In days of rapid change, we look for models and templates and tropes and archetypes that we can use as guides to help us make sense of the swirling chaos around us. The rags-to-riches-story. The “noble genius”. The “artist in the garret”. The “pack of misfits who find in each other the community they’ve always sought”. Perhaps this is true in any age. Perhaps any age is one of rapid change to those living through it.
This is one of the appeals of Nick Bilton’s admirable Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal. We (and by “we” I mean those of us who do not live in greater SiliconValleyVille), the great ignorant unwashed, come to a book like this asking “How? How does this happen? How do a handful of oddballs create something used by hundreds of millions of people hundreds of millions of times a day? From presidents to celebrities to millionaires to nobodies like you and me? And more importantly, how do I learn from this story so I can do it myself, so I can become rich and famous and powerful and loved and did I mention rich?”
“Hatching Twitter” does answer those questions. But not in quite the way one might expect.
Because on the one hand, it does tell the history of Twitter, and that in itself is no mean feat because we all know how it turns out. We know that the struggles and missteps and slings and arrows of the hapless nerds trying to create – well, half the time they’re not even sure what they’re trying to create – will ultimately result in a massive, mindboggling success. We know because we’re all on Twitter. And if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have bought the book about it, would we?
But that’s a story without drama, which Bilton admirably solves by beginning the book when Twitter has already accomplished so much and just as – surprise! – a palace coup is being executed. This immediately invests the reader emotionally by creating a storm cloud that hangs over every subsequent interaction that Bilton describes. It’s quite clever, actually, for it both acknowledges that the reader knows that Twitter will succeed and yet constantly forces the reader to question every move.
But the structural obstacle aside, there’s also the very complicated story itself, a story we think we know, a story that we discover has often very little connection to what really happened. Why was Twitter created? How was it created? Who actually created it? Silicon Valley is notorious for veiling the origins of their successes in mists of myth and fantasy for reasons of wealth and power. And yet it turns out that this is a story that even the players themselves aren’t quite sure about. Why? Because half the time they’re trying to reinvent themselves as they reinvent social media.
That’s because ultimately, Twitter is the story of a handful of lonely guys who stumbled into an insanely successful business that they thought, once they realized it could actually work, would bring them all the things they wanted, only to discover that not only did they have no idea what they were doing, and not only did their success make them the targets of attacks and threats from facebook and others, but that they lacked the basic human skills needed to work with each other to make it a success. So much so that – and this is to Bilton’s credit – at certain points in the book you’re frankly amazed the damn thing is still standing. No where is this more artfully and brilliantly demonstrated, by the way, than in “Clown Car in the Gold Mind”, a chapter as good as its title.
For what you realize as Bilton walks you deeper and deeper through this story is that, really, there is no template. Sure, there are moments that are similar to other moments, and of course there are things you can learn from the past and from others. But truly, Tolstoy to the contrary, every success story is actually unique. And that the only people telling you that there is one particular path to accomplishment are invariably people who have some vested interest in maintaining that mythology.
And while there are many other lessons to take away from Hatching Twitter, that may be the most important one. That success in the future, does not look like, does not have to look like, any success you’ve ever seen before.
And that it probably never has.
Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal by Nick Bilton was published by Portfolio Penguin on 11/05/13 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).