The full title of one of the most talked-about books in tech is “Hatching Twitter: A true story of money, power, friendship and betrayal.”
The most important word in that title is “true.”
Anyone who’s ever worked at a troubled startup knows “truth” is a tricky thing. There’s the uncomfortable truth of what’s actually going on inside a company — scattered, hushed, complicated. And then there’s the truth that’s made public — the smiling, aspirational truth that’s not true at all, but necessary.
“Hatching Twitter” is a riveting account of how four men created a monster and battled for the right to tame it. It’s packed with charged moments that only looked, to the innocent bystander, like a couple guys having a conversation. It will — or should — make you think twice about every sunny blog post you read about a change at a company.
While Twitter the service changed the world, Twitter the company scrambled to keep up. The story of that scramble will never be as complete in the pages of a book as it was in the imperfect minds of Ev Williams, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Noah Glass, but “Hatching Twitter” gives you a strong sense that this is as close to the “true” story as anyone is going to get.
just setting up my twttr
— Jack Dorsey (@jack) March 21, 2006
One reason is Nick Bilton. The New York Times tech reporter and columnist may not work at a social startup, but if you follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or any of the other networks he’s on, you know he speaks the language. It’s a relief, actually, to read a story about a newer breed of tech founders written not just by a talented journalist who knows what he’s doing, but by a geek who joined Twitter two weeks after it caught on at the 2007 South by Southwest Festival, and understood it even while everyone had trouble explaining it.
Ninety-eight percent of what I read in “Hatching Twitter” I did not know before. Not even close. And there was something almost blasphemous about reading the history of a service that has made what’s happening now all that really matters.
checking out twttr
— Evan Williams (@ev) March 21, 2006
I, too, rode that early adopter roller coaster, but in all the stories I read about Twitter’s development I’d never even heard of Noah Glass, the CEO of Odeo who named Twitter when it was just a side project at the dying company — a side project at a dying company! — and believed in its world-changing potential more fervently than anyone.
Bilton’s reporting went deep. Hundreds of hours of interviews with the big players cross-referenced with social media posts and thousands of emails and documents gave him the confidence to write with a level of vivid, mind-reading detail that made me stop a time or two, realize I’d lost myself completely in the story, and wonder for the umpteenth time how the hell this didn’t just come out of his head.
“I’m being forced to abandon all my Fiction reading for Non Fiction,” Bilton tweeted back in December 2007. Here he gives the best of both. A story worth making up … that wasn’t.
getting my odeo folks on this deal
— Biz Stone (@biz) March 21, 2006
If you work at a startup or ever want to, you’re bound to take mental notes from Twitter’s story. Notes on how (not) to hire and fire and prioritize. Notes on how to weigh acquisition offers and manage Mark Zuckerberg’s awkwardness, if you ever have to.
But mostly, you’ll take notes on how business is about people, and beyond that, relationships. I hadn’t realized how easily I’d associated “cofounder” with unconditional collaboration until “Hatching Twitter” showed me how easily even best friends who bonded over vodka Red Bulls can break apart. “It’s just business”? No, it’s not.
Oh crap, I think I might be getting that f'in cold
— noah glass (@noah) March 22, 2006
At one point I finished a chapter and my imagination did something interesting. It visualized startup leaders if their inner wounds were real. Men and women walking around San Francisco and Seattle with a black eye, a slash across the face, a bruise, a limp.
Instead, they leave the office with a fresh face and a smile, and say everything’s “great” to the next person who asks at a networking event.
That aspirational truth is a mandatory lie. It’s a shield, but as Twitter co-founders found out, it can also be a weapon.
To the victor go the spoils, and the story.
Until, that is, someone tries to get it right.
Trying to get Twitter to work!
— Nick Bilton (@nickbilton) March 22, 2007
Mónica Guzmán is a freelance journalist, speaker and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.