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Book review: Hatching twitter, By @Nick Bilton
Twitter's creation story is told in overblown prose
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and is currently judging the Aesthetica Magazine new writing prize.
Friday 15 November 2013
The story of Twitter is no Social Network. There is no precocious Zuckerberg figure and no preppy Harvard-types engaged in campus rivalries. The four guys who founded Twitter from a hiccupping start to a social media behemoth floated on the stock exchange, are bedraggled tech-nerds and hackers at the start, living in vans or garages, more often than not relying on their laptops to fend off loneliness.
They begin collegiately, wanting to create a platform that will offer everyone the democracy of a voice in 140-characters – an egalitarian "phone-ternet". Yet if the New York Times journalist, Nick Bilton's version of their lives were turned into a film, it might play out with the kind of rivalry and hubris that would make Facebook look like The Waltons.
Bilton draws a trajectory that takes the founders from "start-up" idealism – working out of kitchens and and being best buds – to power-hungry rapaciousness. He provides a chapter-a-piece of pen portraits for each founder: Biz Stone was raised on food stamps. Noah Glass was brought up on hippy commune and later written out of Twitter's success. Jack Dorsey, a tattooed anarchist, was ousted as CEO but staged a vengeful comeback.
Evan Williams, son of a Nebraskan farmer made good became his biggest rival, the tension between the two solidifying into something approaching hate. There is also intriguing revelation of Twitter's competitive relationship with Facebook and its brushes with Zuckerberg: one of the best scenes is of a meeting in which the Twitter team asks Zuckerberg whether he wants his office door open or closed. He replies: "yes" – perfectly summing up the social awkwardness of everybody in the room.
Stripped of its new technology–clothing, this book reads as a morality tale about power and its addictions, and it is difficult to feel sympathy for any of Bilton's subjects as a result.
Yet a nobility does remain in their business ethics if not in their interpersonal relationships: they cling to their vision to democratise news and refuse to hand ownership of the company over to the rich and famous who come calling (Sean Combs and Al Gore, among others).
A touching paradox emerges – that the site that connects so many strangers was created as a cure for the founders' real-world disconnection. But then Bilton ruins it by spelling it out, numerously.
He is also at pains to point out his hundreds of hours of face time with the founders. The central flaw in the book is not the material though, but the manner in which it is delivered. The story of the damaged souls behind Twitter is engaging in itself but Bilton's mannered writing and his colour writer's obsession with what people are wearing – as if sartorial detail is tantamount to re-creating their worlds – makes it read like a bad novel in parts.
The schmaltzy tone at the end, in which they learn the error of their ways, doesn't help either. An all-American ending, for everyone except perhaps Jack.
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