On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Recode Commerce Senior Editor Jason Del Rey sits down with Nick Bilton to talk about the process behind his new book, “American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road.” Bilton, who wrote for the New York Times before taking a job at Vanity Fair, wrote his narrative nonfiction book without speaking to the subject, the Silk Road’s founder Ross Ulbricht. Instead, he obtained chat logs and social media records and created a history based on the online evidence.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at the link above, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. I’m coming to you from the Vox Media Podcast Network. Actually, full disclosure, I’m not gonna be in this podcast episode. My colleague, Jason Del Rey, who is the best damn e-commerce reporter you can find, he works with me at Recode. He’s interviewing Nick Bilton of Vanity Fair. So they’re gonna talk about “American Kingpin,” which is Nick’s new book. They talk about a bunch of other stuff. Nick’s great. Jason’s great. You’re in great hands. Enjoy the show.
Jason Del Rey: Thanks Peter. Like you said, I’m here with Nick Bilton, journalist and author of a few books, but most recently, “American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road.” Welcome, Nick.
Nick Bilton: Thank you for having me.
So, typically I don’t bring notes with me to interviews onstage or podcast, but there’s so much I want to cover today that I’m not embarrassed to show you, there’s a little index card here.
And it’s a paper index card. I’m surprised you don’t have your cellphone with notes written in Evernote. Does Evernote still exist?
It does in some form, but no, that’s not me. I’m pretty old school.
You’re a paper guy.
I’m a paper guy. So, a lot to get to. But let’s start with “American Kingpin.” Came out yesterday, which would be Tuesday, May 2nd. Are you glued to the Amazon rankings right now?
I’m trying not to look. It’s funny. I don’t have Google alerts on my name. I don’t look at my @ replies, unless it’s from people I’m friends with. I try not to look at the Amazon rankings or the comments. If you live by that, you live by the highs and you die by the lows. And I find it better just to get through the day without looking. But every once in a while ...
You’re gonna peek.
I will peek. I try to do it as little as possible. But I do believe that Jeff Bezos is sitting in a castle somewhere with a little cat and he rubs its head ...
A high castle, perhaps?
A high castle, yes. That was good. And he rubs the cat’s head and smiles whenever he sees the actual author looking at their rankings because it’s torture. It’s complete torture.
Maybe someday I’ll know what that feels like. For now, I’m gonna ask you a ton of questions about this book and other fun stuff.
So, let’s start with the Silk Road. I’m sure a lot of our listeners here know what this is and what that was, but why don’t we start with a little explanation from you on what the Silk Road was, and how you came to write this book.
Well, I’m a special correspondent with Vanity Fair now and I used to be at the New York Times. And I lived in San Francisco, covering Tech and business for the New York Times as a columnist. And I lived in this little sleepy area of the city called Glen Park, and it used to be where all the firefighters and cops and so on lived before they got priced out. And I used to walk my dog every single day past this library, and this library was tiny. It looked like a shoe store. And I always used to wonder, “Who goes into that little library?” And then the news broke that Ross Ulbricht, also known as the Dread Pirate Roberts, who ran one of the biggest drug empires on the internet, had been arrested there. And that was what led me to get involved in the story. I was just so fascinated by that fact.
Were you aware at the time of what the Silk Road was? That is was a black market?
I had covered the Lulzsec, the hacker crew, for the New York Times for a few years, and other hacker crews similar to them. So I was aware of the Silk Road, and of course had written about bitcoin as a lot of people had by then, and the dark web and so on. But I didn’t frequently go on there. I didn’t actually ever go on there. No, I went on there once. That’s not true. I did go on once to check it out, but I never purchased anything.
But the thing was, the problem with the Silk Road back then was when Ross Ulbricht was running it, no one knew how big it was. There were people that presumed, oh maybe it did X amount of drugs a year in sales, or Y, but it was actually, it was doing hundreds of millions of dollars and ...
One of the reasons why no one knew was because it was not living on what we would think of as the regular web, correct?
Correct. The way you accessed it was through Tor, the web browser, which anonymizes people. And then you purchase things through using bitcoin. And at it’s height, it sold thousands of different types of drugs and heroin, crack, marijuana, different kinds acid, different types of ecstasy, things that you probably have never even heard of before. N-bomb, fentanyl, all these things that are made in these labs in China.
I’ve not heard of those until I read the book.
And then there was a point where they were selling guns, glock 9s, and bullets and so on. What else was there? There was hacking tools and counterfeit passports and IDs.
And all this was arriving — in the U.S. at least — and USPS was delivering this stuff?
Yeah. What’s really interesting is in the beginning of the book, the book starts out with this moment where this agent from the Department of Homeland Security, Jared Der-Yeghiayan, ends up finding a single pink pill, literally one pink pill in the mail in the Chicago O’Hare airport, in this massive, massive structure where all the mail comes into the country, that I actually got to visit and see. And he starts wondering, well how is it that one little, tiny pill is coming from Amsterdam and going to someone in Chicago. And that’s what opens the case for him.
And when he found out what the Silk Road was through his investigation and how it worked, he wasn’t necessarily as terrified of the drugs. What he was terrified of was the fact that people were using all of these things built by America to actually subvert American laws. For example, Tor is built by the U.S. Navy. It was designed so that people who were overseas in the Navy could actually send messages to their loved ones without the fear of a dictator finding anything out about them.
The U.S. Postal Service, we all know how that works. And that was delivering its drugs. The internet, using the backbones that were built in technology, and so on. And his big fear was not necessarily drugs, but his fear was what if a terrorist could come into the country just on a regular visa like a vacation? They didn’t have to bring any weapons in. They could purchase them on the Silk Road and then they could do whatever they wanted with them.
And the founder of the Silk Road ... So the book is written as a nonfiction narrative.
And you go pretty deep into his background. And to a lot of people, when he would ultimately be arrested and sentenced to life in prison, a lot of people who knew him well thought this can’t be the same guy. So how did he get from a pretty normal childhood to founding what was — for, I think, two years — the largest underground black market in the world?
So, it’s a great question, and it was the crux of what my reporting was about. If you go back, Ross Ulbricht was this incredibly smart kid, incredibly kind. He lived in Austin, Texas and he grew up with two parents that cared about him and loved him, and a sister. And he volunteered on weekends, and he was ... I spoke to people from all ranges of his life, from elementary school on, and the through line was that he was this really sweet and gentle and kind person. And he had this philosophy that you should immediately trust everyone. And that philosophy eventually morphed into this idea that the government should not be able to tell people what they can and cannot do. That they should trust them to do whatever they want with their own bodies and their own lives.
This is the Libertarian ideal.
So eventually ends up, he goes to the University of Texas in Dallas, and then he goes off to Penn State. And he wants to be a physicist. And when he’s at Penn State, there’s all these clubs, hundreds and hundreds of clubs. It’s like there’s the chess club, and the cupcake club, and you name it. And he ends up joining two clubs. He joins the drum club and he joins the Libertarian college club. And he gets super into Libertarian politics. And Libertarian politics is this idea that no one should tell anyone else what they can and cannot do with their own life and their own body.
And when you apply this theory of trusting everyone, which Ross had, he had this idea of what if you built a website where you could allow people to buy and sell whatever they want without the government telling you what you could and could not sell. And that you would have to trust people to ensure that they would sell you good drugs. And so, he decides he’s gonna build the site. And he uses Tor and bitcoin and he goes off and builds a laboratory where he grows several pounds of magic mushrooms and then opens for business.
And so, I know he ends up in San Francisco at the end. The arrest happens in San Francisco. If I just blew the story, I think, it’s already a story that ...
No. Well, it’s interesting because I think that the arrest is not the point. It’s the things that lead up to it that are just so ... I’m sure you knew before you started the story, before you started reading the book, how it ends.
It’s the stuff that gets there that’s just mind boggling. There were times that I was writing and my mouth was agape.
And so he ends up in San Francisco. At any point throughout him building this site, obviously bitcoin is the currency that was being used to make the purchases and that’s a popular idea in Silicon Valley. But was he looking at a model of entrepreneur or idealism from Silicon Valley when he was creating this, or was this much different?
No, it’s fascinating because he ran the site in the same way that Uber or Facebook are run. And the crazy part is, he uses some of the same quotes as those CEOs. He reads the same books and cites the same quotes on the internet on social media and so on. And any ...
So Ross could be Travis?
Ross absolutely could be Travis. Travis decided to disrupt the taxi industry. Chesky decided to disrupt the hotel industry. Ross Ulbricht, that it was gonna be drugs and guns. And there’s probably a world in which it all could have flipped around and those different people could have been running each other’s companies in some way or another.
But he had a lieutenant that he hired. His name was Variety Jones, who was essentially the consigliere on the site.
That’s my favorite name in the book, by far.
He’s an amazing, amazing character. He’s so smart and witty and intelligent, and the thing that’s fascinating is I got to see a lot of Ross’s debates and Libertarian club at Penn State. And he was so smart and he was so articulate. And if people would say drugs shouldn’t be legal, which the Republicans and Democrats in college would say, he would have these very smart retorts like, how many people have died from marijuana or magic mushrooms in the past 10 years? None. And so, and yet 40,000 people die a year from heart attacks but we let them eat Big Macs. Or tens of thousands die from cigarettes, and we don’t make those illegal.
And so, his arguments were very valid and they were hard to discredit, except Variety Jones always could, his lieutenant. And they have this amazing relationship in the book, and they did in real life. And so he, Variety Jones, was the COO. He was the Sheryl Sandberg of the Silk Road.
That just sounds wrong in a lot of ways. But to circle back a second to the Travis through line, just to hammer home this point. He was not looking at innovation in Silicon Valley and saying, “I’m sort of the next ...”
I think, no, he was. So one of the things that in the reporting of the book, was I was able to look at that a little bit. I was able to get access to 2.1 million words of chat logs and diaries from Ross’s computer, where he had detailed every conversation he’d have with his employees while he ran the site. And there’s a point where he wants to, about halfway through, where he wants to start expanding the Silk Road. He wants to start doing a Silk Road for guns, and a Silk Road for pharmaceuticals, and a Silk Road for hacker tools and all these things. He wants to kind of ...
He wants to diversify.
He wants to diversify. And he wants to do a Silk Road which would be like a Costco for drugs where you could buy kilos and tons and so on. And he’s talking about it with Variety Jones and he comes up with an idea that before he wants to do that, Ross Ulbricht, he wants to do different language versions of the site, so a Spanish version and so on. And Variety Jones is like, that’s stupid. Why would you want to do that? Let’s focus on growing the empire and then we’ll translate the site. And he gives him this lecture about do you want to be Larry the Cable Guy, or the next Steve Jobs?
And you can tell and Ross wants to be the next Steve Jobs. And these were his inspirations. It’s the same thing. And he was living in San Francisco, talking to people that worked at these big tech startups and he was bringing those ideas to how he ran the site.
So we’re gonna jump into the reporting process in a second because I’m fascinated with how that went down. First I’m gonna kick it over to Peter to tell you a little bit about our sponsors.
I’m back here with Nick Bilton, journalist and author, most recently of “American Kingpin.” We’re talking about the Silk Road and the story of the man who created it and is now serving life in prison for that role.
So one of the fascinating things about this read to me was the dialogue and the narrative. And reading it as a journalist who has never written probably more than 5,000 words in published form, just curious what the reporting was like. There’re scenes where Ross, the founder, is with a then girlfriend, and they’re talking about this and that or they’re spooning in bed or stuff like that. And I’m thinking to myself, did you talk to one of them? Were there other public documentation about this scene? Are you recreating? Is there some writer’s license there? How does that work?
So with narrative nonfiction, I think that it’s changed a lot, just over the past few years. And I had this realization when I wrote the Twitter book, the book about hatching Twitter, before “American Kingpin.” We live in a world where we leave behind, every single day, a million little bread crumbs of what we’ve done and where we’ve been. We post photos of ourselves on Facebook and we’d show what we were wearing and who we were with. We like photos and comment on things and watch videos and text our friends and email our co-workers, and so on. And if someone was able to get access to all of that stuff, if someone was able to get access to your iMessages and every photo that you’d taken, they could tell a very compelling story with it.
And with Ross Ulbricht, what was fascinating was he lived his life very privately. When he was trying to hide from some people that were trying to kill him, at least he thought that they were trying to kill him, he went and lived in an apartment in San Francisco, paying $1,200 a month in case and renamed himself Josh. But because he was so private in public, he was so public on the internet. And so he was constantly on social media. He was on his computer 24 hours a day almost, except to sleep.
And he was constantly chatting with his employees all over the world who were helping him run the site, moderating things on the forums and so on.
He’s not there posting on Twitter or ...
Or he is.
No, he’s posting as Ross. So The Dread Pirate Roberts is posting on the site.
The fierce leader.
The fierce leader, The Dread Pirate Roberts. And he’s posting things that Ross talked about at Penn State, the same books that he read, the same quotes, and so on and so forth. And then in private, in these chat logs which I was able to gain access to, and it’s literally ... It took weeks and weeks to get through those chat logs.
Were those public in court or ...?
Some of them were. Some of them were not. And then I got access to thousands of photos and videos from his cellphone, from his computer, from friends and so on and so forth. I probably interviewed close to 100 people through all ages of his life.
What’s in it for a family member or a friend to cooperate?
I think that it’s different for everyone, but let me just, before we jump there, I just want to explain.
So one of the things I did working with the researchers, we took all of this information. So we took the chat logs, we took the photos, we took the diary entries, all these different things, the social media posts. And we put together a database where we could cross-correlate everything by time. So I could look at 3:48 pm on January 11, 2012, and I could see what The Dread Pirate Roberts was doing and talking about, what Ross was doing on social media and talking about, and then look for photos that lined up with that.
And it was amazing to see how everything just came together so succinctly. There was a moment when Ross goes camping with three friends and The Dread Pirate Robert says, “All right, I’m going away for the weekend.” He logs off and he puts one of his employees in charge of the site. Literally minutes later, you see a photo of him standing by a car on social media on Facebook with a backpack on. Goes off camping for a weekend. Comes back at the end of the weekend, logs back on as the photos of them arriving home go up online and the comments and so on and the timestamps of the photos too. And he talks about how he had this wonderful weekend. He met this girl on this trip.
And so that happened over and over, and the detail that I was able to get from that was just staggering. There were moments where I found things that were just terrifying that you could figure it out like the EXIF data, which is the location data, the GPS data in a photo, would lead me to a girlfriend that I didn’t even know that person’s name.
And that would end up in the book in some form?
It would end up in the book in some form and then I was able to interview people. To answer your other question of what makes someone want to talk to me ...
That’s why we have careers. In this case ...
Yeah it’s ... I think that it’s very different with a book. When you’re reporting a story for the newspaper, or a blog or whatever it is, you’re just trying to get the little snippet of information. You’re trying to get what happened behind the scenes and so on. And I think people ...
So a little more transactional.
It’s a little more transactional and there’s reasons that people ... I’ve had this conversation with a lot of friends that are journalists. There are a lot of reasons people tell you things. Some people tell you things because they don’t like their boss, or the project they worked on didn’t ship, or they just want to see their name on the internet, or whatever it is, there’s all these reasons. And when it comes to a book, believe it or not, there’s a lot of people want to ensure that the story is correct, first of all. And second of all, a book, it’s around for a long time. And I don’t know if people understand or what it is, but I find that when trying to get people to talk to me for a book, it is vastly easier than it is for just a transactional story.
Is that part of your pitch when you’re trying to win someone over?
Ooh, do we want to go there?
Let’s go there.
Part of my ... No, I think that everyone has a reason that they want to talk. Some people don’t want to talk but most people do. And I think the thing that I’ve learned doing this for over a decade now, is you just have to figure out what that reason is, and then play to that. And it can be a little manipulative, sure. But if you’re correct in your assumption of what the reason is, then the person telling you is getting something out of it too. And the hardest thing I think with this is that — and anyone who’s ever done any reporting knows this — everyone has a different viewpoint. And the hardest thing is making sure that the concentric circles of people’s memories and their facts and so on actually line up.
And with the book, when you’re spending hundreds and thousands of hours researching and interviewing people and so on, that’s the most difficult thing. And the beauty of living in the internet age and reporting and writing narrative nonfiction today, is that the digital timestamps don’t really ever lie.
That’s the cautionary tale.
One thing that surprised me, I read the acknowledgements in the book, and one of the first people you acknowledged were the parents of Ross Ulbricht. And I believe you explained that you did not speak to them for the book but you have talked to them in the past.
Can you explain that a little bit and why there were so high up in your thanks?
Yeah, it was interesting. So I have two kids now, young. One’s a baby and one’s a toddler. And they were ... I don’t know if they were both born in the process of writing this book, but one of them definitely was and one of them was growing up as I was writing it. And I constantly had the struggle of what they must have gone through. And I saw them in the courtroom during Ross’s trial and I felt terrible for them. I really, truly felt terrible for them.
And I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to go through that. And you have this son who you love and adore and would do anything for, who has done these things and ended up in prison as a result. And do you get upset with him for doing it? Are you proud of him for doing it? Do you agree with the sentencing when you think about the fact that people died as a result of the site? There were overdoses and an overdose ...
Which were directly linked to ...
Which were directly linked. And to parents who lost their children as a result of this site, one from bad drugs and one from an overdose, one of the kids being 16 years old came and spoke at Ross’s sentencing, cried. And it was incredibly emotional. And so how do you feel about that as the parent? And I think it’s different for every parent and I don’t know and I hopefully will never have to know. But I definitely ... It’s something that was in the top of my mind while I was writing this book.
And it’s also difficult to write a book about someone who is in jail and for the rest of their life probably, and know that you’re kind of contributing to that story.
And you never were able to talk to Ross for the book?
No, I was never. He won’t talk to anyone. He’s in an appeal process and probably will be for many, many years. And but I also didn’t necessarily want to talk to him, because I don’t think that anything he would have told me would have been accurate or the truth. He’s not gonna come out and say, “Okay, Nick. Let me tell you about the time I ordered a hit on someone.”
Ordered a hit.
Yeah. But with those chat logs and all the photos and things like that that I had, and being able to talk to people in his life, even people who knew him who he had confided in that he had built the site and worked on the site. But those chat logs were just ... I could have spent 100 hours with Ross and I wouldn’t have gotten the information that I got out of those chat logs.
So, let’s fast-forward to today. First, I’m just curious. Were you writing this book while you were still at the Times? Was it between the New York Times and Vanity Fair, where you are now?
It was between the New York Times and Vanity Fair. I was doing reporting while I was at the Times and started writing. I think I wrote ... It’s about 110,000 words. I think I wrote maybe about 70,000 words or so at the Times. And then I took a month between going to Vanity Fair to try to wrap it up. And then finished it while I was there.
Why did you make that jump to Vanity Fair? For a lot of people, the New York Times is it, whether it’s the failing New York Times or not.
For realDonaldTrump, it’s neither. I made the jump because I had been there for a long time. I had been there for 14 years or so, 15 years. And I had been a columnist. There’s a lot of people who work at the Times. They call it the velvet coffin when you become a columnist, because you could just float through and do your job. And for me ...
Although, if you check your @ match in some Twitter, your life is full of a lot of different conversations and opinions.
Yeah. But it’s a very kind of, you know what you’re doing every week and so on. And for me, one of the things that I’ve learned is I’m not very good at the Malcolm Gladwell kind of writing, where you try to string together why dogs have fleas and markets go sideways, or whatever it is. I tried doing that with my first book. It was a disaster.
I feel like what I am really good at is narrative nonfiction, is telling a story with an arc, and I love doing it. There’s nothing that brings me joy in writing than that. And the most optimal place to do that was Vanity Fair.
Were you limited in your ability to do that there? Did you push ...
At the New York Times?
Oh, absolutely. You don’t really write that much at the New York Times. You do a lot of reporting and you, every once in a while, get to write a really fun turn of phrase. But there’s a structure. A column is a lead. A nut graph. A couple of quotes. You maybe get to sprinkle a tiny little bit of opinion, but if you do too much, you’re gonna get your hand slapped. And then you have a kicker. And that’s it. It’s literally a jigsaw puzzle you can put back together every single, solitary week.
It sounds like you thought it was a chore at some point.
It wasn’t a chore. It actually became not a chore. And it wasn’t challenging anymore. And that was a problem for me. I felt like I wanted to be more challenged. And I love the Times and almost all my colleagues there. And but I just was like, you get one life and I would love to try to do something different.
And the other thing is I’d done some freelance work for Vanity Fair. I’d written a magazine feature for them. And I found that it was such an amazing culture. The Hive, which where I primarily write for is ... I’m the only man that works there. It’s all women.
So culture gets thrown around a lot when it comes to different organizations. So what do you mean?
It’s so drastically different.
Is it a throwback, beside being Vanity Fair, and I think those jobs don’t exist anymore except at Vanity Fair.
No, it’s not a throwback. It’s not. It’s that you get to ... So, with a place like the Times, one of the things that makes it so amazing is that you can pick up that paper or go on that website and you know what you’re getting. You’re getting the same voice. A column’s 1,100 words. You know what’s coming. And that’s what makes it so great. And it’s great reporting. It’s great writing and so on and so forth.
And one of the ways they do that is they can control ... They control it. If you work on the Sports Desk, you are never writing about Donald Trump. If you work on the Politics Desk, you are barely ever writing about tech.
The Sports Desk tweeted about Donald Trump.
They did tweet about Donald Trump. That’s correct.
And that didn’t end well.
Well yeah. I got in major trouble once for writing a story that could have been a borderline science story. And it was like all hell broke loose. I’ve seen that happen a lot of times for people.
Was this the health effects of wearables?
Yeah, this was the health effects of wearables.
A lot of people had problems with one of your sources.
Which a lot of people had problems with, although, and not to get into that too much, but if you go back and look at the New York Times, they have written that exact same story 40 times, using the same kind of quotes. It is what it is. Anyway, moving on from that ...
Yeah, let’s keep it moving.
No, I think that the ...
You were talking about the culture at Vanity Fair.
Yeah, the culture of Vanity Fair is, I get to write about politics, and Hollywood, and business, and tech, and the Silk Road and everything, and Trump. One week I’ll be working on an investigative story trying to find the Trump tapes, and the next I’ll be working on something about the Fire Festival and leaking the document that pitched that. Of course, you know things like that.
And it’s because it’s such a small shop. It’s a very collaborative one. And I don’t know. It’s a really great place to work.
And you’re writing both online and for print. It looks like I see your byline maybe once every 10 days or two weeks or something like that.
Yeah, I write a column. It’s more of an essay online every week. And then sometimes longer pieces online. And then I do a magazine feature, usually it’s been every couple of months now.
So one of the most talked-about pieces you wrote recently at Vanity Fair was something about Mark Zuckerberg and whether he would some day ...
President Zuckerberg, who is right now on the campaign trail milking cows.
And a lot of people had strong opinions about that take.
Yep. Yeah, well, so the piece was essentially that it looked like Mark Zuckerberg may run for president one day. But I also did have a caveat that it may be too small of a job for someone like him. And yeah, it exploded a little bit on the internet, as things tend to do.
And there have been pieces where he has said, and I think some of your colleagues at the New York Times have him saying it’s not gonna happen. And I feel like there have been other articles, where either Facebook or he are saying, nope, nope, not right.
Yeah, there was an article on BuzzFeed where they got access to Zuckerberg and they asked him, will you run for president? And it was just a no. And then BuzzFeed put out the news that Mark Zuckerberg is not running for president.
Breaking news. Exclusive. Top of the news. Of course he’s going to say no. Imagine. Let’s just imagine for a second that he was like, yes. Can you imagine what the Facebook stock would have done?
Not a good day.
Plummeted. So I’ve had discussions with my old colleagues of the Times about this, and people all over the place. The question I have is, maybe he’s running, maybe he’s not. What the heck is he doing, right? So you look at the fact that he is out there riding a tractor, as you said sucking on the teat of a cow.
I did not say that.
You said a version of that. He’s drinking it out of the bottle. But he’s doing all these things. He’s having dinner with a family that he would never normally probably want to have a conversation with.
He’s been criss-crossing, I think, southeast U.S. and now maybe middle America as well.
So there’s an argument, you can say he’s doing his yearly challenge. Okay, well, why didn’t we see photos of his yearly challenge before when he was killing animals and eating them himself or whatever.
Learning Mandarin is not very ...
Still, let’s see some photos of it. He has this photographer that follows him around and all the photos look so presidential. So my thing is, he is running for something. I don’t know what it is.
Emperor of the World.
I think it could be Emperor of the World. Maybe he’s planning to be the president of Mars. There is something going on there that none of us know. But to dismiss it and say he’s not running for president, he’s not doing anything, I think is ridiculous. There is definitely something going on.
If there wasn’t, why post those photos on the internet which you know everyone is gonna pick up and talk about?
I have no answer.
Me neither. Zuckerberg does. I’ve been covering this industry for so long, and he is by far the slyest, smartest I’ve ever met.
Is sly a compliment or not?
In business I guess it is. I think Jeff Bezos is probably the smartest CEO I’ve ever met. But I think that he’s actually not as maniacal as Zuck can be in his quest for domination.
Whew. You should talk to some retailers.
Yeah. No, he is, but Zuck is next level. I think Zuck thinks 20-30 moves ahead. And I really truly do. And he’s an incredible adept businessman.
One more topic in Silicon Valley, especially as we’re talking about Mark Zuckerberg. So you wrote “Hatching Twitter,” which was I guess your first big success in terms of book writing.
My first book was not a big success.
And we won’t even mention it.
I’m sorry to anyone who read it. Just kidding.
And so that book had a real effect on perception of Twitter, the company, also particularly Jack Dorsey.
Jack Dorsey, yeah.
When was the last time you’ve spoken to him?
I actually spoke to Jack a few months ago. I did a piece for Vanity Fair on whether Jack Dorsey could save Twitter and I sent him a note and I said hey, I’m gonna do this piece. And he said let’s talk. So I went up and we had tacos and they weren’t that great. He thought they were really good. They were okay. They were from a food truck.
Does that say something about him deeper?
No, I was gonna recommend the place but it’s just not that good. So anyway, so we spoke. And we spoke about the book a little bit. And there’s this thing I think that we as journalists tend to not ... People don’t realize that the people we write about, it actually does affect us. At least for me it does. And I try to put myself in the person’s shoes I’m writing about. And with the Twitter book, it was especially difficult because I knew them all.
You were friends socially with Jack?
Yeah, I was friends with all of them except Noah. Noah, I got to know, an incredibly sweet guy. And yeah, I was friends with Jack. And would see Ev and Biz at dinners and events in San Francisco. And it was really hard to write the book knowing that I knew these people as people, but at the same time, I also knew that the story that was out there about Twitter prior to the book was not the right story. And that a lot of people had been written out of history. A lot of people had been screwed over. And I felt that that was more important than anything, was to tell the truth about what really happened.
I think some people there still feel like they were blind-sided about what the book became versus what they heard initially.
What do you mean?
In terms of your pitch to publishers as sort of this inside tale of backstabbing and ...
So it’s interesting. A lot of people were like, oh well, you set out to destroy Jack Dorsey’s career. The pitch that I wrote to the publishers, the proposal, the book proposal, I had believed the same story that everyone else had believed. And the story was that Jack Dorsey came up with Twitter in his bedroom when he was 8 years old. That’s the story. That’s the one that was out there. And that he came to Silicon Valley and realized the idea and Ev kicked him out of the company for power and control.
That, I swear to God, was the pitch for the book. When I started reporting the book, I realized it was the complete opposite way around. It was four friends, Ev, Jack, Biz and Noah, who accidentally stumbled upon this thing and each brought something to it.
Jack’s original idea for Twitter was called Status, which is correct, right? But his original idea was there would be a page, a web page, where you would put in what you’re doing in a very, very succinct number of letters. Literally it was like “at work, drinking coffee.” It wouldn’t have been 140 characters. Anyway ...
There was no edit button.
There was no edit button and every status update would disappear when you put a new one. So if you ...
He created Snapchat, too.
It was pretty much Snapchat for words.
For only a couple of words. So that was his original idea. So Evan Williams, who had created Blogger, was like, well you don’t want to delete them. You want to be able to see a timeline of them. So we should make it so everyone has their page. Noah Glass came up with the name, the logo, the identity. He was the one that really pushed this idea of it being short numbers of characters and so on. Biz Stone ...
And the one who got completely erased.
Completely and utterly erased from the story. And I think in all startups this is the case. One person gets credit for the whole thing and there are a lot of people that actually were involved, a lot of people. In the case of Twitter, if it wasn’t for Noah Glass, Twitter would not exist. Definitively not exist.
And him coming up with the name I think was one of the things that made it so fun, and so intriguing. His influence with the design, which was this kind of like fluffy, enjoyable thing with the text messaging. All these different things that would not exist. And I think it wouldn’t exist if all of them had not been in the room, if Jack, Ev and Biz and Noah had not been there.
So we’re gonna finish up with two or three real rapid-fire questions.
Which is something I just created in my head, that’s not original at all, but should be fun. So let’s go with: 18 months from now, who owns Twitter?
Disney. Maybe Disney. I think that there’s a play that’s going on right now and it’s very, very smart and I’d give Jack a lot of credit for this. They’ve realized that live video is working and they’re going to continue to expand live video on the site. And it’s growing the numbers and it’ll probably grow the engagement and people don’t say a lot of mean things about live video which brings down the troll factor. And I think if that continues to happen, it could be a Netflix or Disney or something like that that ends up buying them.
Okay. Do you want to hear mine?
I think the price needs to come down a ton.
Oh, the price of course needs to come down a ton.
I think video as well.
I think video’s a piece. I think there’s a whole bunch of other reasons which maybe I’ll lay out in a post some day.
Well, but I also think if you think about the film industry, and I wrote a piece for Vanity Fair on this, the future of Hollywood. And the future in a couple years or 10 years or whatever, we’re not gonna go to movie theaters. We’re going to probably watch movies on Facebook. And they’ll be ad supported and we won’t have to pay for them. And people who make movies won’t reach a couple million people. They’ll reach hundreds of millions of people. And the same is true for Twitter. And I think that the people, the potential suitors for that, there’s a lot out there now. There’s Netflix, there’s Amazon, there’s Disney, there’s maybe NBC or something like that. And so I think that we’re gonna see some difference happen as a result of that.
So I failed that quick fire.
We had a good quick fire back and forth.
The last one, watching Jack’s leadership of Square and what’s been a rather successful run so far as a public company, does that change your opinion of him as a leader?
And I think our time is up.
That’s a no?
No, look. You’ve gotta give him credit for ... It was funny. There was one point in time when both companies had gone public and Square was the ... I believe there was a week where it had risen the most on the market of any stock in the tech ...
And Twitter fell.
And Twitter had fallen the most in the market.
Square’s doing really well from everyone I’ve spoken to and it’s being run really well. And I think the problem with Twitter is not Jack. I don’t think anyone could save that company in the way that they thought that Jack was going to be able to. I think that the DNA of a company is built into the beginning of it, and the DNA of that company is chaos. And it’s the platform. It’s the way people use it. It works perfectly for 330 million people to have a conversation. It doesn’t work perfectly to run a business.
But I think that Jack has learned a lot as a CEO over the past few years. He’s not as out there in public as he once was. I think the biggest criticism that everyone had of Jack before was that he took credit for things he didn’t do. And I don’t see him doing that anymore, so I do think he’s grown a lot as a CEO.
I think that’s a wrap, actually. Nick Bilton, thanks so much for coming by here today to Recode Media. “American Kingpin” went on sale this week. It’s a great read. I read it in a couple of days. It’s fascinating. It’s going to be a movie soon, I think. Is that right, Nick?
Maybe. Hollywood is Hollywood and it’s ...
If there’s anyone out there looking to disrupt an industry, do the Hollywood industry please. It needs it. But there’s a chance that it’s gonna be a movie. The Coen brothers and Steve Zaillian are working on a script.
You should go buy it. You can buy it on Amazon. I want to thank Peter Kafka for letting me hijack his chair. Maybe he’ll let me back someday.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.