Just read: 'Hatching Twitter' by Nick Bilton

Just read is a blog where I blog about something I just read. Here are all of the entries. And here are all of the entries that are specifically about books (i.e. IRL books, not like comic books, you know?).

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Loving Twitter is a difficult thing to do in 2017. It's no secret the company has been plagued with tons of issues since its initial public offering in November 2013 -- and while some issues are nerdy and technical, like their inability or (seeming) disinterest in truly improving their product, the worst of these issues are basic and human. Twitter still hasn't publicly unveiled a way for users to effectively filter harassment on the service, making any Tweeter (but especially marginalized persons) easy targets for awful online abuse. There are plenty of cases to highlight this, both high-profile and non-, but there's no real need for me to re-hash them now. It seems like there's always a conversation at Twitter about "fixing" this in general terms, but very minimal action to help the average (i.e., non-verified, non-celebrity, non-"famous") user. This is trash.

It's a frustrating place to be in many ways, because the lack of policing and individual freedom on Twitter lends the service to be absolutely invaluable in some aspects -- the best real "coverage" of protests against police brutality have come via first-hand Tweets, as an example. I remember following the protests in Ferguson, MO almost exclusively on Twitter, both via activists like Deray and via civilian reporters who were on the ground to share raw footage of the events. Twitter and Periscope were so effective at enabling people to share their experiences that it seemed like almost every video shown on TV via traditional news networks like CNN were sourced from the service.

AUTHOR NICK BILTON

AUTHOR NICK BILTON

The balance between the good and the bad of Twitter reaches the highest points of human importance. Harassment and negativity abound, but it's simultaneously and undoubtedly the most important social network for organizing and encouraging political action as well. Then there's the more casual and day-to-day service -- the Weird Twitter personalities and the viral posts that can brighten any day. Ultimately, it's impossible for me to consider Twitter anything other than my favorite website. The way I use it, though, and the way many people use it, leads to a sort of tunnel vision about the world. Why were so many people -- especially, I found, in New York City -- so shocked when Donald Trump won the election in November? It's because your Twitter sphere is fully curated by you, so you ultimately don't always see the things you don't want to see. It's so easy to get caught up in your own Twitter World that more accurate representations of the real world are able to slip by unnoticed.

Over the past year I've made a conscious effort to follow more Twitter users who are unlike me; this has included many social activists who are doing the hard work of fighting for the civil liberties of marginalized people. More female Tweeters, more LGBTQ Tweeters, more Tweeters tweeting about the daily struggles of Black Americans, more Tweeters tweeting about many things that can be so easy for me to ignore and forget in my day-to-day life. The increase of seeing this online on a daily basis has undoubtedly made me more aware of and more sensitive to the ongoing social issues in our country. It's turned me into a monthly donor for organizations like Planned Parenthood, RAINN and the ACLU. It's made me better informed as I continue to try to learn more and become a kinder and more empathetic (and helpful) person overall.

Widening the scope of what you see on Twitter can better inform you, but if you're a straight white male, you'll rarely ever come across the type of vitriol that is often hurled at marginalized persons who are vocal for important causes on the service. Twitter is my favorite website, yes, but it's more important to me than ever to hold it accountable for changing itself to improve the experiences of those users from whom I learn the most. 

Hatching Twitter, in many ways, doesn't offer too much insight into the current, right-now issues of the company -- but it does shed a ton of light on why it's so hard for it to fully get its shit together. Nick Bilton wrote, essentially, the origin story of the company. He highlights the four original founders (Noah, Jack, Biz, Evan), tracing them from their individual pre-Twitter origins through the creation, rise and tumults of Twitter that followed. It's certainly a dramatic story; a lot of people who use the service might not know these names, and if they do know Jack's name, they might not even know Evan's. And while Bilton does good work narrating through the early trials of Twitter as a small, stodgy company -- remarkably stubborn and incapable of growing and scaling effectively, despite the rabid adoption of its platform -- he tends to rely a bit too much on the most dramatic aspects of his subject matter to carry the reader's interest.

Thus, at times, the story reads like a soap opera of Twitter's founders -- the book does chronicle the history of the website, but it often does so via the petty personal relationships between Jack, Twitter's original and current CEO, and Evan and Biz, who shepherded Twitter through several of the company's most important years. Ultimately, I came away not "liking" any of these people -- at least, as much as I could judge them via the way they were presented in this book. It was easy for me, while reading this book, to find myself disgusted by this company. It made my like Twitter less at times.

Much like the love/hate I feel for Twitter today, though, the book offered plenty of moments where the beauty of the service was able to shine. Its role in organizing political action in the Middle East, and Biz's dedication to keeping the site as neutral as possible, make the company an easy one to idolize even through its faults. It was also quite interesting to read about Twitter's earliest years -- it's hard to remember the era when Ashton Kutcher was the biggest thing on the social network.

While far from perfect, Hatching Twitter is an effective introduction and backstory to a company that still shapes a large chunk of daily life for millions of people around the world. It'll be interesting to see how Twitter moves forward; it's at a point in its lifecycle where it isn't braggina bout the same blistering adoption rate as it once did, and the company is still not very effective at improving its product. They'll soon be left in the dust if they aren't able to drive more revenue to improve the service, and influential Tweeters will eventually leave if they keep getting harassed. (Chris Sacca, an early investor in Twitter, recently opined that the company's best chance would be to open itself back up fully to developers; this is something with which I very, very much agree.) This year, and the years to come, feel like a tipping point for a social media network that none of us may find ourselves still glued to come the next turn of the decade. Perhaps Bilton can take on a second book when Twitter does (seemingly inevitably) find its way to a sad demise -- and perhaps that book will be the more insightful of the two when it comes to the minutiae of running a company that lives and breathes in the "now," while constantly impacting and evolving the future. 

Hatching Twitter is available on Amazon and, right now, is less than $7 on paperback, which seems like a very low price. It's also available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks. Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.