Nick Bilton’s October 13 New York Times Magazine story, “All’s Fair in Love and Twitter,” describes the heady, early days of Twitter. The article begins with Jack Dorsey sitting atop a slide in a “rinky dink” Silicon Valley playground sometime in 2006, expounding his vision of a microblogging platform to a handful of Silicon Valley techies and entrepreneurs who would go on to create one of the most popular web services in the world. Bilton then proceeds to chronicle the trials and tribulations — and particularly the infighting — that the company and its founders went through to realize Dorsey’s vision, and bring it to market.
It’s a compelling story. Unfortunately, it isn’t true.
While Dorsey has made something of a career out of claiming to be the inventor of Twitter, the truth is that, like many other technical innovations, Twitter didn’t leap fully-formed out of the mind of a solitary genius. It built on substantial prior work.
Twitter’s roots can be traced back to the 2004 Republican National Convention, when protesters relied on custom-built software to coordinate actions, report on police movements, and share their whereabouts. There were in fact two such systems in use during the 2004 RNC. The most popular was a system called TXTmob that the Institute for Applied Autonomy and I built to support protests at the Democratic National Convention earlier that year. There was also another, similar service inspired by TXTmob that Nathan Freitas and a bay-area activist organization called the Ruckus Society developed called RNC 2004 Text Alert Service (TAS). Both systems offered Twitter-like features, including the ability to send and receive brief status updates via mobile phones and the web. TXTmob also supported the use of hashtags to denote metadata and system commands.
To be sure, TXTmob and TAS were not wholly unique. These were essentially bulletin board software optimized for mobile phones and the web. Indeed, TAS was actually built on top of an existing commercial service called UPOC, which also provided Twitter-like functionality. And while TXTmob and TAS offered novel technical infrastructure that enabled activists to communicate via text message, this was hardly the first time that text messaging played a significant role in street protest.
However, the 2004 RNC was a watershed moment when the idea of broadcasting short messages and status updates to friends and strangers hit the public consciousness. TXTmob received wide media attention at the time, including coverage by The New York Times. Not surprisingly, there was also widespread speculation about commercial potential for these services. I personally fielded several inquiries from investors and businesses, none of which went anywhere. More on that in a second.
Clearly, the ideas that would eventually coalesce into Twitter were very much in the air well before Dorsey’s sermon-on-the-mount moment. However, the line running from the TXTmob and the Ruckus system to Twitter is actually much more direct.
After the RNC, the Ruckus Society convened a weekend-long meeting of hackers and activists in Oakland to share ideas about how text messaging could be further developed for activist use. Nathan and I were both there. Also in attendance were Evan Henshaw-Plath and Blaine Cook, two developers at Odeo – the podcasting company where Dorsey also worked, which would eventually turn into Twitter. Plath and Cook were invited for good reason. Both were major figures in the activist tech world, known for their work on Indymedia, Protest.net, and other activist media projects. At that meeting, Evan, Nathan, Blaine and others reviewed the TXTmob source code… and were frankly shocked at how poorly written it was (it was literally my first software project). They helpfully suggested a number of improvements that I implemented later that year. For the next few years TXTmob continued to be used by several thousand people — largely for non-activist purposes — while I continued to make fairly minor tweaks to the code. I stayed in touch with Nathan, Evan, and Blaine, and briefly worked with Evan on TXTmob to support the Mayday 2006 Immigrant Rights protests in San Francisco.
It was around this time that Odeo famously transformed itself from a podcasting company into what would eventually become Twitter. As Evan described in a 2011 Hacker News post, his involvement with TXTmob lead directly to the development of Twitter: “I worked on TXTmob, and at Odeo when we came up with Twitter. The idea of twitter came from a hackday project of Jack, Noah Glass, and Florain Webber. But they were all aware of TXTmob as we’d done a presentation and evaluation of TXTmob a few days earlier.”
To be clear, TXTmob wasn’t Twitter. The Twitter team made a number of key innovations that allowed the project to scale, and to attract investors. Further, pointing out that TXTmob played a role in Twitter’s creation is in no way to suggest that Evan, Blaine, Jack Dorsey, or anyone else stole anything from me. TXTmob was an open-source project that I freely shared. The folks at Odeo took this project and adapted it for mainstream use in ways that I frankly did not anticipate. And while I wouldn’t object if one of the Twitter millionaires decided to send along a few “thank you” shares, I don’t believe that they are under any obligation to do so.
Nor does acknowledging Twitter’s evolution from activist technology to widely popular commercial platform take anything away from the incredible accomplishment of Twitter’s founders and staff. By mainstreaming activist technology, Twitter saw a market opportunity that few of us anticipated, and developed a business model and technical platform to meet it. This is no mean feat, and the folks who pulled it off deserve all the credit in the world.
However, I do think it is important to get the story right. As Bilton observes, creation myths matter. They don’t simply tell how things happened, they tell us who we are. Jack Dorsey clearly needs to believe that he’s not just clever (and lucky), but that he’s a rare breed of genius. It’s also probably important to Twitter’s employees and investors to believe this too.
The problem with Dorsey’s story, for the rest of us, is that it describes a world where the market is the sole site of technical and social innovation, and where we are wholly dependent on a handful of extraordinarily gifted entrepreneurs to lead us out of the dark ages. This is a myth. The truth is that Twitter – or something very nearly like it — would almost certainly have happened without Jack Dorsey. However, it might very well not have happened without the long progression of earlier tinkerers and dreamers, who often worked well outside the confines of the market. Their collective efforts paved the way for many of the technical marvels we now enjoy, and we should take care to ensure that they are not written out of the histories of the extraordinary age in which we are living.