What Twitter Can and Can't Do

Author Nick Bilton discusses Twitter's turbulent past and promising future.

By + More

Is it possible to change the world 140 characters at a time? How about changing someone’s life? In “Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal,” New York Times reporter and columnist Nick Bilton looks at how Twitter went from a half-baked idea to a service able to shift world events, testing the relationships between its co-founders along the way. Bilton recently spoke with U.S. News about Twitter’s growing pains and its connection to politics. Excerpts:

Why did you focus on Twitter?

When I looked at Twitter when I started working on this project, I realized that it was a company that’s changed the world. It’s changed the way we do everything from business transactions to religion, where you have the pope tweeting, to government, where you have presidents tweeting. The other thing is that it was a story about four guys who were very flawed human beings, and they had accidentally changed the world.

What did the founders see as the future of Twitter?

You have Jack Dorsey, who was one of the co-founders, and Evan Williams, who is one of the other co-founders. They both had a very distinct style of what they believed Twitter would be. Williams, who had grown up on a farm, believed it was about talking about what was happening around you. In comparison, you had Dorsey, who had grown up in St. Louis, had a speech impediment as a kid and had a hard time communicating when he was very young. He saw things from a different angle, which was talking about himself, what he was doing. And while it sounds like a game of semantics, it actually ends up becoming two completely different use cases for how you use this service. And I think what Twitter became is essentially an amalgamation of both.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, the digital magazine from U.S. News editors.]

What did you find about the tension within the company related to politics?

Biz Stone is another one of the co-founders, and then there’s Jason Goldman, and while he’s not a co-founder, he was very instrumental in the early days of the company. They both had a philosophy of essentially not being part of the story. There were instances in the Arab Spring, there were instances where people were using Twitter for revolutions and protests and so on, and the media would call and say, “Hey, we’d love for someone from Twitter to come and speak on our TV show or be interviewed in our newspaper to talk about these use cases.” But Biz and Jason believed that Twitter should be impartial and that Twitter as a company should not care if Republicans or Democrats were using the service or protesters from far-off lands were using the service and what they were even protesting.

Is staying above the fray going to get harder for Twitter?

When you look at Twitter today, it is definitely very difficult for them to stay out of the conversation all the time because they’re constantly in it. You saw this around the elections, you see this whenever there’s some sort of scandal that happens as a result of Twitter where someone accidentally tweets something bad. You also see it today with some court cases where Twitter is sued by a certain person or certain government body because of something that is shared on there, and Twitter has to decide whether it is going to engage with the party that’s accusing it of something.

[Check out our gallery of political cartoons.]

How has Twitter changed the media?

I think it’s changed the news business in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. I can’t imagine reporting, writing and then publishing a story without Twitter as part of that process. The other thing that you see is that Twitter is better at breaking news than any news organization is today.

Where does Twitter go next?

I think one of the things we’ll start to see is more of a marketplace. [For instance,] I tweet that I have a book that just came out and you want to buy the book. Why can’t you just buy it within the tweet?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

What do you think will surprise readers most about your book?

One of the things I found that was most surprising to me was the loneliness aspect. One of the people we haven’t talked about is Noah Glass. He was pushed out of the company very early on, and he was the guy who came up with the name Twitter. He helped come up with the idea with Jack Dorsey and he was kind of written out of history. But one of the things that was really interesting was that part of the idea came from Noah and the place that he was in. He was incredibly lonely at the time of the creation of Twitter – he was going through a divorce, his first company was failing, his friendships were splintering. He thought, “What if there was a service that I could use that would connect me to my friends and make me feel less alone?” And in the end, he goes on this path trying to figure out how to feel less alone through technology and discovers at the very end that it’s not technology that connects you to people, it’s human interaction.