All Tech Considered
3:17 pm
Thu November 7, 2013

Nick Bilton On Twitter's Creation Myth & 'Forgotten Founder'

Originally published on Fri November 8, 2013 8:21 am

On arguably the biggest day in Twitter's history, we wanted to look back to find out just how it all started, because like many Silicon Valley companies, its origin story is fraught.

That's the subject of Nick Bilton's new book, Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal. On Thursday, he chatted with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish about the 140-character service's complicated history, how Twitter made his book reporting easier and the forgotten founder of Thursday's stock darling.

Interview Highlights

Let's start with a key friendship in the founding of this company, it's between Jack Dorsey and Noah Glass. They were this a struggling company called Odeo, which is a podcasting company, essentially. What happens next?

The company Odeo is actually built on friendships. Everything in this whole story is essentially about friendships. Both being created and torn apart. One of the greatest friendships is between Noah Glass and Jack Dorsey. They really kind of bonded together over their love of music. They were big into going to raves. One night, after a long night of dancing and drinking, they were parked on Valencia Street in San Francisco in a car and it was raining, and Noah Glass was going through a divorce, and he was incredibly alone at the time. And Jack Dorsey was upset because the company he had gone to work for wasn't doing so well. And they had this conversation about this idea of being able to update your status. And Jack had brought this idea up before. And what happened was Noah's feeling of loneliness that evening and all of these things together, he took the status concept and melded it together with that and thought, "Hey, this would be amazing if we could build a technology that would make us feel less alone." And that essentially is the genesis of how Twitter started.

One interesting tidbit in the book is that it was Noah Glass helped come up with the name for the service.

That's exactly right. Noah was really excited about this thing. More so than anyone else. Noah is a very interesting character. He's almost like a Kramer from Seinfeld. That's the best way to describe him. He's a really sweet guy. But he was very excited about this. And he couldn't concentrate and he went home one day to try to come up with a name for this thing and his phone kept on dinging as people were text messaging him. [He turned his phone on vibrate on the table.] He heard the zzz noise. It led him through a series of words in the dictionary, until he found the word twitch and then eventually the word twitter, and he thought, "This is it. This is perfect."

It feels like everything after that point becomes a succession of betrayals, ousters and back-stabbings. Noah Glass' name isn't on the list of people who will be billionaires after this IPO today. Was there a moment in all this turmoil that really surprised you?

It all surprised me. When I first set out to write this book I thought I was writing about a story about a company that had gone through its fair share of turmoil. And look, every company in the Valley, this is what I do for The New York Times, I cover these guys. And there is always some sort of strife. But this was a whole different level of it. Noah Glass was first pushed out. Then Jack Dorsey was fired. Then Jack Dorsey went around telling everyone he had invented Twitter on his own and he essentially wrote Noah Glass out of the story of creating Twitter. Noah now, as you said, he is not going to make a billion dollars. He is the forgotten founder and yet without him this thing wouldn't exist. ... I think it really is kind of emblematic of the power and importance of what this service became. The chaos, I think, is what led to the success in this company but it also tore all these people apart.

Do you use Twitter and over the course of reporting this book how did it change your mind about the service?

I use Twitter obsessively. It's one of the few services I signed up for six or so years ago that I still use every morning, noon and night. But one of the things that was fascinating about the reporting of this book, as you read the book it's very descriptive. The reason I was able to get those really amazing details on what people were wearing, where they were, what the weather was. It was because I was able to go back through their Twitter feeds from over the years and piece these things together. And I found that truly fascinating. It wasn't something I expected when I went into this story.

Isn't there a saying about how terrible it is to meet your heroes? If you were a fan of this service and then really got to know these guys, what was that like?

I actually knew these guys a little bit earlier. ... The problem was that creation myth, I believed it. I believed that it was Jack Dorsey that had started this thing on his own. [As I started to go out and report this thing,] I realized it was much bigger than that. There were 12 people in the room when this thing was hatched. And that was really surprising. And it was also surprising to see that the people that I thought were the bad guys were the good guys, and the other way around, where the people I thought were the good guys were actually some of the bad guys.

Read an excerpt from the book in The New York Times Magazine

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today, on arguably the biggest day in Twitter's history, we wanted to look back to find out just how it all started because like many Silicon Valley companies, its origin story is fraught. And it's the subject of Nick Bilton's new book, "Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal." He joins us now from New York. Welcome, Nick.

NICK BILTON: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So let's start with a key friendship in the founding of this company. It's between Jack Dorsey and Noah Glass. And they were in this struggling company called Odeo, which was a podcasting company, essentially.

BILTON: Yeah. The company Odeo was actually built on friendships. Everything in this whole story is essentially about friendships, both being created and torn apart. And one of the greatest friendships was between Noah Glass and Jack Dorsey. They really kind of bonded together over their love of music. They were big into going to raves. And one night, after a long night of dancing and drinking, they were parked on Valencia Street in San Francisco in a car and it was raining, and Noah Glass was going through a divorce and he was incredibly alone at the time. And Jack Dorsey was, you know, upset because the company he had gone to work for wasn't doing so well.

And they had this conversation about this idea of being able to update your status. And Jack had brought this idea up before. And what happened was Noah's feeling of loneliness that evening and all of these things together, he took the status concept and he melded together with that. And he thought, hey, this would be amazing if you could build a technology that would make us feel less alone. And that was essentially the genesis of how Twitter started.

CORNISH: And one tidbit in the book is that it was Noah Glass who helped come up with the name for the service.

BILTON: That is correct. Noah was really excited about this thing. I mean, more so than anyone else. Noah is a very interesting character. He's almost like a Kramer from "Seinfeld," and that's the best way to describe him. He's a really sweet guy. But he was very excited about this and he couldn't concentrate and he went home one day to try to come up with a name for this thing. And his phone kept on dinging as people were text messaging him. And he turned it to vibrate on his table, and he heard the (makes noise) noise. And it led him to a series of words in the dictionary until he found the word twitch and then eventually the word twitter, and he thought, this is it, this is perfect.

CORNISH: Now it feels like everything after that point in the book is this series of betrayals and ousters and backstabbings. For instance, Noah Glass' name I don't see here in the list of people who will be billionaires after this IPO today. Was there a moment in all this turmoil that really surprised you that you think is important to understanding the company?

BILTON: It all surprised me. You know, when I first set out to write this book, I thought I was writing about a story about a company that had gone through its fair share of turmoil. And, look, every company in the Valley - this is what I do for the New York Times. I cover these guys. And there's always some sort of strife. But this was a whole different level of it.

You know, Noah Glass was first pushed out. Then Jack Dorsey was fired. Then Jack Dorsey went around, telling everyone that he had invented Twitter on his own and he essentially wrote Noah Glass out of the story of creating Twitter. And Noah, now, as you said, he's not gonna make $1 billion. He is the forgotten founder, and yet without him, this thing wouldn't exist. And I think that it really kind of is emblematic of the power and importance of what this service actually became. And the chaos was what I think led to the success in the company, but it also tore all these people apart.

CORNISH: Nick, I have one other question for you. Do you use Twitter, and over the course of reporting this book, how did it change your mind about the service?

BILTON: I use Twitter obsessively. It's one of the few services I think I signed up for six or so years ago that I still use every morning, noon and night. But one of the things that was fascinating with the reporting of the book, I mean, as you read the book, it's very descriptive. And the reason I was able to get those really amazing details of what people were wearing, where they were, you know, what the weather was, was because I was able to go back through their Twitter feeds from over the years and piece these things together. And I found that truly fascinating. It wasn't something I expected when I went into this story.

CORNISH: Isn't there a saying about how terrible it is to meet your heroes? I mean, if you were a fan of this service and then really got to know these guys, what was that like?

BILTON: I actually knew these guys a little bit earlier. I mean, I'd covered the company for years. But the problem was that creation myth, I believed it. I believed that it was Jack Dorsey that had started this thing on his own and I realized it was much bigger than that. There were 12 people in the room when this thing was hatched and that was really surprising. And it was also surprising to see that the people that I thought were the bad guys were the good guys, and the other way around, where the people I thought were the good guys were actually some of the bad guys.

CORNISH: Nick Bilton, author of "Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal," thank you so much for speaking with us.

BILTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.