The entrepreneur Jack Dorsey spent part of 2005 ineptly flirting with Crystal Taylor, the sole female employee of the San Francisco startup where he worked. Eventually, she agreed to let him join a group trip to see a band. “I’ll call you later to figure out where to meet,” said Dorsey, excited, but Taylor protested that she rarely bothered with phone calls: “Can’t you just text me instead?” Looking back from the vantage point of 2013, what Dorsey said next is so freighted with dramatic irony as to seem absurd: “Umm, what’s a text?”
The next year borrowing the brevity and initially the technology of text messaging, Dorsey co-founded Twitter. Three years after that, the expanding social network averaged 35 million tweets per day. Last week, Twitter went public with a share price that valued it at $18 billion (11 billion), a number that quickly rose. In the eight years since Dorsey learned about texts, Twitter has: acquired 232 million active users; become an indispensable campaigning tool for presidents; been plausibly implicated in uprisings against dictators; created and destroyed celebrities; helped up-end journalism; given birth to new literary forms. For those of us who find ourselves irretrievably enmeshed in it, Twitter isn’t so much another thing we sometimes do online as a background condition of our lives.
And that background condition is what, exactly? Notoriously, we Twitter aficionados find it hard to explain to sceptical friends what Twitter actually is, let alone why they should care. As the words leave your mouth, you realise you’re sounding like a heroin addict, or an extremely superficial person. And that all you’re doing is confirming the prejudices of Jonathan Franzen and a thousand other critics who, despite betraying no sign of having spent even five minutes on Twitter, are somehow certain it’s a waste of time.
It’s comforting, therefore, to learn from ‘Hatching Twitter’, by the New York Times technology writer Nick Bilton, that the service’s own founders have never quite known what it is either. For Dorsey, in Bilton’s account, Twitter was always about telling other people what you were doing. (“Just setting up my twttr” was his first tweet, using the firm’s original spelling.) For co-founder Evan Williams, a softly spoken dreamer brought up on a Nebraska farm, it was about discovering and sharing the world with others. (“Did anyone just feel that earthquake?” a west coast tweeter inquired in August 2006, initiating Twitter’s role as a news source.)
The other main players, Noah Glass and Biz Stone, had their own aspirations for the network. But it wasn’t really up to them. They had created a system of such powerful simplicity — a way for users to broadcast a stream of brief updates, while following a tailored stream of updates from others that the rest was out of their hands.
This truth that Twitter, at a fundamental level, is what its users make it lends Bilton’s story an oddly evanescent air. Page after page of ‘Hatching Twitter’ details infighting among the co-founders, for control of the company and for the right to be recognised as having started it: Ev and Jack force out Noah; Ev forces out Jack; investors force out Ev; Jack makes a triumphant return; angry people say “What the f—?” a lot, and there is much bitterness about who gets to sit near Michelle Obama at the Time 100 Most Influential People in the World gala. There are amusingly Silicon Valleyish details: one major bone of contention among the founders is Dorsey’s habit of leaving work early for yoga.
Bilton tells the story with verve. But the most interesting thing about al lthis bickering is how irrelevant it seems to have been to Twitter as a cultural phenomenon. While Dorsey and Williams fought, it was Twitter’s users who were busy creating retweets, @ replies and hashtags, the three conventions that give the system its unique depth and versatility. Indeed, it’s tempting to wonder if a more focused team might have given us something more like Facebook, designed with military precision to extract as much data as possible from users, via deception where necessary. (Tempting, but unfair: Twitter has always shown a striking commitment to maintaining user privacy, resisting government data requests and defending free speech.)
The fact that you create your own Twitter, gradually building a perfectly modified environment, goes a long way to explaining its addictiveness. As Kathryn Schulz pointed out in a brilliant recent New York magazine essay about her Twitter addiction, critics like Franzen are both wrong and right. They’re wrong because Twitter need not be stupid: “The problem, in fact, is that it’s sufficiently smart and interesting that spending massive amounts of time on it is totally possible and semi-defensible.” (The criticism that you can’t say anything meaningful in 140 characters is a red herring: links on Twitter are how I discover 800-word news stories, 8,000-word features, and 80,000-word books.) But they’re probably right that it’s eroding our capacity for attention and colonising our minds. Like Schulz, Inow regularly find myself thinking in tweets: I often can’t discern a distinction between having a thought and figuring out how to express it on Twitter. I find this troubling.
Perhaps the best way to think about Twitter is in terms of “ambient awareness”, a phrase explored by Clive Thompson in his recent book ‘Smarter Than You Think’, referring to the surprisingly meaningful benefits of being peripherally aware of the thoughts, moods and doings of others. Twitter “wasn’t just about sharing what kind of music you were listening to or where you were at that moment,” Bilton writes, “it was about connecting people and making them feel less alone. It could be a technology that would erase a feeling that an entire generation felt while staring at their computer screens.” And we should pause before assuming that there’s something automatically substandard about that kind of connection: the evidence, so far, suggests that those who interact a lot on social media also interact more, not less, in life offline.
There’s a comical moment in ‘Hatching Twitter’ when Williams and Stone meet Mark Zuckerberg in a small office at Facebook’s HQ. (It’s one of many overtures the firm resisted from potential buyers who would surely have ruined it: not just Facebook, but also Yahoo!, and Al Gore, with whom the two spend a surreal night getting drunk on tequila.) Williams asks Zuckerberg if he should close the office door or leave it open. “Yes,” the famously awkward Zuckerberg replies. Williams tries again: open or closed? “Yes,” Zuckerberg says again. Williams half-closes the door as a compromise.
Perhaps Zuckerberg was on to something, though. Is Twitter a waste of time, or a meaningful new dimension to millions of lives? Will I come to regret spending years of my life on it, or has it nourished me intellectually, emotionally, even spiritually? The answer, undoubtedly, is: yes.