Twitter's Fifth Beatle Tells His Side of the Story

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Twitter's public faces have always been Evan Williams, Biz Stone, and to a slightly lesser extent, Jack Dorsey. And then there's Noah Glass. Nearly forgotten in Twitter's meteoric rise, Glass was a key part of the product's early history and came up with its name, according to a big, bruising investigative report into Twitter's origins by Business Insider.

The narrative, as Glass lays it out for BI's Nicholas Carson, is that he, not any of the more well-known founders, built the original service. Later, Williams, or Ev as everyone calls him, asserted control and pushed Glass out.

"Orginally, it was all running on my laptop on my desk. An IBM Thinkpad. Using a Verizon wireless card. It was right there on my desk," Glass said. "I could just pick it up and take it anywhere in the world. That was a really fun time."

Glass, for his part, remains unhappy with how he was treated in the aftermath of his presumed battle with Ev. "Collaboration on something where everyone else gets all the credit and all the glory and fame is frustrating," he confessed.

All-in-all, Carson's report is a valuable addition to Twitter's organizational history, but I'm not sure that it matters all that much who built the early iterations of the site. We tend to look at some site that gets wildly successful and go back in time looking for the genius moment where the lightbulb went off over someone's head and it was all a fait accompli from then onwards. Glass even describes that moment:

There was a moment when I was sitting with Jack and I said, "Oh, I do see how this could really come together to make something really compelling." We were sitting on Mission St. in the car in the rain. We were going out and I was dropping him off and having this conversation. There was a moment where it all fit together for me.

But the world is a lot more contingent than that. Nine times out of ten, Twitter would have failed. Not because Twitter's a bad service but because that's what most startups do, and I don't think we give enough credit to contingency and luck. Instead, people want to figure out the secret of Facebook or of Twitter or of bigger things, like the Russian revolution or American democracy. But the deeper you look, the more you know, the less history seems to give some clear-cut answers about who founded what or why something succeeded. Historian Gordon Wood put it best in his book The Purpose of the Past:

The past in the hands of expert historians becomes a different world, a complicated world that requires considerable historical imagination to recover with any degree of accuracy. The complexity we find in that different world comes with the realization that the participants were limited by forces that they did not understand or were even aware of--forces such as demographic movements, economic developments, or large-scale cultural patterns. The drama, indeed the tragedy, of history comes from our understanding the tension that existed between conscious wills and intentions of participants in the past and the underlying conditions that constrained their actions and shaped their future.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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