A book that begins with the CEO on his knees, nervously vomiting into a trashcan as he faces the task of announcing his victimhood in a high-stakes, friend-led coup d’état is bound to be a riveting company origin story.
It’s even more interesting when you consider that the CEO in question (Evan Williams) worked for a platform that has been so ingrained in technological and social culture, and one that you probably use at least weekly (if not daily, hourly, minutely): Twitter.
Hatching Twitter, by New York Times journalist Nick Bilton, is a story of power-struggles and best friends turned mortal enemies in the brutal start-up world. The book features Twitter’s four founders—Williams, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Noah Glass—some of whom have been celebrated over the years, some completely forgotten.
Twitter hatched after a long road of start-up success (with Blogger, Williams’ influential blogging platform purchased by Google in 2003), and failure (with Odeo, Glass’ podcast start-up) within a group of best friends and neighbors. Once Twitter was set in motion, in a move requested by Dorsey but made to look like it were Williams’ decision, Glass was pushed out of the company and into complete obscurity. He was the man who arguably came up with the whole idea (or at least the name of the company—thanks to him, we’ll never have to utter the phrases “I wish I had more stalkers on FriendStalker” or “I just started following him on Throbber. I hope he re-throbs my last throb!”).
It was then Dorsey’s turn to get screwed out of his CEO role, in a move led by Williams and the board. Dorsey got his revenge by spinning a false narrative to the press about his role at Twitter (he was a powerless figurehead after his stint as CEO, but the media believed he still had an active role at the company and was basically the sole founder of Twitter) and later plotting to undermine Williams as CEO.
“I invented Twitter,” Dorsey protested to Williams after his ousting, arguing over the phrasing of—what else?—Dorsey’s Twitter bio.
“No, you didn’t invent Twitter,” Williams replied. “I didn’t invent Twitter either… People don’t invent things on the Internet. They simply expand on an idea that already exists.”
What could cause a group of close friends to turn on each other so cold-heartedly? Power, fame, differing management styles. We’ve heard this sad tale before, but one surprising factor in this particular case was the issue of was Twitter even is. Is it a social network? Is it a place to share your own personal status (i.e. “I’m eating Lucky Charms”), a tool that plays into ego of the selfie generation? Or, as Twitter’s current tagline now reads, is it about “What’s happening?”—in your head, in your dorm room, in the news, across the country? The reality in 2013 is that people use Twitter as a hybrid between these ideas, a sad fate considering the tarnished relationships that resulted from this ultimately irrelevant argument.
Not only is Hatching Twitter a compelling story practically begging to be adapted into a screenplay (hop on it, Aaron Sorkin), it’s also a great example of narrative journalism. Bilton prefaces the book by delving into the number of interviews and the amount of research he had to do in order to make this book possible. The fact that he tells a narrative so different from the story the media has been broadcasting over the years about various higher-ups “choosing to step down” and voluntarily “switching roles” attests to the importance of this book’s publication, especially at this significant milestone in Twitter’s lifespan; the company just went public with an IPO starting at $45 a share.
Hatching Twitter‘s timely release probably won’t affect the stock market too much—it’s not like people are going to stop using Twitter just because the founders were kind of mean to each other. However, it is still a fascinating inside look at arguably the most influential company in recent years and a fantastic read for anyone interested in technology, finance, friendship, and betrayal.