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

NPR | Nov. 8, 2013 7:21 a.m.

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NPR Staff

A worker unveils a floor mat bearing the logo of Twitter on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

A worker unveils a floor mat bearing the logo of Twitter on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Getty Images, Andrew Burton

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.

Take us back to that first friendship that began it all, between Jack Dorsey and Noah Glass. They were in a struggling company called Odeo that focused on podcasts. Apple starts in on that market — they need a new idea. What happens next?

“The company Odeo is actually built on friendships. Everything in this story is based on 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 that together and thought hey, this would be amazing if we could build a technology that make us feel less alone. And that essentially is the genesis of how Twitter started.”

One interesting tidbit we learn from your reporting is that Noah Glass helped came up with the name for the service.

“Noah was really excited about this thing. More so than anyone else. Noah is very interestyin ch aracter. He’s almost like a Kramer from Seinfeld. That’s the besy 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 and come up with a name for this thing and his phone kept on ringing, and he was trying to come up with a name for this thing. He turned his phone on vibrate on the table. It led him to a dictionary, to a series of words in the dictionary, to the word twitch and 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 set out to write this book I thought I was writing about a story about a company that had gone through a 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, he is not going to make a billion dollars. He is the forgotten founder and yet without him this thing wouldn’t exist. This is really kind of emblematic of the power of what this service became. The chaos is I think what led to the success in this company but it also tore all these people apart.”

Do you use Twitter and how did reporting this book 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 and 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 these 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. 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 got to know these guys, what was that like?

“I knew these guys a little bit earlier … The problem was that creation myth, I believed it. I believed that Jack Dorsey 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 really 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/.

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