Book: Hatching Twitter

I was in a reading mood this weekend so I read Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal after reading No Better Time on Saturday. I finished it just before I walked the dog and then went to bed.

I slept very poorly last night and woke up thinking about the book. I woke up several times in the night (I’m getting older – that’s part of the drill – anyone over 45 knows what I mean) and each time I had something about the book in my brain.

When I woke up this morning, the first thought I had as I was brushing my teeth was “the characters in the book weren’t right.” When I read history, especially of a technology company, I often know a few of the people pretty well. When the writer captures their essence, it lends credibility to all the other people I don’t know. When the writer misses, it detracts from the whole thing.

In Hatching Twitter, Nick Bilton (the author) captured a dimension of the people I know. But it was only one dimension. And it missed – completely – in capturing the whole of the people. The dimension he highlighted made the story more dramatic as he focused on a dimension of conflict. As I sit here writing this, trying to process how I feel about the book, I realize this tactic – by focusing on only one dimension of a person – created incredible tension in the story.

I love Ben Mezrichand his books. I realize that Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal is written in the same style as Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. The title is even in the same style. The big difference is that Mezrich doesn’t pretend that he’s not sensationalizing the situation. That’s his gig – and he’s not apologetic about it in any way. Note the phrases after the colon – “A True Story” (Bilton) and “A Tale of” (Mezrich).

A puzzle piece just clicked into place for me. I read Hatching Twitter (Twitter story) the day after I read No Better Time (Akamai story). Both were dramatic. No Better Time was history; Hatching Twitter was sensationalized history. No Better Time created real depth around one character – Daniel Lewin. Hatching Twitter tried to do this around the story of Twitter but had to do this at the expense of the depth of the characters to fit into the 300 pages that a non-fiction book like this ends up being due to publishing industry constraints so it has a chance of ending up on a best seller list.

I wonder what Bilton could have done with 900 pages instead of 300 pages. I’ve got to believe – given the extensive interviews he did – that he has a much deeper view on many of the characters in the book. Or, instead of using 300 pages to rush through parts of the story, he used 900 pages to go deeper on the whole story, instead of picking out several of the dramatic highlights.

I’m clearly still processing this. I had hoped to love this book. Instead, it disturbed me. Something felt deeply off, but even after writing this, I’m not sure what it is. If you’ve read Hatching Twitter, and you have an opinion, please weigh in as I try to sort this out in my mind.

  • I haven’t read it, but before getting to the end of your post, I thought of the word “sensationalize”, and there you had that thought too.

    It disturbs me too, that some authors or movie directors sensationalize these stories to the point where the real truth isn’t coming out. They focus on the art of the story, instead of on the substance of the matter. And they miss a lot of things, or mis-interpret them and taint our view of it.

    “Hatching Twitter”, the life of Steve Jobs, the making of Facebook, …all these were victims of opportunistic production.

    For the very few that were really close to the truth, you just have to shake our head and move on.

    • Guest

      I too read it over the weekend. And as I wasn’t as familiar with the founding of Twitter, found it fascinating. HOWEVER. The author seemed determined to set the story using good/evil archetypes that I found unrealistic. The last few pages of the book tied everything up in a neat little bow that I found slightly gag-inducing. The hero, villain, fool and supporting characters makes a convenient framework. But does not reflect the complexities of real life. There are sides to every story. Perhaps with 900 pages, more attention would have been spent on details vs. trying to conform to a framework. Regardless, it was a quick/interesting read.

  • I haven’t read it either yet, but I agree with William.

    I think there very much is a reason Steve Jobs asked Walter Isaacson to write his biography. In his other biographies, they’re very down to earth, and about the whole person. He manages to make the real, interesting. Few take that route, and if its written in the same style as Mezrich then it seems Hatching Twitter has definitely been sensationalized.

    So perhaps what’s disturbing you is both the sensationalization of the story, and also the brevity. Like you said, what could he have done with 900? And it’s always discomforting to only get part of the picture not the whole thing, which it sounds like this is how the book is.

  • I haven’t read Hatching Twitter, but this is really a conversation about capturing history more than a specific book.

    With that in mind I’m currently reading Rush to Glory by Tom Rubython recounting the dramatic 1976 Formula1 season which saw James Hunt win the Championship from Nikki Lauda in the last race. I also recently watched the Ron Howard film “Rush” which I thought was fantastic.

    Now the medium of film has even more constraints than a book because the budgets and stakes are so much more dramatic. As a result Ron Howard wanted to create art rather than tell the history. What he was really after was to capture the essence of Formula1 racing at the time. Of course it was important that the movie recounted true events so that the audience would get a true sense of how far these people pushed themselves.

    And while he trained to make independent events as accurate as possible there was a lot that had to be reorganized due to the 2 hour length of the film. And so events from several different seasons were often compressed into one.

    Does this take away from the work? Not in my opinion. While it is always amazing to see a documentary that really recounts what occurred, sometimes the artistry that someone else can capture by focusing purely on emotion and a single perspective is just as valid.

    However the difference was that it wasn’t about sensationalism.

    So to the point, if you thought sensationalist, then it most likely was. And the difference between what Ron Howard did to twist facts and a sensationalist retelling, is that while has you capture the real human spirit and struggle which yields triumph, the other just becomes gossip posing as literature.

  • Skylar Lyon

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but maybe that’s because it was so dramatic. I don’t know enough of the story otherwise to comment on the accuracy or profiling of the characters. I’ll certainly checkout No Better Time for comparison.

    • I think if it was presented as “sensationalized fact” or even “fiction” I would have enjoyed it.

  • Dan Studebaker

    Thanks for the review, your comparison of the author’s writing to Mezrich’s told me all I needed to know. After being part of one of Mezrich’s earlier books (Bringing Down the House) I have a good idea of how far from reality these works can be. Twitter is an interesting story and I would love to know more about it but I don’t want to try to figure out what is real and what is imaginary. It will probably be a best seller and become the de facto history of Twitter which is a disservice to the participants.

  • I finished the book yesterday myself, and as someone who used/covered Twitter through its growth, few of the stories surprised me. I agree it was fairly one-dimensional, and honestly, not outside the norms of a regular screwed up venture backed company. Twitter’s simply had an incredible spotlight on them for some time, and they’ve dramatically impacted media and sharing, pushing the hype forward.

    +1 for your mention of the Akamai book. I hadn’t heard of it, but now I think I need to hop over to Google Play and get it.

  • EquityZen

    Brad, how does it compare to a book like Barbarians At the Gate, the story that covers the fall of RJR Nabisco? I found that narrative to be a sensational read in addition to covering multiple characters in depth (though I couldn’t corroborate the facts, since I wasn’t even born at the time of writing).

    • I don’t remember Barbarians At The Gate well enough – I read it 20 years ago. And I didn’t know anyone so I couldn’t really calibrate.

  • I enjoyed the book overall…but I agree there was something ‘off’ about how some of the characters were portrayed (at least the ones I know).

    For me part of it was because he wrote about what people were thinking or feeling (and clearly he couldn’t actually know that even with tons of interviews) and part of it was because he tended to present each character from a single lens/focus/prototype. The reality is that you could easily fill 900 pages on each one of the characters involved and probably still not do them justice.

    Regardless, the story itself was a lot of fun and I think the book does a good job of showing just how hard (and lucky) it was to get to where it is today…so for that I think it was a great book.

  • Gennady Shenker

    Brad, thank you for sharing. Should I read anything in to your saying nothing about Akamai history? Is it worth investing time in this read?

    • Read this post on the Akamai book (from the day before). – It’s definitely worth reading.

      • Gennady Shenker

        Thank you so much, Brad. Added to my list.

        May I ask what you think about Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs (you probably already have posted your opinion somewhere). If you had to recommend three – five – … most important books to read what would they be?

  • A piece of ART

    Interesting, Character traits seem like it a feather on a see saw diving into the dirt.. joking, sound like it was interesting just missing the * it factor .. as you say the depth, I guess to make sure the reader knows enough about the character is crucial.. thanks for the tip, as i jog to my note book and finish my book with a passion of relentless strokes ink warrior.. Interesting . Thanks

  • Guest

    That’s funny, my first job was essentially identical (supply chain included) as I cleaned these mutant huge idaho spuds to be baked and filled, at a joint called Spud City in Clackamas Town Center Mall (Portland, OR), 1985.

  • i read it this weekend. Nick got a lot of people to talk to him because the stories he tells are largely true. i agree that many characters were one dimensional, particularly Jack, who comes off badly and not deservedly so. this was a complex founding team and the dynamics played out in some strange ways. but the result is a beautiful product and company.

    i really like this picture of dick, ev, jack, and biz at the NYSE. i am a bit saddened that Jason Goldman wasn’t there. i know the book makes Noah Glass out to be the forgotten founder. but in my experience, Jason was also a key contributor who does not get enough credit.