Hatching Twitter, by Nick Bilton

hatching_twitterThis is a story of Twitter’s first five years, and of the various falling outs between its four founders. And it’s one of the best stories of its sort that I’ve ever read. I was so fascinated by this story and so moved, that I strongly suspect much of it to be somewhat on the false side. In this case, I am putting this preface up front because I have at least three Facebook friends who work or worked at Twitter, and I think one of them was there for some the events described in this book. Thus my disclaimer will be: I know nothing about the real Twitter; all I know is the portrait painted in this book.

Yesterday, when I read Ben Horowitz’s book, the line that most fascinated me was  the one where he talked about how horribly managed companies can succeed as long as they have good product/market fit. Basically, if you’re the only one selling something that the market really wants, then you’re going to be a success. This is particularly the case with regards to tech companies, where network effects mean that the company which amasses an early lead can often crush later competitors in the same space.

Twitter (as portrayed in this book) seems like a perfect example. These four people’s main innovation seems to be that they created a clean, simple, and phone-friendly interface for displaying public text messages, and that they launched this product at roughly the same time that the launch of the iPhone was resulting in a massively increased the appetite for this kind of messaging. Other than that, it doesn’t seem like they were particularly innovative or good at what they did. For instance, two of Twitter’s main features, the @ reply and the hashtag, were both introduced by users, and the hashtag, in particular, was initially derided by the company.

Some of the stumbling around in the book is pretty comical. For instance, after Twitter has amassed well over a million users, an engineer is stumbling around in its software architecture, trying to patch things up and make it more stable, when he discovers that there is no backup for the system. If they lose the database, then everything–all the users and all the tweets and every cent of (what was then) tens of millions of dollars in market value–would disappear. That is insane.

There’s just an all-around bumbling quality to the management that is interesting, because it pierces the startup hagiography. I’ve just finished reading two books (which I blogged about yesterday) that were all about how some founder-CEO exhibited stanch and bold leadership and propelled their startup forward despite horrible calamities. Twitter’s story is a lovely counterpoint. Here’s a company that led something of a charmed life. It grew on its own, almost without marketing, and it had no major competitors. It just sort of grew on its own. The quote in the book that I best love is that part where Mark Zuckerberg tells a group of friends that Twitter “was such a mess it’s as if they drove a clown car into a gold mine.”

But that’s not the best part of the book. The best part is the crisp portrayal of the principal characters, and the horrible drama that ensues.

One thing that makes me doubt the veracity of the book is its focus on visual detail. In an early chapter, for instance, it vividly describes Twitter founder Evan Williams biking to his apartment in Sebastopol in 2005. That’s the kind of thing that you generally don’t read in nonfiction books, because it’s pretty hard to know exactly what things looked and felt and smelled like when you weren’t there. But that visual focus is what makes the book such a delight. You feel like you’re there. The people feel real.

The loneliness of these four founders is so palpable. They all come from such malformed backgrounds, and all want community and friendship. And they all achieve it, for a brief moment, with Twitter. And then immediately proceed to destroy each other. Basically, they squabble over who’ll be CEO of the company. But watching it play out is so heartbreaking. After finishing the book, I was enveloped by a not-unpleasant sadness that persisted for some hours.

Amazed at how hard people were willing to work for Amazon.com

theeverythingstoreBeen reading a spate of management books. First I read a book by Ben Horowitz (one of the early employees at Netscape and a well-known venture capitalist), The Hard Thing About Hard Things. And now I’m reading Brad Stone’s history of Amazon.com: The Everything Store.

What I’m struck by, in reading both of these books, is how hard people are expected to work. I know that founders work hard. I expect them to work hard, because it’s their company. But Jeff Bezos, at least in the early history of the company, expected every person to work insane hours. For instance, during the Christmas rush, he’d send every single employee (even the engineers) down to the warehouse to pack boxes and ship orders. And he didn’t issue bus passes to his employees because he didn’t want them rushing out to catch the last bus; he wanted them to drive, so they’d always have the option of staying later.

And I just don’t get it. What motivates people to work their lives away for Amazon.com? I mean, it is an amazing edifice in lots of ways. And it must’ve been thrilling to create something that no one else had ever created: a store where you can literally buy everything. And to marry the technological and the physical worlds in such an intimate way. But at the end of the day, you’re still just working on a method to sell things to someone for slightly cheaper than the next guy can do it.

It’s made even stranger by the way that Bezos treats his employees. He berates them harshly when they fail and doesn’t praise them when they succeed. And he feels no loyalty to them. He basically sidelines Amazon.com’s first engineer–the guy who built much of its infrastructure. And neither he nor Horowitz have any compunctions about firing early-stage employees once their skillset has been outpaced by the company’s growth.

Which is fine and everything, but it means that the company is basically focused on its own bottom line. Which means that everything these employees are being sold (about this being “our company” and “our team”) is a lie.

So why do people believe the lie? Is it just equity and salary? Is that enough to motivate people to undertake these kinds of hours? I don’t know, maybe it is. After all, investment bankers all hate their jobs and they all work insane hours and they all do it mostly for the money.

But in the startup world, I think it’s more than that. In some way, Bezos and other charismatic founders are able to sell their employees on a vision for their company. They’re able to sell the idea that this is a special moment in history, and that these employees are really part of something. And I suppose in some ways they’re right.

I guess that’s what being a good leader is all about.

Got my thirteen hundredth short story rejection

I normally keep very close tabs on how many short story rejections I have, but this one slipped past me. I just happened to notice it when I was glancing at my spreadsheet. Mostly, this is because I’m not really focused on short stories anymore. I have so many unrevised stories left over from my MFA program that it almost seems pointless to write new ones. And, at the same time, I’ve been finding that novel-writing is taking much longer and using much more of my brain than it used to. And, finally, I’ve been having a bear of a time writing anything science-fictional and, actually, have not been able to complete a work of SF since this time last year.

But I do still go through submission sprees (I currently have 47 submissions out), and I am still happy when I sell a story.

Since my last rejection centennial, I have (I believe) sold three stories. One to Clarkesworld. One to the literary magazine Birkensnake. And another, still forthcoming, to the Indiana Review. All told, I am pleased with all of these, but I am probably most pleased with the Indiana Review, since that’s not only my most formally atypical story (it’s told in the form of a time-usage chart) but it’s also fulfills my long-standing desire to have a story in a [Place Name] Review.

As always, previous rejection milestones are listed below:

As you can see, this represents a severe slackening of rejection pace. One that’s due, almost entirely, to a smaller submissions volume. A large part of that is because I trunked about twenty stories that I’d been submitting for awhile (some of them as old as four years ago) which I could no longer really stand behind.

If you try to passively listen to a conversation, then the participants will slowly force you out

181bqt8ds95cnjpgOn the FB comments for my post on including people in your conversations, someone said that talking to strangers hovering at the edge of your conversations might unnerve people with social anxiety and give them panic attacks. Which is fair. I know a lot of people who don’t like to talk. They just want to sit at the edge of conversations and listen in and be at the gathering in a relatively passive way.

However, that’s an unstable situation. Because if you’re not saying something, then the conversation is going to act to shove you out. People will stand in front of you. The circle will close. And you’ll be on the outside. I don’t know why that is. I think it’s just a case of unconscious orientation. Unless someone’s bringing themselves to your attention, then you’re going to assume they’re not part of your conversation. There also might be an element of defensiveness. When someone is listening but not saying something, then it reads as boredom or condescension, and the natural urge is to remove that person from your immediate presence.

In any case, I don’t know if I have good advice on how to passively listen. I honestly don’t think that merely listening in is ever going to be a good way to socialize, since that’s not really what people want. It’s true that sometimes people mostly want an audience, but they want an appreciative and engaged audience. Whereas a silent audience is unnerving. It’s a bit too much like being ignored. But, even more than that, I think that most people really don’t want an audience. They want more than that. They want to make a connection with another person. And you can’t do that if the other person isn’t willing to contribute any part of themselves.

But if I was to give passive listening suggestions, I’d say the absolute baseline requirement is that you need to introduce yourself. You can’t just stay a stranger. You need to say, “Hello, my name is ____.” Secondly, you should chime in periodically with some kind of on-point reaction: laugh or nod or so “Oh my god, I can’t believe it.” Just something to show that you’re there. Those two things will at least register you as a presence. Although they might seem scary at first, they’ll actually make the rest of the interaction much less awkward and anxiety-inducing.

That’s the paradoxical thing about social anxiety. When you have it, you act in ways that actually make your life more anxious. It leads you to minimize your interaction with other people and act in strange, furtive ways that attract attention. For instance, whenever I am alone at a party, I feel incredibly anxious. I hate standing by myself. And I hate the feeling that each moment that I stand by myself is making me look more like a loner and making it more difficult to talk to someone. And I know that if I stand by myself for an hour, then I’ll be going out of my mind with anxiety. So…I stop standing by myself. I find someone to talk to. And that reduces the pressure.

Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, by Irvin Yalom

Started reading this book of case studies by a psychotherapist whose position is that neurotic behaviors are caused by existential angst: they’re an attempt to turn away from the reality of death and life’s meaninglessness. In this therapist’s understanding, the purpose of the therapeutic relationship is to get his clients to break the cycle of avoidance and confront those fears.

I’ve never really thought much about therapy and psychology. Those seem, to me, like very early-twentieth century preoccupations. There was definitely a time when writers were very excited by psychology and by the prospect of tracing current behavior back to its initial roots. But I think that moment is passed. The problem with psychology is that it all happens inside the head. All of these case studies (while they are fairly exciting) are, at their core, about people sitting in a padded chair in a therapist’s office. They don’t need to actually go out and do anything. All they need is to understand themselves. And, from a novelist’s point of view, that’s a bit drab.

Internet out

No big update today. Internet is out. I had some good posts planned too. Anyway, I recently read Sharon Biggs Waller’s MAD WICKED FOLLY. It’s a ya novel about suffragettes in 1909 England. Pretty fun stuff. Sharon is a friend and a fellow client of my agent, and I’m happy that her work is good too!

I’ve started reading THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. This is a book that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1919, I believe, and was subsequently almost forgotten. But it holds up. I love books about the slow decline of once proud families.

My advice on socializing is not meant for loud, boring people

cowell_1343311531_crop_550x345Recently read this post on Ferrett Steinmetz’s blog about how every piece of advice can, potentially, land in exactly the wrong ears. And that led me to think about what the wrong ears would be for some of my recent advice on making friends and socializing. And I realized who it was: loud, boring people.

There are two kinds of socially awkward people. The first are the ones who are too painfully shy to talk to anyone. The second are the ones who are so bad at reading social cues that they blunder around and say the wrong thing and talk too much and tend to bore people. These two types of people are, in my opinion, oftentimes more similar than they are different. Prolonged social anxiety often results in trouble with reading social cues. Either people are so inwardly-focused that they’re not paying attention to the signals others are giving out; or their anxiety is so out of control that they monitor every micro-expression and infer emotions that aren’t there.

In general, I have a soft spot in my heart for loud, boring people. For one thing, I sometimes am a loud, boring person. I like to think that I am, at the very least, able to eject from a conversation once I’ve started boring the other person, but boringness happens. If you’re going to interact with people, sometimes you are going to rub them the wrong way. I, personally, think it’s better to be loud and boring than it is to be shy and silent, because loud, boring people are at least having so many contacts with other people that they’re bound to get a few positive ones in there.

However, it’s obviously not optimal to be loud and boring. And loud boringness is something that a person should work on, if they suffer from it. Some people might think that the solution to being loud and boring is to become interesting, but I don’t know about that. I think the problem with loud and boring people is that they think they are interesting. Alot of boringness arises, paradoxically, from a desire to not be boring. A person is so afraid of being boring that they’ll always drag the conversation back to things they know they can talk about: their own experiences and their own interests and their own feelings.

And I think the solution to loud boringness is to stop trying so hard. Just relax. Allow people to talk about what they want. Quietness does not equal boringness. Allow the other person to talk. Allow the conversation to proceed down strange paths and touch upon things that you don’t care about. Try to sense what they want to talk about and do something engage with that. Dare to let things sputter out. The conversation might go stale, but at least they won’t come away with the impression that you are obnoxious.

Basically, my solution to loud boringness is not to be more interesting, it’s to be less loud.

However, because I used to be pretty shy and because I know so many shy people, most of my conversational advice is about how to be more loud. Which, if you’re a loud, boring person, is probably the last thing you need to hear.

If someone’s standing at the edge of your conversation, you should try to include them

talktimeHere’s something I’ve never understood. We’ve all experienced the situation where we’re at the edges of a conversation at a gathering where we don’t really know people. Maybe we’ve introduced ourselves; maybe we haven’t. Either way, we’re standing there, looking in, trying to nod along, but there just doesn’t seem to be any natural way into it and all we want is for someone to notice us and talk to us! However, when we’re on the other side of it, and we see people hovering at the edges of our conversations, we usually ignore them.

Of course, in this, as in all things, I am amazing, since I just worm my way into the edge of the conversation and then wriggle my finger and say, “Hey, can I break in?” and then they say “Of course!” and then I listen in until I have something to say.

But most people are not like me. Most people cannot do that. And yet, they deserve to be included. I’m not saying you have to be best friends with the random people who drift up onto the edges of your conversations. All I’m saying is that you should try to include them. Ask them their name. Tell them the topic of the day. Ask them what they think. If they fall silent, nudge them a bit. That’s it. Very simple.

This is the conversational skill I’m best at, actually. To me, it’s so patently obvious when someone wants to be part of my conversation. And it’s equally obvious when they want to say something but don’t know how, or when they feel like they’re slowly being forced out of the conversation. In fact, I often find myself frustrated when someone is talking to me and they don’t notice (or don’t know how to notice) the person lingering at the edge of our conversation, so they never pause long enough for me to bring the lingerer up to speed. Sometimes I’ll just interrupt my friend myself, but sometimes I can’t do it, and I have to watch the lingerer drift away in silent despair. Or, you know, silent mild awkwardness.


Why I arrive at parties right when they start and sometimes leave absurdly early

When it comes to making friends, obviously the best thing to do is to go to lots of social events and talk to lots of people and be really charming and make a great impression on them. But if that’s something you feel comfortable doing, then you probably don’t need friend-making advice from my blog.

The truth is that talking to new people is difficult, awkward, and tiring. And making great first impressions is a skill that most people are never going to have. And if making friends required charming the pants off of total strangers, then we’d all be completely out of luck.

However, I’ve found that charm is really not a requirement. All you need to do in order to make friends is to find a social scene and keep showing up to the events that it throws. That’s all. Just show up. If you show up long enough, people will talk to you. They will recognize you. Then they will start to be happy to see you. And they will invite you to other things. And at that point your friendmaking problems will be over, and you can forget all about the nerve-wracking anxiety that you experienced at those first eight social gatherings, and eventually your introduction to those people begins, someday far in the future, to seem fortuitous and magical and completely unrepeatable.

Now, I’m sure that there is someone out there who is so socially awkward and anxiety-wracked that my “just show up” advice won’t work for them, but I also think you’d be surprised. I have known some pretty awkward and anxious and quiet individuals who’ve gotten pretty far by just showing up.

Anyway, this is all stuff that I’ve said before. But what I wanted to write about today was a practical application of this advice. Which is that once you’ve shown up, it’s okay to leave. I do this all the time. I pop in to some strange new party where I know zero people. Then I talk to two or three. And when the anxiety and isolation get to be too much, I make an early exit. And it doesn’t feel amazing. It does feel a bit like retreating. But I’ve done it often enough to know that the next time I see those people, it’ll be easier (and very probably one or two of them will remember meeting me).

So if you’re worried about going someplace where no one knows you, just give yourself permission to leave after an hour or two. It’s totally fine.

Another thing I sometimes do is that I’ll go to the party right when it starts, when I know that almost no one will be there. And, of course, I feel like an out of place fool, because the few people who’re there don’t know me. However, when you come early to a party, you benefit in four ways:

A) Oftentimes, the only person that you know at a party is the host. And arriving early is the only way that you’re going to be able to talk to them, because once the party is in full swing they’re going to be too busy.

B) If you know the host, then they can introduce you to new guests as they arrive. That way, you have an intro right off the bat. And you also have social proof. You look like someone who’s standing around, talking, having fun. Whereas if you arrive later, then you have to stand around by yourself and give off the “I am a very lonely man” vibe to everyone.

C) If you arrive early, then people have no choice but to talk to you. I mean, you should make it a little easier by looking at them and greeting them and shaking their hand and doing all that stuff. But if you’re early, then your aloneness will be too big and blunt for anyone to ignore.

D) People are also much more willing to talk to you because no one they know is there yet. Oftentimes, parties are more about socializing with people you already know. Which is why it’s hard for new people to worm their way in. But if you’re early, then most people don’t yet have a long-lost friend to greet.

E) In some cases, the hosts may be worried about turnout for their event and, since people typically tend not to arrive until an hour or more after the posted start time, they can often end up staring at an empty room while they stew upon the possibility that their party will be a complete flop. Thus, they’re often pretty happy when someone–anyone–actually shows up.

In many tv shows and films, the voiceovers lend zero added value

gossip-girl-gossip-girl-2024112-1024-768I’m still watching, and loving, Gossip Girl, but I’m also really put off by the voiceovers by the mysterious “Gossip Girl”. Perhaps there are one or two situations in which the GG voiceovers say something revelatory or interesting, but in general they’re incredibly obvious. For instance, the show will cut to a picture of some girl messing around when she should be studying on a test and then Gossip Girl will say, “Oh no, looks like little Jenny Humphrey is all play and no work.”

Like, umm, yeah, we’ve got eyes. I don’t know why anyone ever thought it was a good idea to have voiceovers that describe what we are looking at. The most egregious offender, in this instance, was the most recent Great Gatsby film. In that case, every single one of the voiceovers was either banal or flatly untrue. For instance, when Caraway first meets Gatsby on the stairs, the voiceover goes on and on and on about how brilliant and magnetic his smile was, when, err, we can see the smile. We’re looking at it. The smile is okay. Leo DiCaprio knows how to smile. But it’s not the greatest smile that ever was. And when the voiceover tries to sell the smile so hard, then it just reveals what it’s not.

In Gossip Girl, the voiceovers seem to be consistently misused. They’re almost never used in the most obvious way, which is to deliver background exposition about things that are difficult to dramatize. For instance, the voiceover never tells (i.e. gossips to) us anything about some kind of secret history that the onscreen characters might share. The voiceover never serves as counterpoint, in order to highlight some kind of irony in the scene: some truth that’s the opposite of what’s being said or shown. It’s really the most flat-footed element of an otherwise very deft show.

The only show with good voiceovers that’s coming to mind right now is Scrubs. In that case, the voiceovers worked because they were used to set up the show’s frequent cutaway jokes. But they were also used, in many cases, to quickly fill us in on background details and set the scene at the beginning of the episode. And, also, to tell us what was up with the various patients we were seeing. The voiceovers also worked because JD had a very warm, very humane voice. And he was also one of the main characters of the show, so the voiceovers continued his narrative arcs and character development. However, even in Scrubs, the closing voiceovers were frequently saccharine, moralistic, and unnecessary.


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