One of my guilty reading pleasures are tech company biographies. That I’m a part of the industry and can relate to the motivations of founders and early employees is a given; I’ve also followed companies’ chronologies and can remember the news as it happened, tying them back to product announcements and mergers and lawsuits and all their corporate shenanigans. Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon. Physical and digital ink have been used to tell the stories of the big tech companies of our time.
The next one on that list of may well be Twitter. I guess their IPO posturing last year had made the company a valid target for a tell-all book, and behold, Hatching Twitter was published late last year in time to capture the excitement of the public markets. I went into it like I do any other biography, but with one additional data point: as an employee of Square since 2011, I got to observe one of the central characters of the story as he lived though the latter parts of the book.
As it turns out, that added perspective is making me question the storytelling of these allegedly true stories.
Founding stories are glamorous, likely overly so. Survivor bias glorifies what are, at best, rare successes. When they are told, these stories are revised and edited to make for great interview fodder and to boost the statuses of the ones telling them. The reality of companies are messy – whether they consist of five or 5000 employees – and their histories are laden with setbacks and lucky breaks and likely a few shady decisions.
When the dirty laundry is aired out, these books take liberal embellishment of history, so much so that they read more like mild thrillers than a plausible sequence of events. People are reduced to caricatures; the “good guys” and “bad guys” are framed early on and continually reinforced; reactions are extreme and faux-dramatic; events are timed to bring about a 24-esque collage of simultaneous occurrences. These biographies run in the same vein as movie screenplays based on true stories, except they’re even less fantastical and deal with drier subject matters.
It’s too bad, really. The startup story of Twitter, even from the bits that get leaked to the media, seems legitimately dramatic. Had Hatching Twitter not gone for the Hollywood treatment, it might have also been more…believable.
- And I do hope that Square will eventually get to a place where books will be written about its founding and maturation.↑