'Hatching Twitter': A Tale of Booze and Backstabbing

In Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, New York Times columnist and reporter Nick Bilton tells of the backstabbing, booze, and tears behind the 140-character social network's rise from struggling start-up to $25 billion company.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Next up, get your tweets ready because we're talking about Twitter. Last week the social media giant went public, transforming itself into a company worth $25 billion. Yeah, that's billion with a B. How the heck did that happen? How did Twitter go from being a sort of confusing service where you shared the news that you were eating a vegan peanut butter cookie to a fire hose of breaking news and a tool for revolutionaries? Well, that's the story my next guest tells in his new book "Hatching Twitter: The True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal."

FLATOW: And, yes, there's way more backstabbing, lies, and vodka-Red Bulls involved in that creation myth than you might have thought. And here to talk about it is Nick Bilton, author of "Hatching Twitter." He's also a columnist and reporter for the New York Times in San Francisco. He joins us from KQED in that fair town there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

NICK BILTON: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You know, this book reads like a great political drama with all the lies and the backstabbing and the secret meetings. And the weeping, throwing up in trash cans. Who would thought this goes on in beautiful, you know, Tweeterville?

BILTON: Tweeterville. Tweeterville where there are vodka-Red Bulls and peanut butter vegan cookies. You know, when I first set out to write this book I had no idea I was going to be - you know, there was going to be so much drama that was involved in the founding of this company but as you said, it was a - it reads like a - a lot of people say it reads like a murder mystery.

Because you don't really know what's going on and who's running the company at any given time and everyone's backstabbing each other and pushing each other out. But, you know, there are two major themes kind of to this book and one is, you know, it's a story about a company that changed the way we do everything.

I mean, it changed the way we do radio. It changed the way we perform business, religion, politics. You have, you know, presidents of different countries tweeting at each other. But, you know, the other part of the story which you just alluded to is the story about four guys who were once very close friends who built this service with the hope of connecting to each other and to other people and in the process ended up tearing their friendships apart.

FLATOW: Is that what's unique about this story? Because, you know, over the years we've covered technology stories. Well, here in New York we know Wall Street. We know what goes on there. There's a lot of backstabbing and betrayal. Is it because it's friends that makes it unique in this case?

BILTON: Well, it's interesting. It's a great question and I think there are a couple of things that make it unique. One is that, you know, you bring up Wall Street. I mean, I lived in New York for 15 years and I've been involved in stories in the paper, the New York Times, about Wall Street and bankers and so on.

FLATOW: Right.

BILTON: And the thing I find when I meet a banker is they're like, hey, I want to be rich. I want a private jet and I want a house in the Hamptons and I want, you know, I want my hood ornament to be a Cadillac. You know, I just - they are very proud of the fact that that's what they're in it for. And then Silicon Valley, there's a - it's this thing we call the creation myth.

And these creation myths are that these people are in these technologies and building these technologies because they want to make the world a better place. And while that is true in many instances, they also want to be rich. And there's nothing wrong with that but they feel the need to kind of hide that and suppress that and also to hide any of the backstabbing and betrayal that goes on because that doesn't jive necessarily with this story of how, you know, they're here to make the world a better place.

And, you know, nowhere is that more prevalent than with the Twitter story where you had these four people that were very, very close friends. I mean they were best friends. As you said, they were drinking vodka-Red Bulls and going out and partying together. And some of them, you know, in the process of this company growing became billionaires and celebrities and some of them ended up with nothing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Talking about the book "Hatching Twitter" with Nick Bilton. So did you know where this would take you when you started out with all...

BILTON: No. I had no idea. I had no idea. So I knew that there was some sort of, you know, there was drama behind the book.

FLATOW: Yeah.

BILTON: But the original proposal that I wrote was, you know, Jack Dorsey, who is everyone sees is the creator of Twitter, you know, I believed in the proposal I wrote. I told my publisher that he was the sole founder of Twitter and the next Steve Jobs and he was unjustly thrown out of the company by his other founders for power and control.

And then when I started writing the story I started to realize that my synopsis was very wrong. And what happened was, that I found truly fascinating, was - so I originally started reporting and at first the founders didn't want to talk to me. In the end they all ended up spending quite a considerable amount of time with me.

But there was a point in the beginning where I got access to some early documents and some internal emails and things like that where I started to kind of realize that the story was much more in depth. Then I started interviewing people and so on. But what was really fascinating was the role that social media played in my reporting.

I was able to go back - and I hired some researchers and we went through the, you know, the first couple of years of tweets from all of the founders and the people that were involved in the company and even, you know, their spouses. And so we were able to kind of pinpoint where people were, what they were wearing, who they were with, and a variety of other things that I don't think you could've ever done if you'd have reported a book like this even three, four years ago.

FLATOW: Hmm. And Jack Dorsey is a very interesting character in your book, one of the stranger characters if you can just single him out as any stranger than anyone else.

BILTON: Yeah. Jack is a very, very strange character in the story. You know, when he first moved to San Francisco he came here, he had scruffy hair and a nose ring and he used to go to punk clubs and rave parties and so on. And he did strange things, like he would walk around San Francisco with a t-shirt with his phone number on the front and he would wait for people to call him so he could talk to them.

He would - what were some of the other things he did? He didn't have anything to sell on eBay so he auctioned off the ability to read "Good Night Moon" and people paid $100 for that, which was quite bizarre. Some other things he did were - he just had these very kind of strange ideas, but some of the ideas were actually good.

You know, one of the ideas was that you would be able to create a website where you could update your status of what you were doing at that moment in time. And that's the story that we've kind of heard as the creation myth and the founding of Twitter, but what really I found during the reporting was that there was another guy - his name was Noah Glass - and, you know, we call him the forgotten founder.

Noah and Jack were best friends and they worked at this company called Odeo which actually, ironically, trying to destroy your job, Ira, by destroying radio. But Odeo went out of, you know, was having a lot of trouble and out of this conversation.

FLATOW: Just shows you.

BILTON: Yeah, just shows...

(LAUGHTER)

BILTON: Out of these conversations. They were talking about all these different ideas that kind of led to Twitter but there was one seminal moment and it was one night. It was in a car. It was rainy. It was on Valencia Street in San Francisco and Jack Dorsey and Noah Glass had been out drinking. And Noah was going through a very difficult time. He was going through a divorce.

His company, Odeo, was failing and all of his friendships were kind of tearing apart. And he felt incredibly alone and he kept telling everyone how lonely he felt. And Jack had brought up this idea again, this idea to update your status online. And there were a number of other services out there that did that. There was Dodgeball. Facebook was just coming about. There was a thing called Text Mob. So no one really kind of glammed onto it. But what Noah thought was, hey, wait a second. As he sat in this car and the rain's coming down and his lonely feelings, he thinks, well, if this thing existed I could actually connect with my friends and feel less alone.

FLATOW: All right.

BILTON: And that was the moment that it really started out.

FLATOW: OK. We're going to have many more moments with Nick Bilton talking about "Hatching Twitter." Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the new book "Hatching Twitter" with Nick Bilton, who's the author. He's also a columnist and reporter for the New York Times in San Francisco, and one I rudely interrupted, Nick, as I'm wont to do with everybody, it seems.

He was telling us about how the idea was hatched by Noah - was it Noah Glass? Is that his name?

BILTON: Noah Glass and Jack Dorsey, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. And sitting in a car...

BILTON: Drunk in a car.

FLATOW: ...on a lonely night, it sounds like.

BILTON: Well, this is the thing that I think was really fascinating to me, you know, and this was something I didn't know setting out to write the book, was, you know, you look around today - you sit in a coffee shop, you sit in a restaurant, you go out for dinner with friends and everyone's sitting there pecking at their phone, right?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

BILTON: They're looking for something that's far away even though they have these people that are directly in front of them. And the guys that created this service, the guys that created Twitter that we all do that with today were doing the same thing when they created it. You know, they were looking for connections.

And the story in the book, you know, kind of follows these four people and how they kind of grow and learn - and some of them do and some of them don't - that loneliness and feeling alone cannot connect you to other people. And, without giving away the end of the book too much, some of them actually learn that and some of them don't.

But at the same time, you know, you have instances today where people in far flung places that can't talk to other people - for example, the astronauts in space, which is one of the my favorite examples - they are connected to people that are far away through these technologies, through Twitter and so on.

And so this is a really fascinating juxtaposition that I kind of present in the story, in the book, that asks that question.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you see any trends going anywhere? You know, I just know that Twitter just hired NPR's former CEO Vivian Schiller to be head of the news partnership. Are they going to be doing news on Twitter? Do you think?

BILTON: Well, I think that news is - you know, we're all doing news if, you know, you're in New York City right now, right? If across the street, you know, God forbid, a bomb exploded and you were walking out of the building you were in, your phone would come out and you would start taking pictures and tweeting almost instinctively.

It's the same way you used to, you know, that reporters used to do that. And I think that what Twitter is trying to do is figure out a way to say, well, I want to know if that gentleman who is doing that is actually there and if this is a real event and things like that.

FLATOW: Yeah.

BILTON: And also, in addition, I think they want to start training reporters to be able to utilize these things more and more. The thing I found fascinating about the Iranian revolution was that - the latest one was when Bill Keller, who was editor-in-chief at the New York Times at the time, was there and writing stories and he was actually in Iran but he was also looking at Twitter to get people's voices that were on the streets in Iran at the time.

And, you know, it's a perfect example of what they want to try to do more of.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And all in 140 characters.

BILTON: Well, the 140 characters thing is actually quite interesting. When, you know, and this is in the book, when it first started out it was not limited to 140 characters. So, you know, you could've written, you know, a novel if you wanted. The problem was is it was all done over text message, using SMS. And so if you sent something that was over - actually it was 160 characters is the length of a text message, it would've been truncated into several messages.

And eventually in October of 2006 they make a decision that they're going to actually limit to 160 characters and then later, a few months later, they actually bring it down to 140 characters so they can append a person's username. And now what you're seeing happening, if you go to the Twitter website or you use the Twitter mobile app or whatever it is, the 140 characters is almost like the cover of an envelope.

And the things that are inside are actually embedded. So you can embed a photo and you can embed links and things like that and those are expandable. And so the 140 characters is actually - I don't think it's exactly accurate in the way that we perceive it today.

FLATOW: It's the headline that gets you.

BILTON: Yes, exactly.

FLATOW: Into the other stuff. Is there another car someplace on a rainy night in San Francisco...

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: ...with other people sitting and thinking of the next big thing?

BILTON: Well, it's funny you say that. Before I came on here I quickly filed a blog post about Snapchat and, you know, the news this week has been about that Snapchat turned down a $3 billion offer from Facebook...

FLATOW: Tell Snapchat for our listeners who don't know what that is.

BILTON: Snapchat is essentially - it's almost like an ephemeral Instagram. It's a way that you can take a picture on your phone and you can send it to someone or a group of people and they have up to 10 seconds to view it once it's opened, but then after that it's gone forever. And it really kind of goes against the entire concept of what digital sharing is.

You know, the Facebook sees itself, and Twitter and all these other services, see themselves as places to add permanence to the things that you share and collect. And they want your timelines to go back till the day you were born and document everything, you know, from here, there, and in between. Snapchat took up a completely different approach where they wanted to be able to let people share things that would disappear.

FLATOW: Right. You can always get a copy from the NSA, probably.

BILTON: You can probably get a copy of anything from the NSA, but...

(LAUGHTER)

BILTON: But what happened was I wrote one of the first articles about Snapchat in May of 2012, 18 months ago, and at the time, the guys who founded it were still in school at Stanford. And I remember it was very funny because one of the founders, Evan Spiegel, I said, hey, can you speak for this column I'm writing? And he was like I can't talk; I'm doing finals right now. So I'm just too busy.

But yet, 18 months later this company is now valued at $4 billion. And I think what that really kind of shows me is just how quickly these things can go from nothing, from something that exists in a dorm room, to one of the biggest new businesses in Silicon Valley.

FLATOW: But a business is supposed to make money.

BILTON: Well, that's exactly - it's funny. I just thought to myself did I just use the right word there when I said business?

(LAUGHTER)

BILTON: That's true. So, you know, Google and Facebook are offering $3 billion to $4 billion for this company and venture capitalists are throwing money into it, you know, like it's some kind of golden rainbow.

FLATOW: Right.

BILTON: And the reality is Snapchat literally has made $0 in revenue. And so that's the anomaly of the Valley. But, you know, I mean, when you look at the Twitter story, you know, through the book I tell these stories of this company that is...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

BILTON: ...it's just growing immensely. You know, they're on the cover of Time magazine. The founders go on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." They're featured, you know, on the cover of every newspaper across America at some point or another and yet they have $0 in revenue.

FLATOW: Could the...

BILTON: But, eventually...

FLATOW: Yes. Yes.

BILTON: They eventually - they start to make money.

FLATOW: But could there be a social media bubble growing where people...

BILTON: I absolutely think there is. I think there's a technology bubble right now.

FLATOW: Yeah.

BILTON: You know, I mean, you know, Snapchat is worth $3 billion to $4 billion. You have Pinterest that just raised money at over $3.5 billion. They'll have $0 in revenue. You have fab.com which is worth $1 billion and they're not profitable. I mean I could just probably just use the rest of the show just going through a list of companies that are worth X billions of dollars and have no revenue.

Or very little revenue. And I think that there's this - because of the companies that do make money, which is the Facebooks and the Twitters and the Googles and so on, and they make so much of it, I think that there is an irrational exuberance by the venture capitalists and people here in the Valley that think that they can - they know which one is going to be the next Twitter or Facebook.

FLATOW: So any new idea, really, can draw some venture money to it.

BILTON: Yeah. And the irony, I think, of this whole thing is, you know, with these stories is they're all going after the teen market. Right?

FLATOW: Yeah.

BILTON: If you have teens you're, like, the next big thing. But as all these reports have shown, a Pew Research report, a Piper Jaffray report, have all shown that teens, they have about, like, a two-year lifespan on a startup and then they're just gone. So they were, you know, 85 percent of teens in 2007, 2006 were on MySpace.

FLATOW: Right.

BILTON: Now it's seven percent.

FLATOW: My what? What was that called? My?

BILTON: Exactly.

FLATOW: Yeah.

BILTON: And the numbers are happening now with Facebook where they're dropping off and they're going into other places.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But then you sell the company and you get out, right? You've made your billions.

BILTON: Well, if you're lucky enough.

FLATOW: Yeah.

BILTON: But, you know, if you're lucky enough. But then, you know, there are - do you remember the company Chat Roulette?

FLATOW: No. I don't.

(LAUGHTER)

BILTON: So Chat Roulette. It was the darling of - it was everywhere.

FLATOW: Yeah.

BILTON: It was picked up in every newspaper, magazine. It was this kid in Russia who'd built it in his bedroom and it was worth, you know, millions and millions of dollars.

FLATOW: Right.

BILTON: And he chose not to sell it, even though he had all of these offers, because he thought it was going to be bigger. And as I just said, do you remember it; and you said no.

FLATOW: No.

BILTON: So it's gone.

FLATOW: Yeah. A lot of people complain about Facebook's seemingly disregard for privacy, but Twitter has always sort of had this higher ethical standard. Have they maintained that idea? Is it slipping? And now that they're going to be bought out, when they're bought out, you know?

BILTON: Yeah. It's a great question. It's one of the things that actually really drew me to write this book, actually more than anything. It was a company - you know, I've written hundreds and hundreds of articles on social media for the New York Times and the ones I've written on Facebook are always, you know, often related to privacy problems. And especially in the early days. And I haven't ever had to write that story about Twitter.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

BILTON: And the reason is because Twitter had a stance in the very beginning that they were going to be a company that was going to kind of approach privacy and protecting its users in a different way. And it partially goes back to one of the cofounders, actually, two of the cofounders, Evan Williams and Biz Stone, who were very important and integral in blogging the very early days in 2000, 2001, 2002.

And they had this philosophy that you had what was called push button publishing for the people so that anyone could have a voice online. And they were very adamant about that. There was another founder, another partner, Jason Goldman, who was involved in it too. And the three of them really believed that what they were doing and what they were building were services that were going to give people a voice that had never had one before.

And they brought those ideals to Twitter and those ideals carried through. You know, during the revolution they chose to keep the website online in Iran so that people could use it to organize protests. During the Occupy Wall Street they defended some of the people that the police were trying to get access to. And there are dozens of stories in the book of this example, of this being a company that did that.

That being said, now that they're public, the question is will they continue to do that?

FLATOW: Right.

BILTON: Or will they, you know, make decisions in lieu of the shareholders?

FLATOW: So then that's to be continued, as we say.

BILTON: Yes. That'll be an add-on at the end.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, are you working on the next book, on a follow-up? Yeah?

BILTON: I'm exploring ideas. You know, I think that these stories in the Valley are just so fascinating. You know.

FLATOW: Yeah.

BILTON: I mean, it is the largest area of wealth in a 50 square mile area in the history of humanity. And there is so much change that is happening here and it's affecting everything, from politics to religion. And you just look at Twitter. It was a seven year old company that went from a drunken conversation in a car one night to being worth $25 billion and changing the world. And I just think there's some just truly fascinating stories there.

FLATOW: Well, I'm sure you know that there are more IT people in New York now than there are Wall Street people.

BILTON: Are there really?

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, yeah. Well, maybe we will now see that community going in Hudson Square some place

BILTON: I did have a question for you, actually.

FLATOW: Yeah.

BILTON: You said in the beginning of the show that, you know, that backstabbing and betrayal, you know, was like Wall Street and so on. Do you have that in the radio industry? Do you guys all kind of...

FLATOW: Oh, yeah. Everybody...

BILTON: ...unplug each other's mics?

FLATOW: Everybody has it. Oh, there used to be - in the old - 50 years ago they would burn your copy. You had live radio. They'd take a match to your script while you're reading it.

BILTON: Really?

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

BILTON: Wow.

FLATOW: We'll talk some other time, Nick.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Another show. Thanks. But it's a great book. Thanks for coming on and talking about it.

BILTON: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

FLATOW: Nick Bilton is author of "Hatching Twitter." He's also a columnist and reporter for the New York Times in San Francisco. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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