Bilton: Hatching Twitter

In most parts „Hatching Twitter“ reads like a soap. It is hard to believe how many assaults and revolutions are involved in the becoming of Twitter. The book’s subtitle is „A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal“ – and it really delivers enough stories to justify that. On the other hand, Nick Bilton’s book is a great manual when it comes to growing your community, building strategic partnerships and growth-hacking. Reading the book, you will also meet many of the key players in Silicon Valley.

Nick Bilton - Hatching Twitter

„Then there was the hashtag, the pound symbol that until then had primarily been used on telephones while checking an answering machine. On Flickr, the photo-sharing site, people sometimes used the hashtag symbol to group similar images. In one instance, people had been using Flickr to share pictures of forest fires in San Diego, California, and had started to organize the newsy pictures with a tag that read „#sandiegofire.“ Chris Messina, a designer who lived in the Valley and was friends with many of the Twitter employees, started using the same symbol on Twitter, and before long it was picked up by others on the site.“

„Hatching Twitter“ is also a great record how a small spin-off idea evolves into something greater then expected. And how people at the very core have their difficulties deciding what their product actually is. Twitter has always been shaped by the news it reported. Or as Ev Williams states: „People don’t invent things on the Internet. They simply expand on an idea that already exists.“

Bilton reports how Twitter came to existence within Odeo and how a prototype was produced in a hackathon as a by-product. Twitter was in its essence a very social take on the „quickly evolving status genre“, that was already presented in several blogging platforms:

„This status thing could help connect people to those who weren’t there. It wasn’t just about sharing what kind of music you were listening to or where you were at that moment; it was about connecting people and making them feel less alone. It could be a technology that would erase a feeling that an entire generation felt while staring into their computer screens. An emotion that Noah and Jack and Biz and Ev had grown up feeling, finding solace in a monitor. An emotion that Noah felt night after night as his marriages and company fell apart: loneliness.“

But was it really the social network or more a media platform? Bilton describes this as the „biggest problem“: „Everyone had a different answer. ,It’s a social network.’ ,It replaces text messages.’ ,It’s the new email.’ ,It’s microblogging.’ ,It’s to update your status.’“ One of the deciding events was an earthquake in August of 2006. „Sharing the news on Twitter had been a moment that was about the status of something bigger than each individual.“ But after that event the discussion really started: „Jack had continued to see Twitter as a way to talk about what was happening to him. Ev was starting to see it as a view into what was happening in the world.“

But since Twitter has always been Jack Dorsey’s product of a hack within Ev Williams company, authorship was never really clear. „Twitter was barely a newborn at the time, but there was already squabbling over who had fed it, who had let others go near it“, writes Nick Bilton. The status from the beginning was that „it was clear that no one was actually in charge“.

After securing a five-million-dollar round – evaluating the company at twenty million dollars – from Union Square, the fight between Ev and Jack got intense. One of the reasons was obviously, Jack Dorsey’s hesitation to dedicate more time, but it might also be Greg Pass’ sudden discovery „that there was no backup of Twitter“.

Also in May 2008 – Twitter had around 1.250.000 million active users – the company was evaluated at eighty million. But the fundraising „had been a cluster fuck“, writes Bilton: „it had become another internal tug-of-war gone awry: Ev pulling on one end, Jack on the other, Biz trying his best not to get caught in the middle“. Everyone knows how the story unfolds: Dorsey gets fired – only to come back years later to get Williams out of the company.

All the while Twitter can be seen as one of the greatest tech hypes, starting with Om Malik’s first coverage in July 2006 ( towards Oprah Winfrey signing in live on her show. One of the first steps was the presence at the SXSW in 2007. „In the few months since South by Southwest, Twitter had quickly passed one hundred thousand people who had signed up for the site.“

But also in September 2007 Twitter „had struck a deal with the MTV Video Music Awards, where celebrities tweet, including those from rapper Timbaland and the band Daughtry, would be integrated into the channel’s on-air programming during the awards show“. At that time, Twitter had around 250.000 active users. After that, „celebraties were now using Twitter, bringing more followers and sign-ups with them. In a trend that would continue indefinitely, some of those celebrities would randomly show up at the office.“

The next big thing after meddling with lifestyle celebrities, Twitter took on the 2008 US presidential elections. „A young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama was using Twitter to try to disrupt politics and grassroots campaigning and, he hoped, win the election.“ In fact, Barack Obama plays a big role in shaping Twitter’s role. „As the 2008 presidential elections approached, people were no longer talking about podcasts and blogs. A new word had obliterated the vernacular of politics and media: „Twitter“.

Conclusion: I have always been a big fan of Twitter. I am really not convinced of the role as tool for democracy it was given during the Arabellion, but I always considered Twitter the first new media type of the 21st century. Reading how the company came to existence and how it was managed, reading about all the fights and backstabbing is really hard to believe. The bottom line is probably that the billion dollar Silicon Valley startup business can get pretty messy…

„Hatching Twitter – A true Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal“ from Nick Bilton. Published in 2013 by Portfolio / Penguin Books. €13,90.


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