In case you don’t remember the precise details of what the Silicon Alley dot-com boom-and-bust in the late nineties and early aughts was like, allow me to remind you, because I was there. Everyone showed up to work, hung-over, around 11:30 a.m., just in time for our free lunch. There were about six different dogs in the office. Everyone left around 6 p.m. to go drink on the company bar tab or show up at ubiquitous “launch parties,” extravagant affairs (often on a boat that circled Manhattan) that celebrated the historic occurrence of a website going live.
Mostly, I remember the meetings. We’d have about four meetings a day, in which a group of overpaid twentysomethings would ramble on for an hour about “content integration” and “vertical scalability,” just long enough to make it look like we were doing something. The nine months I worked at a dot-com back then were epic slack, all done in the name of The Future. We were changing the world. We believed. In something, anyway. The rest of the world didn’t matter.
The company I worked for died, as did hundreds of others. But the belief didn’t. Which brings me to Twitter. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, 34, wearing the casual yet composed Accomplished Techie uniform of an unbuttoned dress shirt over requisite logo tee and jeans, sits in a well-lit conference room in San Francisco, sharing a floor with mobile-software company iSkoot. Though he’s surely aware that the rest of the planet is in full-fledged depression panic, he doesn’t act like it. Inside Twitter, there is no economic downturn. Stone talks about “groundbreaking ideas” and Twitter’s unique place of responsibility. He talks about branding, provoking growth, and, yes, “scalability.” Twitter lives in its own bubble of The Future, while the rest of us are barnacles unfortunate enough to scrape by in the present. He sounds like everyone I worked with back in the dot-com days. He has the hot product. He might be right. But back then we all thought we were right, too.
The office itself feels like 2000 … but more adult. These guys are smarter than we were. They have only 28 employees, and the office has few decorations, save for two green ceramic deer in the corner and papier-mâché hanging from the ceiling that reads EVERY TWEET COUNTS. A spread of organic cereals is ready for the few people in the office at 10 a.m. There’s a vintage Atari game by the window (Tempest, from 1981), but you have to ask someone to turn it on. It looks as though certain concessions were made at Twitter to What a Web-Company Office Is Supposed to Look Like. Really, it’s like any other office, except there’s hardly anybody there. They’re all working at home.
“There’s not a lot of foosball going on here,” CEO Evan Williams, 36, says. “People are working on what needs to be done. I know when I’ve been in those cultures, there’s just a lot more goofing off. That burns a lot of cycles that don’t need to be burned. Part of it’s an age thing. My first couple of companies, I only socialized with work people. A high percentage of people here have spouses, have families. They can go home.”
Which is all fine and good, but Twitter is the hot web company right now. Its employees are pretty much the only people still reliving the old dot-com days. And yet they’re not. They’re more focused, more idealistic, more … San Francisco. Stone calls focusing on money, rather than the established goal of changing the world, “a New York thing.” They don’t care about money in the Bay Area? And we like to change the world here too, right? Well, maybe we used to.
Stone speaks of Twitter’s potentially being a new form of human communication, “like a flock of birds choreographed in flight.” That’s an extremely ambitious statement, particularly because it doesn’t seem to describe what Twitter does at all.
If you’re the last person in the world to not know what Twitter is, here’s a simple explanation: It allows you to post text messages to the web. You have a 140-character limit per posting, and you can “follow” other users (in aggregate or individually) and they can “follow” you. It’s kind of like Facebook’s status updates, but available for anyone to see. To read an individual user’s Twitter page in some semblance of order is beside the point. Most individual Twitter pages resemble a poorly written blog. If you looked at mine, you’d see updates from a recent football game I attended, a joke about the inauguration, and an alert that a friend of mine was getting a tattoo. My Twitter page is lame. Most are. What happens collectively is what matters.