Why does Twitter drive everyone so crazy?

Rob Walker
Yahoo NewsNovember 5, 2013
A person holds a magnifying glass over a computer screen displaying Twitter logos
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A person holds a magnifying glass over a computer screen displaying Twitter logos, in this picture illustration taken in Skopje September 10, 2013. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

For a service built around the idea of concision and simplicity, Twitter has inspired an astounding outpouring of words in the half-dozen years of its existence. Not just the vast sea of tweets, but the endless debate about Twitter — between passionate fans who believe it has revolutionized communication, and equally passionate naysayers who condemn it as a scourge on informed public discourse.

Having read New York Times columnist Nick Bilton’s eagerly awaited book, Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, I imagine the company’s founders are as surprised by this as anybody. According to Bilton’s exhaustive reporting, the company’s backstory is remarkably messy — from its beginning as a side project at a flailing podcasting enterprise, through a byzantine series of power struggles (including the marginalization of crucial but previously obscure early player Noah Glass), and a never-ending internal debate about what, exactly, this thing was supposed to be about.

But it must be about something: Bilton’s book, with exquisite timing, arrives just as the social media giant prepares to launch an initial public offering that will reportedly peg its value at more than $11 billion. I asked Bilton a few questions about the book, the company, and what he thinks Twitter is all about.

This is obviously a meticulously reported book, and I wonder how much you knew, going into the project, that the backstory of the founders' relationships would turn out to be so complex. Or were you drawn to the subject for other reasons?

The book I wrote is very different from the one I set out to write. In the original synopsis I worked on with my agent, I believed that Jack Dorsey had created Twitter alone and been unjustly thrown out of the company for power and control. Yet the more I reported, the more I found that the creation of the company was actually a collaboration by more than a dozen people who were in the room when Twitter was hatched. The complexity of the story, and the extent to which the founders — once friends — turned on each other, was truly a surprise. While the human drama that unfolded was incredibly fascinating, and makes for a very compelling read, the backbone of this story was always what a revolutionary company Twitter is.

Speaking of drama, I was struck by how chaotic, almost haphazard, the company seemed to be in those years, and really by what a motley crew the founders seemed to be. You've reported on many tech companies and startups -- are they all like this and we just don't realize it? Or is this one unique?

The answer to both of those questions is, yes. Every startup I cover has some sort of tumultuous founding. That being said, Twitter's is truly unusual. In most instances, one of the founders is pushed out of the company. In the story of Twitter, all of the founders were pushed out in one form or another. What really struck me though was that I have been covering Twitter for The New York Times for several years, and even I didn't have the slightest comprehension of what the real story was behind the company.

Certainly the unsung co-founder Noah Glass is one of the most fascinating figures in the book, and his story seems to have gotten lots more attention since your Times Magazine excerpt appeared. Any updates about him since then?

Noah really is one of the most private and humble people I met while writing the story. He was incredibly hurt after being betrayed by his closest friends, and it was difficult for him to open up about any of it. (As readers will see in the book, that's understandable.) But what I learned through the reporting of this book was that without Noah, Twitter would not exist. And I hope that he begins to get the credit that he deserves.

It was interesting to learn that from the beginning, the very first reports about the service were mixed: That "love it or hate it" attitude seems to have been baked into Twitter from the start. It’s often struck me that people get weirdly emotional about it -- you can't just think Twitter is sort of okay, it's either the dumbest thing ever or the greatest thing ever. What is it about Twitter that gets people so worked up?

The battle between people loving and hating Twitter harkens back to its earliest days — as you so astutely point out — and those that hate it usually feel it is just a place for people to be narcissistic. Those who love it see it as a place for self-expression, consuming and sharing news, and a powerful communication tool. Anything substantial — whether it be politics, religion, or a disruptive technology like Twitter — is going to get people worked up. I think that very passion people show toward it, on either side of the fence, shows just how important Twitter actually is.

I was amused to find Evan Williams back in 2008 telling his board: "People hear about Twitter a lot but don't know what it is or why they'd want to use it." Five years later, on the brink of its IPO, Twitter has certainly enjoyed absolutely astonishing levels of press coverage -- but I'm still reading analyst quotes suggesting Twitter has "a lot of work ahead of them to get mainstream America to understand" it.

Is it possible that "mainstream America" does understand Twitter, and a sizable chunk just isn't that interested? For instance I was fascinated by the assertion here (attributed only to "sources") that "Twitter has more than a billion registered accounts, according to sources, but only a quarter of that number remain repeat Twitter customers." Does Twitter need to attain the same scale as Facebook, or can it be successful without being ubiquitous?

The reason Twitter has so many registered users that don't use the service is a result of the popularity and press in 2009 — when Ev went on Oprah, for example — that led mainstream America to sign up, unaware of what the service could actually be used for. Since then, celebrities, politicians, and religious figures — the Pope included — have joined Twitter and use it on a regular basis. If the company can figure out how to communicate that to the mainstream, I'm sure it will continue to grow in leaps and bounds.

That being said, Twitter has a much more difficult time than Facebook teaching people what it is, specifically the limit of 140 characters and the @ and # symbols. If Twitter hopes to continue growing, it will need to become simpler and more self-explanatory.

For more from Bilton about Twitter’s I.P.O., stay tuned for his interview with Yahoo Finance tomorrow. His book is Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal.