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Let's Make Better Mistakes Tomorrow

04 Feb 2014

Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton (Amazon link) is the first book I’ve finished reading in 2014, so I thought I’d write about it a little.

TL;DR - Twitter’s early days were marked with so much internal turmoil and mismanagement, that one wonders how the company even survived. We’re all glad it did, though, as the world is better place because of it.

Right off the bat, this book isn’t about Twitter, the product/website/app. In fact, the story of how the product matured over the years gets almost no mention in the book; particularly Twitter’s transition from an SMS based service to a smartphone app is completely absent. Similarly, the stories behind the development of Twitter’s now-famous features such as the Retweet, Favourite or Direct Messaging are completely ignored, and Twitter’s biggest contribution to Internet speak, the #hashtag gets very little mention.

What this book covers amply, are the ever-changing relationships between the co-founders, early employees and investors. In minute detail, Nick Bilton talks about the internal conflicts, power struggles and boardroom coups that led to Twitter changing CEOs thrice in two years.

Viewed as the story of its founders rather than the story of Twitter itself, Hatching Twitter is a glorious read. The book opens with Evan Williams – who founded Blogger (which he later sold to Google) and co-founded Odeo (which never really took off), throwing up into a dustbin, about to lose his job as CEO of Twitter. We’re then taken back to the individual stories of each of the co-founders, who come together trying to build the podcasting startup, Odeo. When it became apparent that Odeo was doomed to fail, Jack Dorsey, an engineer at Odeo, started working on a site that would let people share status messages via SMS. Twitter was born.

A large portion of the book revolves around the conflict between team Ev and team Jack. I somehow got the impression that the author either disliked Jack, or didn’t think he deserved the fame and adulation he received from the media. He’s made him out to be a bumbling amateur, underqualified and unable to handle the responsibilities of a CEO. After being asked to step down, Jack turns bitter and goes around telling anyone who’d listen how he’d been screwed out of his own company. Not content with the sympathy, he starts referring to himself as the founder and inventor of Twitter. When he finally has enough people on his side, he plots his return to Twitter, toppling Ev and his allies on the way. The whole thing reads like a corporate Game of Thrones, minus the bloodshed.

Twitter’s impact on mainstream media, and its growth as a tool used to spread news, spark revolutions, and let celebrities engage with their audiences is covered extensively. Ashton Kutcher beating CNN to become the first Twitter account with a million followers, signing up Oprah on her show, and delaying maintenance on Twitter’s servers so citizens of Syria could use it to voice their protests are some of the highlights of the book.

All in all, it’s gripping enough to force you to complete the book. I loved the scenes with Mark Zuckerberg where he tries to buy Twitter (twice), only to be turned down. The writing is brilliant in these parts – so wonderfully awkward and tense, but hilarious to the reader. (The chapter is titled “Accidental Billionaires” which is what I’m going to be reading next!). Another amusing takeaway from the book is the quote

Let’s Make Better Mistakes Tomorrow

which was put up at the Twitter office, hung upside down. It’s whimsical, yet optimistic and uplifting - I love it!

If you have more than a passing interest in startup culture or the web, pick it up, it’s a good read.