I'd have either of them round to dinner. I might invite Bilton's versions of Stone and Noah Glass, the man who first came up with the name Twitter. The latter seems to be an interesting, if typical West Coast naif - he ends up being pushed out with almost nothing - and Stone's gentle, animal-loving eco concerns remain intact throughout, suggesting a degree of authenticity.
The grand claims for social networks are that they bring the world together. At their inception, however, as this book demonstrates, they were just conceived as neat tricks for keeping you online and making money out of you, tricks devised by people with little sense of politics and less of culture. That the tricks work and can be fun is undeniable; that they do good is plausible; but if they do good, it is the users we should thank, not the founders, who all seem rather empty.
This is a refreshing book to the extent that it escapes from the tech-book formula of 'visionary' CEOs and hotshot code writers on a mission to change the world. It is also fun when the 'fine writing' subsides. But it did make me want to go cold turkey on this tweeting habit.
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