Book review: ‘Hatching Twitter’

Los Angeles TimesNovember 23, 2013 

  • Nonfiction Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal Nick Bilton

    Portfolio, 304 pages

The first time I saw a man killed in front of me, I tweeted about it. I was a freelancer, covering a street battle in Cairo two years ago, and Twitter was the only means of publication immediately available.

The ability to share anything to a potentially limitless audience has made Twitter one of the world’s most important companies. New York Times tech columnist Nick Bilton’s “Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal” offers an inside account of the Silicon Valley screw-ups who stumbled, bickered and betrayed their way into creating a media empire.

Twitter was born in 2006 after its creators’ previous company, the podcasting service Odeo, was wiped out when Apple added a similar feature to iTunes.

Bilton’s book pegs the light-bulb moment to a drunken exchange between Odeo employees Jack Dorsey and Noah Glass as they are mourning Odeo’s demise. Both helped develop the idea for Twitter but didn’t survive its growth, which is where “Hatching Twitter” draws much of its drama.

Dorsey became Twitter’s first CEO but also got forced out. Though much of “Hatching Twitter” is hobbled by weak anecdotes and schlocky metaphors, the book is carried by Bilton’s excruciating account of Dorsey’s evolution.

First, he is a willowy eccentric with an inappropriate romantic fixation on a co-worker. Next, he’s demoted to powerless figurehead. Then, Dorsey starts calling himself Twitter’s “inventor” and fumes about being left off Time magazine’s 100 most influential people list.

Ultimately, Dorsey’s successful comeback to the company happens by way of a boardroom coup against co-founder and former friend Evan Williams.

Throughout “Hatching Twitter,” Bilton frames the service’s development as a competition between Dorsey’s vision of Twitter as a status-update service and Williams’ concept of a unique news platform. But this is the Great Man version of history.

In reality it was Twitter users who informally invented the use of symbols, the hashtag and the retweet, the service’s three most powerful functions. The company’s real managerial success appears to have come from channeling users’ creative energies and formalizing their habits.

Much of social media has grown by leaps and bounds by offering ostensibly free services that exploit users either by quietly collecting and reselling user data or by claiming licensing rights to user content that can then be republished or resold without royalties.

Twitter hasn’t even become profitable. What happens when Twitter goes public and simply selling ads doesn’t make investors happy enough? What kind of data can be mined from its users and resold? Twitter’s servers already automatically store private information such as log data that includes users’ physical location. And those records are held on private servers, whose contents are also vulnerable to government arm-twisting.

When a New York judge forced a resistant Twitter to hand over data on an Occupy Wall Street protester for a criminal prosecution, the judge noted that Twitter held his tweets; the record of his speech was a piece of property the user no longer owned.

Throughout “Hatching Twitter,” co-founder Biz Stone, treated as the company’s moral conscience, insists that Twitter remain a “neutral technology,” which is, of course, impossible. The old rap on traditional journalism is that the posture of impartiality actually conceals hidden biases: a symbiotic relationship with the government, a deep-seated acceptance of the status quo.

During the Iranian protests in 2009, when the U.S. State Department urged Twitter to put off service maintenance during a planned protest, Stone remarks, “We don’t know who the good guys are or who the bad guys are,” then adds, “Wait, are there any good guys?”

Good question. In either case, Twitter did as the State Department asked.

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