Twitter just can’t seem to win.
At this time last year, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey had recently resumed responsibilities as permanent CEO, and people seemed excited all over again about the renewed prospects of a stumbling Silicon Valley darling. Everyone loves a comeback story after all. After being ousted in 2008, Dorsey had the chance to revive a company that was facing stalled user growth, a pervasive harassment problem, and a beleaguered stock price. Dorsey was supposed to be Twitter’s savior—even though he already had a full-time job as CEO of another company! Dorsey, folks said, was the one who could apply the kind of vision and direction that only a founder could have for a company he created.
Now a year later, Twitter is still a mess. Harassment still runs rampant on the platform. The Twitter app and website are still confusing and intimidating for newcomers. To Twitter’s credit, it released many product updates this year, from a new emphasis on live video to de facto longer character limits. But these tweaks have had virtually no effect on Twitter’s bigger problem: making itself a mainstream social network able to appeal to a wider public (much less one that’s grown to have the same kind of stature and influence as Facebook). The revolving door on the company’s C-suite didn’t help. Then Twitter killed Vine. And currently, the debate is raging over whether Twitter’s most famous user, the President-elect, should be suspended from a service he uses—over and over again—to lob insults at people and organizations.
Look, we get it. A struggling company isn’t easy to turn around. But at some point, you have to ask: Is Twitter going to make it?
Maybe. The thing is, in spite of its mess, there’s still a lot to value in Twitter. No other social network has built up quite the same kind of cultural currency—and for good reason. Unlike other networks, Twitter’s influence is decentralized; it lies in its power users, the ones who use it to give voice to people and movements that may not have risen otherwise. Just look at how Twitter both took and pushed the pulse of the 2016 elections. Or how crises unfold on the platform. Or how social movements take hold.
“Twitter’s settled in with a core base of users,” says Brad Slingerlend, an investor who manages a technology fund for Janus Capital Group. “That forms a resilient part of the business.” The challenge is getting the company itself to be more decisive and fix the things that are broken so that this loyal user base can get even more out of Twitter—and maybe even make a little money in the process.
Twitter: A Year in Review
Dorsey didn’t exactly have a lot to work with when he took over as CEO of the company in October 2015. After a wildly successful IPO in 2013, Twitter quickly began to struggle with life as a public company. Gone were the cushy days of being a well-funded private startup; the reality of pleasing shareholders began to set in. Twitter’s stock languished, and so did a company that couldn’t seem to clearly articulate what its service was actually good for and who it was aimed at.
Into this fray stepped Dorsey. And in the beginning, he seemed very much like a man with a plan. “Twitter is live,” Dorsey said decisively during a Twitter earnings call at the top of 2016. “Live commentary, live conversations, and live connections.” In time, Twitter clearly defined another core use case of its service. “We are a news service,” Kristin Binns, the company’s head of communications, told WIRED.
Twitter has suffered from a lack of decisive direction. The problem, at least in part, is Dorsey himself.
But even with these guiding pillars, Twitter’s next moves failed miserably at expanding its appeal. Twitter tried live TV. It curated tweets into Moments, a kind of news aggregation that mostly irked people by adding a new tab to the app. It released a bespoke app called Engage for its top-tier thinkfluencers, and let you append attachments like photos and links that didn’t count against the 140-character limit. These efforts were made in good faith; Twitter’s deal to stream 10 NFL games was a master move in negotiation, for one, and it brought the games for free to a bunch of set-top boxes. But the company still wasn’t growing.
Then, the rumors started that Twitter was going to sell itself to get out of its stagnation. Disney, Salesforce, and Google were all reportedly looking into possibly bidding on the company. (Twitter’s stock spiked.) Unceremoniously, all the companies pulled out, in large part because of widespread harassment on the platform and the company’s seeming inability to do much about it. (Twitter’s stock fell.)
But it’s not that Twitter isn’t trying. In November, the company gave users the ability to filter out keywords, phrases, user names and hashtags in their mentions. Still, some saw those changes as mostly superficial, hiding abuse rather than fixing it.
Overall, Twitter seems to have suffered from a lack of decisive direction. “You know the expression ‘under-promise and over-deliver’?” an ex-Twitter product manager who recently left the company told WIRED. “Twitter does the opposite.” And the problem, at least in part, is Dorsey himself, people within the company say. “He’s inconsistent, and he’s motivated by looking good,” a former exec also told WIRED. A Twitter spokeswoman declined to respond to questions about what she calls opinions of Dorsey’s leadership style.
One More Year
Now, as Twitter heads into the new year, it has a new chief operating officer and a new product head, and other fresh new faces have come onboard to work alongside Dorsey. Yes, ex-COO Adam Bain left Twitter at the beginning of November, as did ex-CTO Adam Messinger in December. But Anthony Noto—who has reportedly been the big operator and doer inside of Twitter for a while—is now taking on the COO role, a position seemingly most apt for him, COO. Twitter also acquired Yes Inc. (a company that made apps to connect people to events), and brought on Keith Coleman, former CEO of Yes, as its new VP of product. Coleman, a one-time product manager for Google who developed Gmail, Inbox, and Google Chat, shows promise as a capable operator—though it’s one thing to get the job and another thing to last in it. The big joke in the tech industry is that Twitter’s head of product job is the Valley’s most fleeting.
Twitter’s head of product continues to have the life expectancy of a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts
— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) January 24, 2016
Really, looking at 2017, Twitter seems to be about where it was at the top of 2016. There’s fresh promise in the new talent that’s come aboard, but at the same time, Twitter is still struggling to find its direction.
A key issue keeping Twitter in limbo is its finances, says longtime industry analyst Rob Enderle, who heads his own firm, the Enderle Group. “Twitter’s financial performance is a massive distraction, and until that distraction is removed it will be very hard to get them to focus on anything else,” he says.
But Twitter’s core base of users gives some hope. That base has stuck it out with Twitter, no matter how ill-managed the company or ridiculous the product. “Twitter’s been undermanaged, and there’s been a lack of execution,” Slingerlend says. “But what’s encouraging is, despite that, it’s got a pretty healthy, engaged user base.”
Indeed, as of the third quarter of 2016, Twitter reported 317 million monthly active users—not much more than the 302 million monthly active users it had at the beginning of 2015. But there’s still something about the social network that keeps those hundreds of millions of users on Twitter. “It’s not growing, but it’s not unwinding,” says Slingerlend.
A possible solution is to rethink how Twitter is run in the first place. Twitter could be turned into a user-owned co-op (though as WIRED also reported, it’s a bit of a long shot that would require buy-in from the Twitter board, not to mention the current shareholders). Or it could be managed like a media company, rather than a tech company. Slingerlend thinks this latter approach could focus Twitter around its core use cases, especially industry insider conversations, live news, and video, taking advantage of an audience that can be “reasonably sliced and diced for ad targeting.”
The one thing that can’t happen, he says, is for Twitter to stay in this same spot with these exact same problems one year from now. “If we’re sitting here a year from now looking at the same management team, same board of directors and same strategy, it’ll be hard to know Twitter’s fate,” Slingerlend says. Well, maybe not that hard.