The sweet geek behind the tweet
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