Another social network, another saga of betrayals and revenge

As Twitter shares hit the stock market today, a new book claims to expose power struggles, egos and boardroom battles behind the creation of the social media phenomenon

None of Twitter’s founders comes off well in Nick Bilton’s absorbing book about the creation of the social media firm. Kacper Pempel/Reuters.

None of Twitter’s founders comes off well in Nick Bilton’s absorbing book about the creation of the social media firm. Kacper Pempel/Reuters.

Thu, Nov 7, 2013, 01:00

Is there some rule that the founders of social networks have to behave so anti-socially? The twists, turns and double-crosses in Hatching Twitter, Nick Bilton’s absorbing, occasionally appalling account of the creation of the social media firm, echo the well-known story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s founding.

Only here, there isn’t one guy at the centre. There are four or five, whose constantly shifting allegiances and betrayals make for a saga that’s as much Game of Thrones as The Social Network. Twitter’s initial public offering this week is certain to make many of the figures in Bilton’s book more fabulously wealthy than they already are. But this isn’t so much a story about money as about power, ego and revenge.

The micro-blogging site emerged from a faltering San Francisco start-up called Odeo, funded by Evan Williams, the man responsible for both the word “blogger” and the website of the same name that he sold to Google for tens of millions of dollars. Fuelled by Red Bull and vodka, a core team of scruffy hackers and misfits coalesced around Williams and the idea of a service allowing users to share information with each other in short bursts.

Friends all, they included Jack Dorsey, a nose-ring-wearing programmer; Christopher “Biz” Stone, who styled himself the conscience of the project; and the uncontrollable Noah Glass, whose contributions included naming the new service.

The betrayals started early. Williams, whose money fuelled the project, clashed repeatedly with Glass. But it was Dorsey who secretly went to Williams with the him-or-me ultimatum that led to Glass missing out on being a Twitter co-founder.

Bilton, a New York Times reporter and columnist, has a knack for storytelling that keeps things moving as the bodies pile up. For comic relief, there’s a hilarious account of Oprah Winfrey’s inept on-camera effort to join the service, accidentally erasing her first post without sending it. During a commercial break, a panicked Williams recreated the message and posted it, with few the wiser. The heavy in Bilton’s tale is Dorsey, Twitter’s first chief executive, who was beset by crashing servers and mounting expenses. Dumped from the job and replaced by Williams, he was given the empty title of chairman, without even a vote on the board. Shrewdly, he exploited public confusion about his role, casting himself in interviews as Twitter’s inventor and intimating that he remained a force within a company where he lacked so much as a desk. In truth, Twitter had no single inventor; each of its founders contributed significantly to the formula that ignited its explosive growth.

While Dorsey presciently recognised the importance of mobile devices, Williams pushed to expand the idea of the tweet from a simple personal status update to a vehicle for conveying “what’s happening”, broadly defined. But no one really comes off well. Not Williams, who seems an oblivious ditherer. Not even Bill Campbell, the legendary mentor to Steve Jobs, Larry Page and other Silicon Valley luminaries. Brought in to tutor Williams, he is portrayed as a foul-mouthed Janus, leading cheers when the chief executive was within earshot while privately urging the board to can him.

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