Nick Bilton’s ‘Hatching Twitter,’ part I

We’ve got two new books in the mix currently, and let’s start with the one I’m most excited about (and thoroughly enjoying): Nick Bilton’s ‘Hatching Twitter: A true story of money, power, friendship and betrayal.’

Bilton, a tech reporter and columnist for The New York Times, chronicles the founding and development of Twitter – and the disintegration of friendships among the founders – in a way that reads like a human story and nothing like a “tech book.” But that’s a point I’m going to save for the second post.

For now, let’s introduce the four original founders, which Bilton spends the first 70 or so pages of the book doing – Evan Williams, Noah Glass, Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone.

Williams – or “Ev,” as he is called – is an early favorite to me if only because he’s named after a bourbon. ‘Jack Daniels’ is the only cooler and more timeless alcohol-related name I can think of that would actually work for a person (if you want to make a case for a first-name only musician named ‘Tanqueray,’ I’ll listen, but first-name only is sort of cheating).

Anyway, Ev became known in the tech world for creating Blogger – a self-publishing site – and introducing the word “blog” to the Internet. Since a blog network where anyone could publish anything never existed before, nobody could anticipate the overwhelmingly negative reaction Blogger would receive when publishers wrote about highly offensive topics. But Ev had a motto – “push-button publishing for the people” – that he would not sacrifice, and in turn this made Blogger’s popularity explode. Soon, more than a million blogs were hosted on the network and Ev became something of a public figure in this little Silicon Valley world.

Ev would end up selling Blogger to Google for tens of millions of dollars, making him a tech celeb or sorts and guy with the cash to invest in other startups. He would end up investing in Noah Glass’ podcasting project – a move he did despite suspecting beforehand that becoming business partners could messy up a genuine friendship – and over time they would grow completely apart, with wildly differing business sensibilities making them incompatible in the same company and the hunt for power turning the business uncivilized.

By chance, Noah lived across the street from Ev and came to know him and the programmers who were working on Blogger. Some of them would go out drinking, and Ev and Noah developed the friendship that would later be torn apart. Noah’s initial podcasting project, called AudBlog, allowed users to publish voice-based posts to their blogs from their phones. When Noah wanted to make AudBlog an official start-up company, Ev provided the initial funding for a company they would call Odeo with the primary function being people would make those podcasts and share them through downloads on the then-new iPod.

Before long, Ev, wildly rich from his Google stock, stepped back to enjoy the lavish life now afforded to him in his early 30s and Noah led the building of Odeo. The problem? Noah wasn’t much for a CEO. He was an extremely energetic, even sometimes spastic, idea guy, a brilliant mind meant to take direction, not necessarily give it. He would end up running through Odeo’s first lump of funding and going back to Ev for more money, which Ev granted with one condition: that Noah hand over the title of CEO of Odeo to Ev.

There’s an important theme buried in that request: the danger of ego. Ev didn’t truly love Odeo, and he didn’t believe in podcasting like he did blogging. But his own pride forced him into believing that if he didn’t want to be seen as a one-hit wonder in the tech world, then he needed to hit a second homerun. He was already the guy who essentially invented blogging and took it mainstream. Could you imagine his legacy if he recreated the future of radio in a digital world? That was the impetus of Ev’s interest in being Odeo CEO, and that, of course, would prove to be costly.

Jack is the most compelling character of the Twitter story, an utterly brilliant and socially awkward guy from St. Louis. He grew up with a speech impediment, which turned him inward towards his computer from an early age. He’d ride around St. Louis’ public buses, endlessly fascinating with structure and systems.

He had a nose ring and a tattoo on his right leg that symbolized an anarchist group and – you won’t believe this – would never be great at adhering to Ev’s power at Twitter. A driving force of the book would be Jack and Ev’s battle for Twitter CEO, with both bringing necessary attributes. Jack always thought Twitter was more about the status of the user – “What I’m doing right now” – and Ev believed the tool’s purpose was less egocentric than that, with the focus being more on the user’s surrounding environment – “What is happening right now.”

There was never any question about Jack’s ability to be a visionary in the tech realm, but he wasn’t naturally adept at leading people and he wasn’t a businessman like Ev was. One of the most amazing facts of Twitter’s story (to me anyway) was how long it took to start driving revenue. For an excruciatingly long time, the service had millions of users and made zero money.

Ultimately, Jack’s thirst for power and fame and – no coincidence here, given his vision of Twitter – status led him down a path of getting booted from Twitter, starting another company and then returning to Twitter in an ugly string of events. Like most of the characters in this book, being a high-ranking executive at company quickly taking its places among the world’s most influential and being filthy rich were not enough for Jack at one time or another.

Biz is the most charming of the four original founders. He grew up poor in suburban Boston with a violent (when not absentee) father, and instead of becoming an introverted, broken young man, he became a funny and engaging prankster. Part of Biz’s humor was a façade, of course – using jokes to avoid confrontation – but that was certainly a genuineness to it. Biz had see bad, so he was able to see good much more easily than most as he grew older.

He got a job at Google after it had acquired Blogger, and the only thing that made that relationship work was Ev. Biz didn’t have the personality to be a cutthroat corporate type, so Ev – who empowered and entrusted his employees from the start – was the perfect boss for him. Biz became indebted to Ev and would spend the coming years watching Ev’s back and following him wherever he went – even trading in $2 million in unvested Google stock for the opportunity to work with Ev when he left for Odeo.

The greed and power-hungry personalities drive the entire narrative Bilton has constructed around Twitter’s story, and Biz is undeniably less central to the story. But I find his humor and lightness and emotional vulnerability to be a vital sense of freshness in a story that can leave you exhausted by the rampant running of ego.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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