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Power plays at Twitter: @Jack, @Ev, and the need to grow up (Q&A)

The book "Hatching Twitter" comes out this week, just as the company goes public. In it, Nick Bilton tells the tale of the often chaotic and ego-driven maneuverings over control of the CEO's chair at Twitter.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
Twitter offices
James Martin/CNET

Talk about good timing.

This week, just as Twitter is about to carry out its long-awaited and highly anticipated IPO, here comes Nick Bilton's "Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal," a dramatic and detail-rich recounting of the founding and maturing of Twitter, and the never-ending power struggles that plagued the hot young company, even as it rose to worldwide prominence and importance.

Author Nick Bilton Nick Bilton

In the book, Bilton, a New York Times reporter, gives the richest telling yet of how four men -- Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Noah Glass, and Biz Stone -- took a simple idea and turned it into something credited with enabling political revolutions.

Some of the story is familiar, and much of the intrigue surrounding Dorsey's long obsession with controlling his Twitter legacy has already been told in a New York Times Magazine book excerpt. But if Dorsey, who like the other Twitter founders is referred to throughout the book mostly by his first name, came across as power-hungry and cold in the excerpt, the depths of that obsession are much more fully fleshed out in the book, and he does not come off looking good. Rather, Bilton depicts Dorsey as someone driven by a need for revenge -- against fellow co-founder Evan Williams, whom Dorsey felt engineered his 2008 removal as CEO -- and by a burning desire to be the one to define the narrative of who invented Twitter.

Glass is another one of Twitter's co-founders who has struggled to control that narrative, and in the magazine excerpt, Dorsey is presented as the puppeteer behind Glass' firing. Other accounts have been more sympathetic to Dorsey, at least in relation to Glass' departure from Twitter.

Over the last two years or so, Twitter's leadership has been as solid -- at least as far as the public knows -- as it has ever been, and Dorsey, although still on Twitter's board, is firmly ensconced as CEO of the mobile payments company Square. Yet Bilton's tale argues forcefully that we really only ever knew about Dorsey what Dorsey wanted us to know.

It's a drive that hasn't really changed. For years, Bilton writes, Dorsey told anyone who would listen that he was the rightful inventor and spiritual visionary of Twitter. Now, as CEO of Square, access to him is carefully managed, and a common narrative about Dorsey is that he is one of a very small number of business leaders who may be "the next Steve Jobs."

Indeed, Bilton writes that Dorsey, step by step, took on elements of Jobs' persona -- from adopting a daily uniform to using Jobs' own words, uncredited, in speeches and interviews. Square is seen by many as one of the hottest companies to come along, since Twitter, perhaps, and as a result, Dorsey is revered. Readers may come away not understanding what his real skill is, and why he was allowed to play such an active role in Twitter's senior management, especially leading up to the removal of Williams -- who funded the company initially with his own money and at one time owned 70 percent of its stock -- as CEO in 2010.

Square had no comment, and Twitter did not immediately respond to a CNET request for comment.

CNET asked Bilton 10 questions by e-mail about his book, about Twitter, and most importantly, about his impressions of Jack Dorsey.

Q: The New York Times Magazine excerpt didn't paint a very flattering picture of Jack Dorsey. His portrayal is even more Machiavellian in the book. How do you think he managed to successfully resurrect his reputation? How did he learn to be a successful CEO of Square, given his troubles running Twitter?
Bilton: Everything I reported about Jack, and the rest of founders in the book, was the result of hundreds of hours of interviews and more than 1,000 documents and e-mails I obtained through my reporting. I spent considerable time with every single one of the founders and board members, including Jack. I wrote this book as objectively as possible and I leave it up to the reader to decide how they feel about anyone mentioned in the story.

To me, it seems that Jack believed that he was the rightful creator of Twitter, and was willing to do whatever was necessary to return to the company. As for Square, while I think it is a fascinating company, I would not give it, or any other startup, a label of "success" simply based on its valuation -- there are a dozen companies investors think are worth over a billion dollars, some of which will flitter away and a few which will succeed. As a recent New Yorker article on Jack noted, Square still has to prove that it is going to surpass its competition.

It almost seems like Twitter has succeeded in spite of the people running the company. Even a great technology needs a strong company to support it. How did Twitter not fail?
One of the early employees I spoke with actually said those words to me: "Twitter succeeded in spite of itself." But as I show in the book, illustrating how the company unfolded over time, if it wasn't for that chaos, Twitter wouldn't have grown into what it is today. The chaos of those early years added tremendous value to the company.

The book really doesn't seem to flesh out Biz Stone's role, despite the fact that he was a co-founder and often the face of Twitter. What did Biz really do for Twitter?
Biz wore many hats while at Twitter that were vital to making the company what it is today. But his most important contribution was erecting the moral fence around the company, and creating policies that protected people's privacy and ensured that the company made decisions that didn't pick a side in politics or religion. Without Biz, Twitter would be a very different company.

James Martin/CNET

From a vision and philosophical standpoint, how is Twitter under [current CEO Dick] Costolo -- and about to go public -- different than Twitter under Evan Williams and before that, under Jack Dorsey?
I think the one thing that Twitter still suffers from, and it has under all three CEOs, is that it still doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up. Under Jack, it was a place to talk about what he was doing; to update his status. Under Ev, it was a place to talk about what was happening around you. And under Dick, it's becoming a place to have conversations and interact with traditional media. While I believe all three of those can co-exist together, I do worry that as a public company, Twitter will be forced to make concessions for advertisers that will not be in the best interest of the user.

You paint a picture of Dorsey illegitimately building a reputation as the genius behind Twitter. But even today, he's seen as a two-time genius company builder. What is the magic he holds over the press?
I think some people in the Silicon Valley tech press paint Jack as a genius because the system we work in is built on access, and Jack and the public relations teams that surround him have learned how to play that game better than anyone. If people speak against him, access is shut off. How did he manage to hold that magic over the press? If you are one of the co-founders of Twitter, and another co-founder is going around saying "I invented Twitter," imagine how foolish you would look if you publicly tried to refute that; moreover how foolish Twitter would look?

Why didn't Williams set up the ownership of Twitter and its board the same way Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg did -- so he couldn't lose control?
Unlike Zuckerberg, Ev believed that the friends he hired at his company, some of whom ended up on the board, would never turn on him. As you see in the book, and Ev later found out, he was wrong.

Why did Twitter's board think so highly of Dorsey that they made him executive chairman upon his return to the company in 2010, two years after his ouster as CEO?
It wasn't a unanimous vote. Peter Fenton, one of the early investors of Twitter, thought very highly of Jack, and was relentless in his pursuit to get him back in the company. There were others who vehemently didn't want Jack in that role.

What do you think Steve Jobs would have thought of Jack channeling him as he plotted to and then did return to Twitter?
I don't think anyone can say what Steve Jobs would have thought.

How will Twitter be different for the average user after it goes public?
I don't think we'll see any major differences for Twitter right after it goes public, but as the company feels pressure to grow its revenues, there will be instances where Twitter is forced to make decisions that are in the best interest of finances and not people.

After all these years, what is Twitter?
That's something all of Twitter's founders will answer differently, and still to this day use it in varying ways. But I believe that Twitter is whatever you want it to be. Whether it's talking about yourself, or having a conversation with a celebrity, or like so many of us in the media, using it to share interesting links to news and information, and of course, to tweet the link to this Q&A online.