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Twitter’s lack of urgency is dragging it down

Jack Dorsey’s 2015 to-do list remains largely undone. Here’s my own to-do list for Twitter in mid-2016.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter, attends the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Drew Angerer / Getty

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

I’m a huge fan of Twitter. I’m on it almost all day, between the various devices I have. I use Twitter more than any other platform to promote my work and to connect with interesting people around the world. However, I don’t just use Twitter — I write about it, too. As both a user and an observer of Twitter who wants it to do well, I’m increasingly concerned about the way it’s being run. The fundamental problem Twitter suffers from at the moment is slow execution.

Dorsey’s to-do list remains largely undone

When Jack Dorsey came back on board as interim CEO just over a year ago, he provided something of a to-do list on his first earnings call. This is what Dorsey said on that call:

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a chance to get a deeper understanding of where I need to focus our team. We need to do three things:

1) Ensure a more disciplined execution

2) Simplify our service to deliver Twitter’s value faster

3) Better communicate our value.

He spent a little time fleshing out those three priorities in more detail, but I came away from the call feeling good about Dorsey’s leadership. In contrast to what often felt like a sense of denial from his predecessor Dick Costolo, I felt that Dorsey understood the challenges facing Twitter and had a plan to address them, and I said as much at the time. However, if you look at that list and what’s happened since, it’s hard to see how any meaningful progress has been made on any of those fronts.

When it comes to more disciplined execution, its absence is essentially the whole point of this article. Other than the layoffs Dorsey instituted as almost his first act as CEO, there has been no evidence of faster or more disciplined execution. In fact, it’s arguable that things have gotten worse, rather than better. Twitter’s head count today is at 3,860, about the same as in early 2015, and about the same as Facebook when it had 800 million MAUs, versus Twitter’s 313 million, with a far more complex product. Twitter still feels bloated relative to other similar companies.

On the simplification front, the only thing that’s changed is that Moments launched. What was then known publicly as Project Lightning was an explicit part of Dorsey’s second bullet here, but Moments actually doesn’t simplify the core Twitter product at all. Instead, it adds complexity by providing another set of content separate from the main timeline. The core Twitter experience hasn’t actually changed at all over the past year.

Twitter ran some commercials in late 2015 — largely again around Moments rather than the core Twitter experience — and focused on sports content specifically. And yet even those commercials failed to effectively capture the value of Twitter. And that’s odd, because Dorsey articulated it so well on that earnings call a year ago:

What should you expect from Twitter? You should expect Twitter to be as easy as looking out your window to see what’s happening. You should expect Twitter to show you what’s most meaningful in the world, delivered first before anyone else, straight from the source. And you should expect Twitter to keep you informed and updated throughout the day.

That’s a pretty darn good definition of Twitter and the value it provides, but you’d never know it from the meme- and GIF-filled Moments ads Twitter provided a few months back. There was no sense of the real-time nature of Twitter, no sense of being better informed rather than merely entertained, no sense of being part of a community or connecting with others. None of what makes Twitter special.

A new to-do list

As I mentioned, I thought Dorsey’s initial list was pretty good, but here’s my own to-do list for Twitter in mid-2016:

  • Evolve the tweet. Twitter needs to finally bite the bullet on its proposed changes to the 140-character limit. This change has been rumored for years, and was confirmed in January, with more specifics arriving in the months since. But still no action has been taken on making the 140 characters more usable. Just this week, I was in a Twitter conversation with six other people, and we had only 53 characters to communicate because of all the usernames. This is fundamentally broken, but is emblematic of the broader problems with the way Twitter syntax clogs the limited space in which it allows users to communicate. Twitter needs to pull the trigger on these changes fast, to allow users to communicate more freely. That’s the key fix Twitter needs for power users.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, Twitter needs to fix the simplicity issue with a topic-based approach to the core user experience. Topics really only show up on Twitter during the onboarding experience, but even then they’re a means to the end of getting users to follow individual accounts. But that model is broken for the vast majority of the new users Twitter should be trying to onboard. Moments gives us a glimpse of how this could work, but it only works for transitory events. Instead, Twitter needs to give users the option of following topics on a permanent basis, switching between them like TV channels. Give me an NBA channel, a U.S. politics channel, a Manchester United channel and so on, curated by people and machines. Let me filter and tweak them until they’re just right for me. Don’t force me to pick all the individual accounts, just show me the best content available at any given time.
  • Deal with abuse in a serious and comprehensive way. BuzzFeed has done sterling work lately chronicling the shortcomings of Twitter’s current approach, but new examples are springing up all the time. Today’s method does users — especially women and minority communities — a massive disservice by opening them up to abuse and harassment and failing to curtail it when it happens. It’s still far too easy for abusers to pile on and face no consequences, while their victim is increasingly buried in what are often coordinated campaigns. Twitter’s engineers should absolutely be up to the task of detecting abuses and finding ways to block them. Lots of good ideas for how to do this are out there already — Twitter just needs to pick one or combine several and execute. (Yesterday, Twitter announced tools that seem intended to curb harassment.)
  • Fix the ad product. Advertisers complain Twitter charges too much for an ad platform that isn’t fully featured enough to merit the price premium, something Twitter acknowledged during earnings reporting this year. But this has been a known issue for years. Twitter needs to provide the product, the analytics, and the rest of the package advertisers expect when spending money on premium advertising.
  • Communicate the value of Twitter better. This was on Dorsey’s to-do list from last year, but it remains largely undone. Tweets are everywhere, and I think everyone understands how celebrities and others use Twitter as a service. But Twitter is doing very little to communicate how Twitter the service (not the individual tweets users see quoted on TV or in articles) can benefit ordinary users. That needs to change, especially since Dorsey already has the perfect encapsulation, which I quoted above. That’s what Twitter is to me, and likely is to many others, too. Why not tell the world?

I have to believe Dorsey and the rest of the team at Twitter gets most of this already, but they simply don’t seem to be moving fast enough on any of these priorities. There seems to be no sense of urgency, which is the most troubling thing of all, because that was the biggest problem that characterized Dick Costolo’s tenure, too. I and many others rely on Twitter, and we’re pulling for management to do better at running it so that it continues to deliver value to us and many others going forward.

Jan Dawson is founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his 13 years as a technology analyst, Dawson has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Dawson worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as chief telecoms analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally. Reach him @jandawson.

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