A year ago today, at 4:57 AM San Francisco time, Jack Dorsey tweeted the news that he was once again the CEO of Twitter. Then he tweetstormed for a while. He called Twitter “the most powerful communications tool of our time.” He said it stood for “freedom of expression,” “empowering dialogue,” and “speaking truth to power.” And he laid down two goals for his second stint as CEO: He wanted to make sure that anyone on Earth could easily understand Twitter–and that the millions already using the service could get more out of it.
Yet a year into his new tenure, Dorsey hasn’t exactly achieved these goals–let alone all the goals he should have set. Under Dorsey, the company is certainly making changes much faster than it did in the past. But the impact on the bigger picture is minimal. “You know the expression ‘under-promise and over-deliver’?” says an ex-Twitter product manager who recently left the company. “Twitter does the opposite.”
Even those who are familiar with the service are still trying to understand what it is and what it wants to be. The design remains confusing. Twitter continues to foster harassment and abuse. Is that really on purpose? “Twitter’s grown up,” says Nick Bilton, Vanity Fair special correspondent and author of Hatching Twitter, the messy story of Twitter’s founding. “It’s almost a teenager. And it’s not a very healthy teenager. It says mean things. It attacks women and people of color.”
We don’t want Twitter to die–it has a proven social value, and engaging with the Twittersphere, especially in times of crisis or wonder, can be not only fun but moving. But … we don’t want it to live, either. It’s a cesspool that gives voice to the worst of us, and the worst in all of us. Never tweet.
And none of this gets to the big questions over the financial health of the company, whether Dorsey can also turn this service–whatever else it might be–into a reliable source of revenue. On the one-year anniversary of his return to the helm, the acquisition rumors are starting to swirl. Apparently, the company is in talks with Google and Salesforce and others. Great! Maybe someone else can sort out this mess. According to some people who worked under the new Dorsey regime, even many of those inside the operation no longer have faith that Twitter can regain its footing without some help. As another former employee puts it: “Jack has lost the company.”
Ex-employees like to badmouth their old companies. But venture capitalist Chris Sacca is putting his stock where his mouth is. Yesterday he announced that he’d sold many of his Twitter shares. “I don’t own as many as I used to, because I’m not an idiot,” Sacca told Bloomberg. “But I own more than I should, because I’m an idiot.”
When Dick Costolo stepped down as CEO of Twitter in June of 2015, the company formed an eight-member search party to find his replacement. This committee promised to overturn every rock and every LinkedIn page necessary to find the right person, but bringing back Dorsey–who helped found the company and served as its first CEO–seemed a foregone conclusion. After all, when Costolo stepped down, the company made him interim CEO. He was the first person to ever set up his “twttr.” And perhaps more than anyone, he was responsible for the way Twitter worked and what it meant to the world. Of course, that cuts both ways. What Twitter really needed was to change.
In the year since Dorsey resumed the reins, the company has changed one thing, for sure: the way it markets itself. Apple’s App Store used to classify Twitter as a social networking app. That meant it sat below Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp on the download leaderboard. But now the company calls Twitter a news app. So on the news leaderboard, Twitter is number one! But Twitter reps say this change is about more than the leaderboard. “This is the first time we’ve clearly articulated who we are,” says Kristin Binns, the company’s new head of communications. “[We are] a news service.”
But then Binns also says that Twitter is “a conversation.” And “it’s live,” too. And now we’re confused all over again.
Twitter is indeed a news service. Just look at the 2016 election, which is ebbing and flowing one Trump Tweet at a time. For new media thinker Clay Shirky, it’s impossible to disentangle Twitter from its place in Presidential elections. “The fact that Twitter has become not just a vital national water cooler but a primary site of public speech for Trump makes it sui generis in terms of political communications,” he says. Indeed, Twitter is often the place where the news gets reported first. Now, if it could only sort out the rest.
Different But the Same
Dorsey and company have also rolled out many changes to the service itself. They brought live TV to the service, introduced a thing called Moments that curates tweets into coherent “stories,” and let you more easily attach links and photos to tweets without breaking the 140-character limit. That’s not exactly tectonic. Some of these changes went over better than others–which is a kind way of saying that Moments is awful–and in the end, they didn’t really change Twitter’s fundamental appeal.
The company has teased more significant moves, like instituting a new 10,000 character count for tweets, but hasn’t yet made an existential change. According to one former exec, that’s because Dorsey can’t quite make up his mind. “He’s inconsistent,” this person says, “and he’s motivated by looking good.”
In other words, Dorsey cares how the changes affect his public image as a Steve Jobs-like Silicon Valley genius. According to the ex-employee, Dorsey was big on longer character counts, but then the idea leaked and people hated it and he ordered a stop to the product.
The Fun is Gone
Just before Dorsey returned as CEO, the comedian Louis CK stopped using Twitter. As he told Opie Radio: “It didn’t make me feel good. It made me feel bad.” And he’s a white guy everyone loves!
For far too many people, most of the Twitter experience is about harassment. When video game developer Brianna Wu criticized the Gamergate movement on Twitter, she got a flood of abuse, including multiple rape and death threats. Then trolls published her street address. “You better believe my husband and I left our home,” she says. But she still lives with the psychological strain of those threats. Wu says that as much as she would like to vote for Hillary Clinton in this year’s Presidential elections, she can’t–because she worries the trolls will find her address in the voting record.
Making Twitter a fun and positive place is critical for user growth and ad dollars. It’s also the only way it’s going to remain “a conversation.” Abuse is not conversation. And when people leave, that’s definitely not conversation.
And standing in the way of reform, at least in part, is Dorsey. Former employees describe him as an ardent defender of free speech–as that tweetstorm said 12 months ago. Somehow that translates to Twitter leadership doing the bare minimum to address the harassment problem. They show good faith without actually achieving much. A recent BuzzFeed survey found that even when people report abuse on Twitter, very little happens to correct it.
More to Do
On the positive side, Dorsey’s stance can produce powerful stuff, like the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter. “Social media–including Twitter–has expanded our supply of available voices,” says Nathan Matias, a PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab who studies online discrimination and harassment. But that doesn’t mean Twitter can’t work to keep people safe.
Yes, the company occasionally bans people from the service, like Milo Yiannopoulos, who so horribly and repeatedly abused the actress Leslie Jones and many others. But even Yiannopoulos says that banning people isn’t the answer, or at least not the only answer. “There are structural problems to the way Twitter was architected,” he says. “That means that people who don’t want to hear from each other, hear from each other too much.” What Twitter needs, he says, is tools that let you carefully filter what you see and what you don’t.
Binns says the company is already doing this. “While we know there’s still much to be done,” she says, “we’ve made progress toward giving people more control over their Twitter experience.” Recently, the company rolled out a quality filter and a new way to control who gets to buzz your phone with @-replies. More is coming.
Too little, too late
Yet Twitter’s stock price remained in the doldrums. Then came the rumors that some big names might buy the company. Google. Salesforce. Disney! Apparently, the Twitter folks really like the Disney option. But one thing’s for sure: all the speculation has done a lot more for Twitter’s stock price than Dorsey has.
A person close to Twitter says that the company is involved in a range of discussions, some that would involve keeping the company independent and others that wouldn’t. Given how poorly Twitter operates as a standalone ad platform, a sale seems like the best option. But will anyone really want it? Bilton compares Twitter to the 4chan online message board owned by Chris Poole, better known as moot. “4chan was an incredibly robust forum network,” he says, “and moot couldn’t sell it because no one wanted to put advertising next to some potential child porn or a picture of a dead person or something like that. So the company was worth nothing! And Twitter finds itself in the same situation.”
It’s not a situation that can last forever. Even if the company is now pointed in the right direction, or indeed a direction. The question is, does Twitter have enough time to fix what’s wrong? Dorsey had a year. The stock is flagging. Too many users leave; not enough arrive. When he returned as CEO, Dorsey promised that he’d make it easy to understand what Twitter is. He did. People do. And they don’t seem to need it anymore.