‘What is That? It’s Nothing.’ On the Unlikely Origins of Twitter
An Oral History, From the People Who Built It
In Silicon Valley a fortunate few make it into orbit on their first rocket ride—Nolan Bushnell, the two Steves, Jeff and Pierre, Larry and Sergey, Mark Zuckerberg—and that’s about it. The reality is that most moon shots fizzle. Take, for example, the launchpad that is serial inventor Ev Williams’s brain. During the dot‑com boom Williams built Blogger, an easy‑to‑use web publishing tool. Blogger survived the bust—but not as an independent company. Blogger was swallowed up by Google. Williams’s next venture was Odeo, an easy‑to‑use podcasting tool. Odeo laid an egg. Half of Williams’s problem was timing. Odeo was simply years too early. The other half was the people: Odeo featured a cast of characters so shaggy and anarchic as to be virtually unmanageable.
Yet, in the summer of 2006, those very hairy anarchists hatched a new idea: Twitter. In some ways it was the least promising idea that Williams had ever backed. But it was exactly right for the time. Twitter hit just as the web was starting to go mobile with the iPhone. And so while Twitter is another of Silicon Valley’s overnight success stories, it took Williams himself well over a decade—an eon on the Valley’s timescale—before he tasted the stratosphere.
Rabble: Odeo came about because Ev and Biz were commuting down to Google. They were living in San Francisco and they had these commutes and they were bored, so they listened to podcasts every day.
Biz Stone: We were in a car ride home, Ev and I, and Ev was driving his yellow Subaru and I was like, “Ev, I think I have an idea. I think I have a really good idea!” And he was like, “What is it?” And I said, “Well, you know how we can record our voices in Flash and on a browser and play them back? Like Audioblogger.”
Ev Williams: Noah Glass had this thing called Audioblogger; he was my neighbor.
Noah Glass: It allowed people to call up a telephone number and record a message, and it published it to your blog.
Ev Williams: We did a partnership with him, with Audioblogger, to allow people to call in on the phone, record a message, and get it posted to their blog.
Biz Stone: And Ev was like, “Yeah?” I said, “Couldn’t we write software that would sync whatever you recorded to these new things called iPods because it seems like they’re just getting more and more popular. And so, couldn’t we just kind of democratize radio and let everybody have their own radio station?” And then Ev made his face that he makes when he thinks an idea is good. He like opened his eyes really wide and said, “Yeah, you could do all that!” And so that was Odeo.
Ev Williams: We didn’t know that other people were talking about the same idea. It turns out that audio distributed to iPods was what podcasting was, and it was starting to get some traction. Like a lot of inventions, the adjacent possible reveals itself and everybody sees it at the same time and thinks about it. And we told Noah: “Noah—you should totally do this!” And he was like, “That’s interesting . . . ”
Adam Rugel: Odeo was interesting. The idea was to be a network where you could consume podcasts.
Dom Sagolla: Back in 2005, there weren’t a lot of people podcasting. This is before Apple had even claimed the space.
Ev Williams: Unrelated to that, I quit Google fully intending to take some time off. And so I was home every day, and Noah was pursuing this podcasting idea, and he just came over every day because I had agreed to seedfund it and I had agreed to advise, but it wasn’t my start-up: It was his.
Adam Rugel: So Noah was sort of the true original founder of Odeo, and Rabble was his first engineering hire. And those are two of the most eccentric and interesting guys you will ever meet.
Biz Stone: Everybody loved Noah. He was great, big, a larger-than-life character. He’ll give you a big bear hug and almost crush you to death. He will jump in the water and swim to Alcatraz. He’s so strong! He’s just a crazy guy, right? And literally sometimes he’s an actual crazy guy.
Rabble: In about January of 2005 the guy from TED got ahold of Ev and said, “Hey, what are you doing?” And Ev really wanted to get another invite to go back to TED, and so he said, “Well, I’m doing this podcasting start-up.”
Ev Williams: And he says, “Will you launch at TED?” And I was like, Wow, what a huge opportunity. We can’t not do that. And by the way, he also lined up Markoff to come write a New York Times story about us. We weren’t ready to launch, but we announced and we did a demo and it was like a three-minute talk at TED, but I presented and I remember getting oohs and aahs from the TED audience. I was like, “Wow, that’s great.”
Ray McClure: We’re still working out of Ev’s apartment, and the thing we are working on is getting talked about in the New York Times! Whenever Ev would be a part of something he would seem to really nail it and make a splash.
Ev Williams: It was a big deal, and I was kind of caught up in the excitement and podcasting was getting all this hype, and I thought, Well, I feel committed now, and so I guess I’ll work at this company and this will be my next company. And then it all kind of snowballed uncontrollably. We set out to raise $1 million. It was an unproven market. We had no product. We barely had a team. And we were being offered $5 million.
Biz Stone: Silicon Valley is a crazy place: If you left Google after their IPO to start something you automatically could get money.
Dom Sagolla: Evan Williams had exited from Google through the IPO.
Biz Stone: It was like, “Oh! You were at Google? You must be a genius!” Even if you were like mopping the floors at Google you are a genius. “You didn’t get the job at eBay in 2002 but you got the job at Google? You must be awesome! You must be some kind of brilliant genius, because Google’s a good company.”
Ev Williams: What we probably should have been at that point is like three people tinkering in a garage, but once we had the money we had to do something with the money.
Rabble: And so we started hacking on this thing and slowly assembled a team of kind of misfit-y people. Mostly because Noah really liked weird, freaky people.
Ev Williams: Roughly speaking, there are two engineering cultures in Silicon Valley, which you could describe as hackers and engineers. And obviously Google is engineers. Engineers generally have computer science degrees and higher. They study the fundamentals. Hackers just want to make stuff work, and it’s not about doing it right necessarily. Facebook was kind of famously built by hackers, but they’re not the hippie hackers. Hippie hackers are a particular strain of hackers, and Noah is a total hippie. And so we hired hippie hackers—I mean Noah really hired these people. They are his people, he got along with them.
And so Odeo, Williams’s second start‑up after Blogger, came together. But from the beginning there was a schism in the core group. There were the hackers—Ev Williams and those that were loyal to him—and the hippie hackers: Noah’s crew.
Biz Stone: Ev became the CEO, but the culture was kind of based off of Noah’s craziness.
Adam Rugel: It was a really tight group. Although Ev was off on his own. He was married before everybody else was. And Biz got married during that time.
Biz Stone: Jack and Noah, they just partied. They went out to clubs and partied and I don’t know what they did. Like they went to Burning Man and Jack told me afterward, “Halfway there we had to go back because Noah forgot all his drugs.”
Dom Sagolla: They were nose-ring-wearing, tattooed, neck-bearded, long-haired punk hippie misfits—dropouts.
Adam Rugel: The vibe of San Francisco was sort of embedded in that team.
Rabble: It was a cross between a commune and a really geeky frat-clubhouse-type thing. Company dinners were all vegan and that kind of thing. But it was very business-focused, too.
Blaine Cook: A lot of people involved in the start-up scene in San Francisco were definitely of that ilk: rebels and activists and artists and that sort of people.
Ray McClure: I remember realizing at a certain moment that Rabble could juggle. Then he throws the ball over to Blaine, and Blaine starts juggling, and pretty soon Noah is juggling, too. And I realize that all these people had taken it upon themselves, independently, to learn to juggle! That’s the kind of crew it was. They’re not clowns, but maybe they’re travelers—people who have had some interesting experiences. It was an extremely liberal group all the way up to the top.
Rabble: So in 2005 we build the Odeo podcast production tool; we announce demos of it; we set up a beta program where we start letting people in; and we keep working on the product. Some of it works really well, and some of it doesn’t work very well. But we implement these small teams and we kind of iterate on it.
Ev Williams: We did that for a few months and we were kind of just stuck, and then Eddy Cue invited us down to Apple. We thought, Oh, maybe they want to buy us or partner with us or something? We showed him everything we were working on, and he was like, “Oh, very interesting,” and then like two weeks later Apple launched podcasts integrated into iTunes.
Rabble: Their directory was kind of crappy, but they did it quickly and it worked.
Ev Williams: It completely shocked us because podcasts were so new and Apple was so big, and it just seemed like such a weird thing for this supermainstream company to do. Even the word podcast was still this weird geeky term.
Biz Stone: We thought that podcasting was a fringe-y nerd thing. Apple was putting it in iTunes?
Adam Rugel: When it happened there was a lot of self-justification, like, “We can still do this—this makes it seem like it’s bigger!”
Ev Williams: At first it was kind of like the dot-com crash, a suspension of disbelief: “Oh well, that won’t affect us too much.”
Rabble: We kept working on it but by January or February of 2006 it was clear that there was this malaise in the office.
Ev Williams: We just weren’t feeling it, basically, and I remember talking to Biz and Noah, and I was like, “I’m not loving this.”
Rabble: So at some point over the spring in 2006 Ev goes to the board of Odeo and says, “I’m quitting.”
Ev Williams: I said, “Look, I’m not feeling like this is going to work, really, and maybe we should stop.” We had about $3 million of our $5 million in the bank, and the board said, “Well, you can stop and give the money back, or you could try something else,” and so they introduced the whole idea of pivoting to me. I was like, “Oh! Well, I guess we could just do that.”
Adam Rugel: It was like, “Hey, we’ve got a little bit of money; we’ve got a roof over our head; we’ve got network connections; we’ve got computers; we’ve got a smart team. Let’s see what we can do!” Ev should be given a ton of credit for having the confidence to realize who he had in that room. Evan, Noah, Rabble, Ray, and then Jack later, and Blaine as well: They’re all geniuses, all of them, or as close to it as you can get.
Rabble: We started having brainstorming sessions and coming up with things, and a lot of the ideas we came up with were around telephony and communication stuff. And so we had this idea of doing this hackathon thing.
Ray McClure: A hackathon was something that we knew other companies were doing. It was, “We’re going to spend the next couple of days coming up with ideas.”
Ev Williams: I was always proud of the fact that I have a million ideas.
Dom Sagolla: We all split into teams of three and I was on a team with Jack. I really wanted to hear what Jack was up to.
Biz Stone: Jack’s really quiet and soft-spoken, but I could get him to laugh. And I liked him. So we picked each other and then we started brainstorming.
Dom Sagolla: We gathered at this children’s slide in South Park, in San Francisco, which I thought would be a great place to be creative. So we grabbed our Mexican food and sat there. I don’t know if we even ate it. We just talked about where we were going and what we wanted to work on.
Biz Stone: I was like, “How about this? How about just picture blogging? Like you just put a picture up and that’s it.” And Jack was like, “That’s pretty good.” I was like, “After all this complicated podcasting B.S. I just wanna do something really simple like that.”
Jack Dorsey: We were on the playground and I said, “What if we just do this simple thing with SMS where we send it out and it goes out to all these people in real time? Let’s just do that.”
Biz Stone: He’s like, “Do you think we can make a whole thing just out of that? Like a social network kind of thing?” And I was like, “I love the simplicity of it. Let’s do it.”
Dom Sagolla: Jack’s original use case was identifying cool, happening places to be and sending out information about where the cool party is—at a club or a party that was so loud that you couldn’t make a phone call. I’m like, “I don’t like clubbing, so why do I need this thing?” He kept trying to describe use cases that would fit the SMS broadcast idea. And that’s when Jack came at me and said, “Well, maybe there’s a disaster? Maybe you’re in trouble? There’s a use case!” But it was still difficult to articulate this, even to ourselves, the three of us. So we spent a bunch of time, going back and forth.
Adam Rugel: It’s a developers’ world at this point. Can you communicate an idea in the form of a rough sketch of a product? Are you an engineer or a front-end designer who can produce a prototype in a day or two?
Biz Stone: We dreamed up how it would work and I made a totally fake, but seemed-real website. This was before the iPhone. And so, we demo. I was in charge of demoing the thing and I was like, “So, Jack and I have this thing and here is what it does. You say what you’re doing and then people who want to follow you click a Follow button.” And we demoed that and everyone was kind of like, “. . . And?” And we’re like, “That’s it!” And they’re like, “All you do is get what they’re doing? That’s it? You can say what you’re doing and you can get what people are doing?” And we’re like, “That’s it! Super simple. Isn’t that great?” And they were like, “No, that sucks. It’s not even something, it’s nothing. What is that? It’s nothing!”
Blaine Cook: We had a bunch of discussions among the team and there were a bunch of examples of services that had done things like this in the past.
Rabble: Back in 2004 I launched this software called TXTMob with some activists who came out of the MIT Media Lab.
Blaine Cook: TXTMob was a tool that could send text updates that would be distributed to a group of people who had signed up to receive those updates. It was a really simple system, but it was probably the first time that mobile phones had been hooked up in just that way.
Rabble: TXTMob was meant to be a social network for toppling governments and organizing protests and shutting down conventions and blockading streets.
Blaine Cook: Obviously TXTMob was a source of inspiration, but there were other group texting services that were sort of Twitter shaped, and so we talked about all these past projects: why had they failed, or in the cases of some of them that still existed, why had they not succeeded in a big way?
Ev Williams: It was clear that mobile messaging was going to be a thing. And we were playing with telephony which Rabble and Blaine knew a lot about—and Noah, because that is what Audioblogger was.
Biz Stone: Ev could see that we were really into it, and so he took us aside and was like, “You guys should keep working on this. There is something to this mixing the web with SMS—nobody else is doing that.”
Ev Williams: I don’t know at what point we started calling it Twitter. There was some generic name before that and then there was the name “Friend Stalker,” which was always a joke.
Tony Stubblebine: The thing I don’t remember is why we all thought Twitter was such a good idea. As I recall, we jumped on it really early, even before we had a prototype. I think part of the issue was that most of us weren’t yet on Facebook, so we didn’t have a way to keep in touch with our friends.
Ev Williams: We decided to pursue this idea. It seemed worth investing in. We had something that had a little bit of momentum, but not enough surface area. You don’t want to put a ton of people on a nascent idea. It’s like kindling that you are trying to get going: You don’t want to overwhelm it.
Dom Sagolla: Four people split off from the main podcasting group to became Twitter. Jack Dorsey and Florian Weber are the ones who actually built the code. They were iterating on this: fixing the bugs and making it happen. And then sprinkle in what Biz would call un-design: taking things away, making it spare, making it metaphorically easy to understand. And then you give it all of the, like, wet energy from Noah. And it starts to flow.
Rabble: And the rest of us kept the podcasting thing moving forward. And so that continued for a few weeks and by March 21, 2006, enough code had been written and they had a little phone attached with a USB cable to a computer that could send the tweets back and forth.
Dom Sagolla: It began with a series of early tweets that were automated, saying, “just setting up my twttr.” That was the way it worked: It automatically sent the first message. So everyone’s messages, if you look back in the early days, say the same thing.
Adam Rugel: There was no i or e, it was T-W-T-T-R at the time. A lot of the start-ups had done vowel-less names.
Dom Sagolla: This was in the age of Flickr.
Adam Rugel: It was just a trendy thing, a sign of the times.
In March 2006, Jack Dorsey sent the first recorded (nonautomated) tweet: “inviting coworkers.”
Adam Rugel: It was just to everybody in the room.
Dom Sagolla: The next messages were people just typing whatever they could into this web page prompt. We’re all at this office at 164 South Park, and Jack and I were back-to-back, and I just typed something: “oooooooh,” almost ironically. And Jack wrote, “waiting for Dom to update more.” And my response was, “oh this is going to be addictive.”
From Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley. Used with permission of Twelve Books. Copyright © 2018 by Adam Fisher.