Monday, November 4, 2013

‘Hatching Twitter,’ by Nick Bilton

A hundred and forty characters doesn’t sound like much, but as Twitter has shown over the course of its short, intense life, they’re enough to aid a revolution, ruin a reputation or direct help after a disaster. Critics tend to focus on the irresponsibility or narcissism of the form, or to say it breeds snark or false praise, or that it enables people to feel politically involved when they’re just ranting from their couches.

Sure, Twitter can facilitate the spread of misinformation. It sometimes operates (as a friend of mine once put it) as a live feed from the id. Some people use it solely to tear things down, and others to ingratiate themselves around the clock. And of course political one-liners are no substitute for being on the barricades, no matter how much @pourmecoffee makes me laugh. But ways of tweeting are so diverse that these criticisms serve as a kind of Rorschach test, revealing more about the critic and what attracts his or her attention on Twitter than they do about the form itself.

Twitter’s utility and appeal lies not just in its brevity but in its randomness and ability to surprise. Within its confines, the uses to which it can be put are virtually unlimited. Even now, on the eve of its anticipated I.P.O., its true function refuses to be pinned down, and “Hatching Twitter,” a fast-paced and perceptive new book by Nick Bilton, a columnist and reporter for The New York Times, establishes that uncertainty and dissension about its true purpose has characterized Twitter from its inception.

Jack Dorsey, a co-founder and the current chairman of Twitter, regarded it “as a status updater, a way to say where he was and what he was doing. A place to display yourself, your ego.” Another founder, Evan Williams, known as Ev, the co-creator of Blogger, saw it as a way to learn “where other people were and what other people were doing.” “Almost a year into the service,” Bilton writes, “there was no consistent answer to the question” of whether Twitter was even a social network.

The company was financed by Williams, who made a bundle selling Blogger to Google and was intent on proving he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. It rose from the ashes of a failed podcasting enterprise, Odeo, which Williams had bankrolled as a favor to his friend Noah Glass. Bilton sketches the founders’ backgrounds and personalities in quick, skillful strokes that will serve the eventual screenwriter, director and storyboard artist well; these are characters made for the big screen.

None came from money. Ev Williams was a shy Nebraska farm boy whose parents never really understood their socially awkward, computer-obsessed son. Noah Glass grew up first on a commune and then with his grandparents. When a horse kicked Noah’s brother in the knee, a relative, “a tough mountain man who took on the role of father figure,” beat the horse to death with a pipe. “That’s how you stand up for yourself,” the man told him. Jack Dorsey, a computer programmer and anarchist, was from blue-collar St. Louis and had overcome a severe speech impediment that “left an indelible dent in his communication skills.” Christopher Stone, who goes by Biz, was raised on food stamps. His mother inherited her parents’ expensive house in Wellesley, Mass., and her strategy for raising her children was to sell and downgrade to a smaller place in the area every four years so her children could “take advantage of the county’s fancy schools,” and she “could use the money from the house sale to pay the bills.”

Having known hardship, none of the four founders were afraid of risk. To join the ill-fated Odeo, Stone walked away from a job at Google, leaving more than $2 million in unvested stock options on the table.

Twitter began with a conversation. Dorsey and Glass sat talking in a car one night in 2006 when Odeo was on the verge of collapse. Dorsey mentioned his “status concept,” which was inspired by AOL’s Instant Messenger “away messages” and LiveJournal status updates that people were using to mention where they were and what they were doing. Glass warmed to the idea, seeing it as a “technology that would erase a feeling that an entire generation felt while staring into their computer screens”: loneliness. He wondered if the service should be based on “text messaging instead of e-mail.”

Maud Newton is a writer, critic, blogger and tweeter.

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