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Hatching Twitter: An inside account of its early days reveals cycles of betrayal

Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal
Nick Bilton

Millions of investors have spent countless hours reading about Twitter over the last month, scouring its dense prospectus for some insight into the service's future ahead of its initial public offering. The 181-page securities filing is thick with details and data. It sketches out the company's short history in numbers and graphics, the cold facts that together tell a story behind one of the most disruptive technologies ever created. Monthly average users? 215 million. Net loss at the end of 2012? $79-million.

And so on. It's hugely informative, it's hugely boring. Nobody is going to read it that doesn't need to understand the investment thesis behind one of the most highly anticipated stock offerings in history. For everyone else, there's a far more interesting read that details the genius, hope, passion, pettiness and betrayal behind the company's rise to the top of the social networking ranks.

Nick Bilton's Hatching Twitter may not convince anyone to invest their life savings in the company, but it's a rich dive into the difficulties faced by the company's founders as they watched a sketchy concept nobody was sure about in the first place transform itself into a global communications network that helps users broadcast their lunch options as easily as they can fuel a revolution with critical information updates.

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Bilton – a technology columnist at the New York Times – takes advantage of a wide range of sources to tell a tale that is more of a buddy-story-gone-wrong than corporate biography. While deep on detail and quirky insights – the first tweet was "just setting up my twttr"; before the Fail Whale made its debut, photos of cats would appear whenever the site crashed – the real narrative hangs on the heartbreaking deterioration of four friendships that can barely stand the strain of success.

The book starts with co-founder Evan Williams looking for a garbage can to vomit in as he waits to tell his staff that he's stepping aside as chief executive officer, without mentioning the coup that blindsided him and left him wondering how it all went wrong. Betrayal and revenge come up again and again – one friend conspiring with another to turf another friend over the side.

"He had been forced out of the company in a malicious, bloody boardroom coup carried out by the people he had hired, some of whom had once been his closest friends, and by some of the investors who had financed the company," reads a sentence that could, with only minor alterations, cover off other abrupt personnel changes. The heart of the friction is a question that countless users have asked themselves as they try to figure out the service – is Twitter about what an individual is doing, or about what's happening around them? It's not an easy question to answer, and the debate is at the root of all of the fights and disagreements about how the company should be run.

By the time they figure out that Twitter's unique value lies in the combination of the two questions, the business is salvageable but several friendships are not. Yet in a book where everyone is occasionally the bad guy, there are no villains. The corporate disasters and personal crises that shape the company aren't the result of anyone's evilness; they are mostly rooted in the mundane concerns and personality flaws that complicate any friendship that undergoes a rapid and unexpected change.

Near the end of the book, rapper Snoop Lion (né Dogg) visits the Twitter office while newly installed CEO Dick Costolo is away. He sees a turntable and starts rapping. He pulls out giant joints, everyone smokes. It's a great insight into start-up culture, something that would make for legendary stories and further cement the Twitter office as the coolest in the world. But Mr. Costolo – who wasn't one of the original founders and found himself promoted to the top job in 2010 shortly after Mr. Williams considered throwing up into a bucket – wasn't impressed.

"Dick was furious when he found out about the weed, the dancing, the partying employees," Bilton writes. "He vowed that this was the last time anything like that would happen. It was time for Twitter to grow up, he said."

The corporate maturity and reduced personal drama likely makes Twitter a more attractive investment for those looking to bet on the likelihood of its success, for those delving deep into the company's financial data and pressuring their brokers to get in on the IPO. But for everyone else, Hatching Twitter is the better read.

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Steve Ladurantaye is The Globe and Mail's media reporter. He tweets at @sladurantaye.

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