The Google buses that circle San Francisco usually pick up employees to take to their Silicon Valley HQ, but in December they were held up in a series of protests by citizens disgruntled at the elite separatism they embodied. Naturally, the Google employees tweeted about their desperation. This, I imagine, was a problem for Biz Stone.
One of Twitter’s co-founders, Stone makes a strong case in his recent book, Things a Little Bird Told Me, for a “new definition of capitalism”, one in which money is made and consumers pleased but that also has “a positive impact on the world”. For Twitter to be used as the medium of the oppressor, even a Google-bound techie one, must have made his conscience prickle.
When I talk to him on the phone about the rise of social inequality, he seems resigned to it: the split “seems to be happening in a concentrated form around here [San Francisco] and then in a more diluted form across the US and potentially the world, and that may just be systemic, the way that we pursue our lives, the way that business works now”. Stone has played his own small role in this trend. Just before he left Twitter in 2011 he moved the company into a rundown part of San Francisco; the regeneration has been good for the area, but expensive, too – rents have flown up and Twitter got a $56m local tax break to do it.
Stone’s attitude doesn’t quite chime with the optimism of his book, in which he talks about how he learned from all his childhood knocks to become the bold innovator he portrays today. Growing up in shabby-genteel poverty in Massachusetts – he recalls the government-issued cheese his mother gave him – his first strike against the system was his no homework policy, which to him was productively rebellious but was no doubt tiresome to both classmates and teachers. The book moves on like this: seen in another light, what Stone thinks of as assertive could be coloured obnoxious.
After joining Evan Williams at Google, the pair left for the company that would eventually produce Twitter. Stone’s concrete contribution to Twitter beyond the “Follow” button and the site’s initial designs is unclear. The idea and technology were Jack Dorsey’s and the money Williams’s; Stone seems to have been a frontman-cum-guru, infusing the project with West Coast vibes, hence the book’s reach-for-the-stars tone.
Yet Stone clearly left some libertarian coding in Twitter’s DNA. Following Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s Prism surveillance programme, a comprehensive trawl for personal data and communications, Twitter could proudly say that it had not co-operated. Stone clearly prized this response. “It’s very important,” he says, “that companies like Twitter continue to make it difficult for any government to request something that doesn’t belong to them.” Yet when he talks about how the rules of the internet are still being formed – “all of us are pushing on it and pulling on it and tying to figure out where it breaks and where it bends” – he seems to concede that we should expect more government interference.
As Stone is rushed off the call, I slip in a final question about whether we need to be worried about the diminution of freedom in the name of security. “Some of us should be. I’m just saying that I don’t worry about it every day because I focus on different things, but some of us should be, yes.” For someone whose book makes such play of his love of liberty, his equivocation seems #lame.
Josh Spero is the editor of Spear’s magazine