Farhad and Mike’s Week in Tech: Figuring Out Twitter’s Future
Each Saturday, Farhad Manjoo and Mike Isaac, technology reporters at The New York Times, review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry.
Mike: Hello, Farhad! How are you? I just got back from a week of “new hire orientation” for The Times. I’ve been an employee here for 18 months. I guess we run on a slightly different timetable.
Farhad: To be fair, 18 months doesn’t seem like nearly enough time to complete a thorough background check on you.
Mike: Fair. So, I was sort of checked out of the news flow, but came back to a deluge of tech craziness.
Google is doing this thing with a bunch of other tech companies to make web pages load faster on our phones, which is theoretically a good thing. Jet, the online shopping Amazon competitor, killed one of its main business model decisions — to charge for a membership — which seems theoretically like a bad thing (for Jet, at least). And Dell and EMC are considering some sort of giant merger or takeover, which is still in its theoretical stage. Also, I have no idea how to speak intelligently on the cloud — the cloud! — so let’s just tiptoe past that.
Farhad: You forgot about the Microsoft event. They made a laptop! With a screen that’s actually a tablet! I thought it was pretty cool. Maybe PCs are cool again?
Mike: Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Oh, sorry. I just fell asleep with my eyes open.
The company finally has a new chief executive, Jack Dorsey. He also happens to be the old chief. And, incidentally, still the chief executive of another company, Square, which is in the process of an initial public offering of stock. I can barely clothe and feed myself regularly while doing my job, let alone think about running two companies, so suffice it to say that Mr. Dorsey makes me feel bad about myself.
But here’s a question people behind the scenes keep asking me: Mr. Dorsey is the new chief executive, but he was also on the board for years as chairman (though no longer) and had a shot earlier in the company’s life span to shape and form Twitter in his own vision. On Friday, we learned that he’s planning a series of cost-saving measures, including layoffs. But beyond that, will Mr. Dorsey’s return actually be a radical departure from all the things that seem to be wrong with Twitter — hard to use, niche product, bunch of spam, not Facebook — or will it be more of the same?
Farhad: Let’s split the difference: It will be more of the same, but faster and better — so not really the same at all.
Philosophically, I don’t think Mr. Dorsey’s vision for Twitter is radically different from that of Dick Costolo, the old chief executive. They’ve both talked about making Twitter easier for novices by developing new ways of presenting and sorting tweets. And notice that since Mr. Dorsey took over in the summer, he hasn’t made any substantial changes to Twitter’s product team — the team assembled under Mr. Costolo that is tasked with creating new features for Twitter. In fact, this week, Twitter released a major new feature called Moments, which I really like, that has its origins in the Costolo era
But Mr. Dorsey is Twitter’s founder, and he’s also perceived to be a “product guy,” which is Silicon Valley-speak for a willingness to think about how normal people use technology. This might give him special authority within Twitter to take steps that would otherwise have created tension. For instance, he has reportedly thought about dropping or somehow loosening a tweet’s 140-character limit, a move that could make Twitter more appealing to people who find it bizarre (and which, let me just say, I have advocated for a long time). Under any other chief executive, such a move might have seemed blasphemous. But Mr. Dorsey’s the guy who created the 140-character limit in the first place, so maybe he’ll get a pass to change it.
Mike: Which, in my mind, makes me question whether Twitter and Medium, the start-up founded by Evan Williams, who helped create Twitter and still sits on its board, will eventually clash and meet somewhere in the middle. But I digress.
Credit: Bryan Thomas for The New York Times
Farhad: The bigger question is whether it’s too late to save Twitter. Honestly, Twitter is basically my favorite thing in the world, but on most days I just can’t see it catching on widely. Do you disagree?
Mike: Here’s something to think about: A few years ago, when I was a full-time Twitter reporter, I wrote that more than one billion people have signed up for Twitter, tried using it and were like “this is lame” and have never returned. I imagine that number has gone up since I last heard about it.
So what does it take to persuade the millions who tried Twitter once and were too confused to come back to, um, come back? My guess is probably big email campaigns, which run the risk of annoying people. And, as Mr. Dorsey has said repeatedly, articulating Twitter’s actual reason for being to a mainstream audience. For a company focused on communication and connecting the world, it has been amazingly bad at doing just that for years.
In sum, I have no idea what Twitter needs to do, which is fortunately why I am not the chief executive. I just don’t want it to keep stumbling or, dare I say, go away entirely someday. Imagine if you and I had to go to Facebook to broadcast our inane thoughts all day long! What a horrible vision of the future.
Farhad: We could always do more newsletters. Let’s go to once a day? Meet back here tomorrow?
Mike: I would, but I think I start my next phase of New York Times orientation (or hazing): Delivering the Sunday paper.