It’s tempting to see world-changing companies as the product of one person’s singular vision and willpower — not only does it make things easier to understand, but it caters to our love of the solitary genius, the Einstein or Jobs who sees the world revealed in a flash of insight. But the reality is often very different: in most cases, it is filled with the kind of messy human chaos that is often left out of such stories, and Twitter’s rise to glory is a great example.
An excerpt from NYT writer Nick Bilton’s book about the company’s messy birth reinforces the fact that something we now take for granted — that Twitter has become a massively influential media company, one that is planning a public offering that could be worth as much as $20 billion — is so incredibly unlikely that it almost seems like an accident, or rather a chain reaction of accidents, each one more unpredictable than the rest. As Bilton says:
“In the Valley, these tales are called “the Creation Myth” because, while based on a true story, they exclude all the turmoil and occasional back stabbing that comes with founding a tech company. And while all origin stories contain some exaggerations, Twitter’s is cobbled together from an uncommon number of them.”
Tripping, falling, stumbling — all the way to success
It has been said that the next big thing always starts out as a toy, a statement that is a kind of capsule version of Clay Christensen’s disruption theory, and Twitter certainly falls into that category: for the first two or three years of its life, if not longer, it was dismissed as an irrelevant tool for nerds and narcissists to share what they were having for lunch. But as Bilton’s description makes clear, it was also a fluke that the service even got started in the first place, let alone succeeded and became a multibillion-dollar entity.
Take the place where Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey reportedly came up with the idea for the service as an SMS-style status update (his original choice for a name, as detailed in a sketch he made, was Stat.us). South Park in San Francisco doesn’t just have dingy, beaten-up playground equipment, as Bilton notes — it is far more popular with homeless people and drug addicts than it is (or was) with CEOs or startup founders. It makes a garage look good.
“For many in Silicon Valley, this playground is hallowed ground. It was here, one breezy day in 2006, according to legend, that Jack Dorsey ordered burritos with two co-workers, scaled a slide and, in a black sweater and green beanie, like a geeked-out Moses on Mount Sinai, presented his idea.”
So what was the most crucial factor in Twitter’s early success? Was it that early staffer Noah Glass, who was later forced out of the company, came up with a catchy name after a frenzied search through the dictionary? Was it that Blogger founder Evan Williams, whose other business making podcast software was going nowhere fast, needed to find something new to focus on? Was it that Twitter fit in so well with the anarchic social atmosphere at South by Southwest, which at the time was the hottest geek conference around?
Chaos and openness is better than a bad plan
It was all of these things and then some. Even in the early days, what struck me most about both the service and the company was that it seemed to consistently be able to snatch success from the jaws of defeat — just when you thought it was going down for good, after the umpteenth server failure or some high-school-yearbook style upheaval in the executive suite, it came back stronger than before. Users complained bitterly about the downtime and then when it came back they used it even more.
In some ways, it almost seems like the world — or at least certain tech and media-obsessed parts of it — wanted something like Twitter to exist, and were determined to somehow will it into being, despite all the repeated screw-ups and bumps in the road along the way. Users took a simple service that (I would argue) even its founders didn’t really understand completely, and turned it into something that changed the very fabric of the way the world communicates with itself. And not just about TV shows, but about even more important things like revolutions and wars and social phenomena of all kinds.
If there’s one lesson that comes from Twitter’s messy origins and chaotic upbringing, it is that you can do as much damage to an idea by trying to force it into a specific mold as you can by letting it breathe and evolve on its own. It may have been an accident that Twitter was so open and free of constraints in the beginning — something the company tried hard to reverse after it got rid of Williams and started cracking down on third-party developers — but without all of that chaos and confusion, I’m not sure Twitter would exist at all.