The sweet geek be­hind the tweet

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tom Gilling

Things a Lit­tle Bird Told Me: Con­fes­sions of the Cre­ative Mind By Biz Stone Macmil­lan, 224pp, $29.99 IT was at the 2007 South by South­west In­ter­ac­tive con­fer­ence in Austin, Texas, when Twit­ter was just a fledg­ling, that co-founder Biz Stone re­alised he was on to a good thing, as he re­counts in this mem­oir. ‘‘One per­son at a par­tic­u­larly crowded pub wanted to hear what his friends and col­leagues were work­ing on, but it was just too loud where he was. So this guy sent out a Tweet to his fol­low­ers sug­gest­ing that if any­one wanted to en­joy a qui­eter con­ver­sa­tion, they should meet him over at some other pub he knew to be pretty empty.’’

They did, and by the time he’d walked there the qui­eter pub had be­come nois­ier than the one he’d left (d’oh!) — a per­fect il­lus­tra­tion of a phe­nom­e­non Stone calls ‘‘flock­ing’’: “Sim­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tion, in real time, had al­lowed the many to sud­denly, for a few sec­onds, be­come one. Then, just as quickly, they be­came in­di­vid­u­als again.’’

In the space of a few years, flock­ing would turn Twit­ter from a strug­gling start-up into a multi-bil­lion-dol­lar com­pany. It was Stone’s be­lief that such ‘‘sim­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tion’’, sent by phone and limited to 140 char­ac­ters, could be pro­found and trans­for­ma­tive, a force for democ­racy and for good. Not ev­ery­one agreed with him, and ini­tially the tech­nol­ogy was not up to the task, but some­how Stone man­aged to keep the project on track.

Two years later, in June 2009, as the Ira­nian govern­ment re­sponded to mass protests by shut­ting down other forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Twit­ter was pres­sured by the US State Depart­ment to de­lay es­sen­tial main­te­nance to al­low Ira­nian pro­test­ers to keep tweet­ing. Stone agreed to hold off the main­te­nance for a few hours but it was a de­ci­sion that weighed on his con­science. ‘‘The govern­ment did not have de­ci­sion-mak­ing power at Twit­ter. We didn’t want to help our govern­ment, or any other govern­ment. We had to stay a neu­tral tech­nol­ogy provider.’’

(In 2013, he points out, while other Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies were hand­ing over user data to the US Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency as part of its do­mes­tic sur­veil­lance pro­gram, Twit­ter was one com­pany that re­sisted.)

These episodes in Things a Lit­tle Bird Told Me say as much about Stone’s be­nign take on the Twit­ter story as they do about the com­pany it­self. Prob­lems arise but the an­swers never seem too far out of reach; so­lu­tions are more or less am­i­ca­ble; wis­dom is eas­ily won.

As a clever poor kid in the af­flu­ent town of Welles­ley, Mas­sachusetts, Stone knew what it meant to live with­out money. His ‘‘strug­gling sin­gle mom’’ reg­u­larly down­sized houses to raise cash to keep the fam­ily go­ing. Af­ter drop­ping out of col­lege, Stone talked him­self into a job at Google, then lost in­ter­est, walk­ing out on sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars’ worth of stock op­tions to join a start-up run by his friend, Ev Wil­liams. Their first idea — pod­cast­ing — didn’t fly, but the next one — Twit­ter — did.

Nei­ther a wizard pro­gram­mer nor a de­sign ge­nius, Stone doesn’t claim to have been the brains be­hind Twit­ter, but he was quick to grasp its po­ten­tial and played a key role in re­fin­ing it and sell­ing it to users. Stone was a nice guy in a com­pany that as­pired to be nice. It was his job to em­body and com­mu­ni­cate the benev­o­lent spirit of Twit­ter.

‘‘I re­alised,’’ he writes, ‘‘that a com­pany can build a busi­ness, do good in so­ci­ety, and have fun … People, given the right tools, can ac­com­plish amaz­ing things.’’

One thing Stone (and Twit­ter) couldn’t change was the Dar­winian ruth­less­ness of cor­po­rate Amer­ica. Once Twit­ter evolved from a promis­ing start-up to a multi-bil­lion­dol­lar busi­ness, the money men took over and Stone was pow­er­less to stop his friends — in­clud­ing Ev — from be­ing fired. ‘‘The changes looked like power plays,’’ writes Stone, al­ways the ide­al­ist. ‘‘They looked cal­cu­lated from some per­spec­tives, but I don’t be­lieve any­body was be­ing ma­li­cious … Our suc­cess meant the stakes were higher. People be­came opin­ion­ated. It pro­voked ac­tion, and there were ca­su­al­ties.’’ Stone, sniff­ing the wind, pock­eted his mil­lions and left.

Stone’s ver­sion of the Twit­ter story is a long way from the board­room blood­baths de­scribed in re­cent his­to­ries of Ap­ple, Face­book — and, in­deed, Twit­ter it­self, in Nick Bilton’s re­cent Hatch­ing Twit­ter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friend­ship and Be­trayal.

Money and suc­cess haven’t stopped Stone from be­ing a de­cent hu­man be­ing.

It’s hard not to warm to him, and to wish that he hadn’t de­cided to sprin­kle an other­wise en­gag­ing book with life lessons and Sil­i­con Val­ley apho­risms (‘‘in or­der to suc­ceed spec­tac­u­larly, you must be ready to fail spec­tac­u­larly’’; ‘‘There’s no such thing as a su­per­hero, but to­gether we can spin the world in a new di­rec­tion’’).

A few pages of this and you start to see the sense of a 140-char­ac­ter limit.

Tom Gilling is an au­thor and critic.

Twit­ter chair­man Jack Dorsey and his fel­low co-founders Evan Wil­liams and Biz Stone wait for the open­ing bell to be rung at the New York Stock Ex­change last year

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