How Twitter Became
It began in 2006. The sky hung bleak and drizzly, off-greyed like an old pair of sports socks dripping meekly on a washing line. There was nothing much to do. Biz Stone cracked his fingers and leaned back in his ergonomic swivel chair, frustrated and disappointed that his latest idea for a Facebook app game had fallen flat. How could the public be predicted? One minute children were being left at school well into the night thanks to Farmville taking their parents from them, the next, everybody was talking about Mafia Wars again. So capricious, the whims of the masses. He sighed and rubbed his eyes under rimless glasses. It was going to be another fruitless afternoon.
Biz. He’d always felt his name deserved more from life than what he’d given it. As a child, he’d seen himself as a vigilante crime fighter or a circus ringleader. A renegade forensic psychologist with a TV show (which if he’d thought about enough to give it a tag line, it would have been: “No stone left unturned.”) Instead, here he was, working his cyclist ass off at being an e-entrepreneur, hedging his bets on another half-programmed in-game app for a social networking site he felt had had its day.
Three hours later, his brain awash with unsatisfactory code and instant coffee, Biz’s phone buzzed.
“Biz, I’ve had an idea. Are you in? I’m at the end of your street.”
It was Evan Williams. He’d answered the phone to Evan four years ago when they were working on a project together, while Biz’s entrepreneurial hunger was in its infancy. They’d been close collaborators ever since.
Evan arrived at the office at ten to three in the afternoon. The two men spoke animatedly for hours. The sun left the white, unremarkable sky and the night fell, offering no stars or notable crescent moon worth mentioning and still they talked, oblivious to the darkness that stole into the shadows of the room, and entered their bodies through their fatigue-sunken eye sockets.
By morning, it was done. Line after line, piece by piece, the two software developers had done their work. It hadn’t taken much. It was almost too easy.
The idea was simple. The internet was full of people pretending to be other people, all of whom were desperate to raise their voice above the din. Their golden application was the segway between the blogging underworld and the social media stratosphere. It hadn’t taken long to programme, almost 13 hours. It had practically written itself.
“I’d better get back,” said Evan, pulling his heavy wool jacket on and tying a brown scarf around his neck. “Got to get some sleep before I head off to New York this afternoon.”
“Yeah, no problem, I can finish up here,” Biz replied.
As he heard the apartment building’s front door slam and Evan’s footsteps retreating down the street, a fizzing, popping sensation in his temples replaced exhaustion. He was alone with the project. Now, it was his.
Instead of getting some rest, Biz started up a test version of the app. In ten minutes, he realised he’d created more than a piggybacking application. This needed — deserved — it’s own space. He logged into his server and bought a URL. The name was a giveaway. Twitter. It echoed in the noise of the tinnitus in his head, ringing out in the weak morning light.
By the afternoon, he’d completed a full-scale website build. He and Evan had never shook hands, so he didn’t feel bad that he hadn’t run any of this past him. This was his baby now. It was four PM. He didn’t need to sleep. A thick, viscous energy was soaking through his stomach into his blood, renewing him, loading his thoughts with exciting visions of the future. He was a success. He’d created something powerful. He was going to change the world forever. He liked the word “forever”. He smiled.
Eight PM. Biz had chosen a simple design — hey, it worked for MySpace — and had begun testing. The development stages couldn’t have gone better; no stalls or hiccups at all. It worked like a dream. In theory, it was done. Now all it needed was words from other people, to fill it up, to get the perpetual gears moving. The energy inside him rose into his chest, with a need he’d never felt before. Massaging his scalp and dousing the gnawing in the pit of his stomach with a final swig of lukewarm coffee, Biz conceded that it was finally time for bed.
The timeline was Evan’s brainchild, as much as it pained Biz to admit it. A never-ending stream of updates, delivered in timely order, was designed especially to keep users of the Twitter website in touch with the world they were detaching themselves from.
“Feeling engaged, while disengaging,” explained Evan. “It’s brilliant!”
Biz’s reservations only made Evan’s explanations more fervent. He paced the office, cocking his head in uncharacteristic jerky movements.
“What if the users only follow the people they like?” asked Biz, bent out of joint that Evan was having all the mental success.
“Isn’t that better? They’ll have more reason, more need to engage, they’ll be more informed than ever because of the Twitter site, but they’ll know less. They’ll need to keep plugging in to find out what to opine on next.” Evan’s eyes were glinting from the recesses of their deep, shaded sockets. He was radiant under the office’s flouro lights with excitement and anxiety, his skin tinted grey from overwork. Had he always looked so old?
Even Biz couldn’t deny that this was a million dollar idea, and so the timeline was born. Now all they needed were the willing subjects. It didn’t take long.
Before the end of the week, the Twitter site had had more success than even Evan had imagined. People hadn’t just signed up to take part; celebrities had jumped on board, willingly offering up insights into their days for free, all for the love of being listened to.
“The great thing is,” said Evan through chattering teeth, “there probably isn’t anybody listening. How hilarious is that?” Biz had to admit that the setup was pretty ludicrous. But he still needed more.
Clawing at his mouse he scrolled through the timeline. It was easy to see why people had signed up, but the initial promise of free exposure wasn’t paying off the way Biz had intended it to. He needed more from it. The users wouldn’t stick around if they realised what they were saying had no consequence. Evan said he agreed.
“I want more from this,” he said, jabbing at the screen. “How can we make them commit more to it?”
That oozing, overwhelming energy Biz had felt when they were developing the site bubbled under his skin. He was cold. They needed more. He scratched at his arm absent-mindedly and was surprised to see scales of skin the size of dimes flutter from his fingertips to the floor. Evan saw and his mouth turned up at the edges, curling like damp plywood. He was grotesque; greyer than ever. His face looked gaunt, silhouetted against the white Venetian blinds of the office window, closed to keep out the afternoon sun. Biz wondered if his own face had lost some of its colour. He thought about taking his bike for quick ride around the neighbourhood, maybe grab some pizza. The image dissolved in front of him. He tried to think how he would feel to be outside, to breathe in unconditioned street air, to feel sweat on his forehead, to taste the pollution of the city in the back of his throat. He didn’t like it. Better to stay in the office. Make sure the site keeps running. He didn’t fancy pizza anyway. He and Evan stayed in the room for hours more, pushing the Twitter site’s URL to tech blogs and influential self-promoters, gaining more and more information as the minute hand crawled around on Biz’s Timex. With each post, they felt a little more alive, the crawling sensation under their ribcages subsiding with every personal anecdote. The pair smiled in the office’s gloom.
It was dark. It was 4:46am but neither developer could be sure of what day it was. Words spilled onto the monitor in real time, illuminating Biz’s emaciated face in blue and white. Evan crouched on the floor to his right, doubled over in pain. His heart had begun to burn since the Twitter site had reached more than 50 posts per minute. The number of posts was easily reaching more than 200 every 20 seconds now and his heart was fluttering and stalling with the added pressure. Biz stared motionless as the posts dropped relentlessly into view in front of him. With each personal anecdote he felt a change. They needed more. From his side he heard Evan gasp. Cursing him, Biz begrudgingly looked away from the screen. Evan was choking. Black smoke was curling from his lips as he sputtered, black caverns where his eyes once were. His paper-like skin was straining over protruding cheekbones, pulsing where tanned cheeks used to be with hyperventilation. Biz stared in confusion and disgust as wisps escaped from Evan’s nostrils and eye sockets and moved together to form a great cloud between them. Underneath it, Evan’s face was losing its shape. As the skeleton beneath his features disintegrated, he clutched weakly at Biz’s knee. Before Biz could decide whether he wanted to help him, the remains of Evan’s body collapsed into a mound of papery embers. Biz held his breath to keep from blowing Evan away but there was no need. He hadn’t breathed in hours.
Evan’s smoke hung in the space where he’d once sat and it was getting thicker. Biz had to look away — the notifications were coming in thick and fast and he needed to see them, read them, feed on the petty qualms and arguments of every tiny human connected to him via that glowing monitor. The slick of energy inside him was pushing up through his throat; it felt like warming summer sun inside his chest. He was so happy that he couldn’t stop squirming. He was feeding on the innermost trivialities of thousands of people and there was no stopping the flow. The smoke was closing in.
Tarry blackness dripped thickly from his mouth, in trickles at first, spilling over his gnarled hands and keyboard, and into his lap. An acrid smell like creosote made his head spin as his body began to disperse. His laughs became a pained gurgling; sticky bubbles grew from between his lips and the ooze continued to pour. It swirled into the smoke like ink in water and the two dark elements gathered like storm clouds in the centre of the room. The air that was left was charged with energy. A deafening crack eased the pressure momentarily. Was that a lightning flash? In his office? He could barely see, he wasn’t sure if his vision was blurred or if the world around him was growing darker with every second that passed. He could hear the notifications ringing out, faster and faster, and he grinned wider, his face splitting in two. He felt the weight of existence leave his body as the darkness poured out of him and filtered into a wet and silvery mist that filled the room. It took a moment to realise that the beautiful sheen surrounding him was Evan’s dust particles suspended delicately in the air. In one violent movement the thick treacly contents of Biz’s heart and soul were sucked up to the ceiling and then brought crashing down over him, as every morsel of energy was sucked into his PC. The Twitter site had hit ten thousand users and more were joining every second. Elation. His eyes dulled and he slumped heavily back in his swivel chair a shell. The darkness had won.