Friday, June 12, 2015

Twitter's Blue Bird Has the Blues

I confess that I have a Twitter account, at the suggestion of a tech industry CEO/founder friend who said it is essential to life on earth, but I also confess to not using it at all. I acknowledge that without Twitter, mainstream and cable news shows would almost certainly have less to talk about and therefore less broadcast time during which they can generate ad revenue.  They owe Twitter a debt of thanks.

I really enjoyed Twitter co-founder Biz Stone's book, "Things A Little Bird Told Me," which is about startups, a personal odyssey, the founding and internal culture of Twitter, and about his ultimate separation.  I really don't like business books, but this one rang true for me and was a fun read.

I remember from Stone's book that he was really the co-founder who interacted with the Twitter user base who, he says, effectively told the company how they wanted to use a new feature the company introduced.  There was such a community among the users, Stone, and the rest of the executive team that in the midst of one of Twitter's frequent outages, some users sent pizzas to the development team and Stone whom they all knew were pulling all-nighters to get things up and running.  When the delivery of the pizzas went momentarily unacknowledged, a big user Tweeted, "Didn't you get the pizzas?"  Such was the level of community among the corporation and the user community.

Stone goes to great lengths to say how much the 140 character limit, an inadvertent limitation caused by the early technology base, forced people to edit themselves and to be creative in how they did this.
Fast forward to today, and things seem different and exactly the same.  Instead of listening and watching how the user community deploys a new tool or feature, the corporation now uses the traditional A/B testing methodology used by direct marketers and catalogers since time immemorial.

The small, understaffed startup described in Stone's book now looks like a very bureaucratic, overstaffed, top heavy organization. It superficially seems like Google, but it seems more sclerotic.  It competes with Facebook for investors hearts, but it doesn't seem to have Facebook's culture.

Finally, executive infighting and the clash of personalities among co-founders has been going on since Biz Stone's early days.  This is exactly what the company doesn't need.

As the Wall Street Journal points out, the company seems afraid to incur the wrath of their high volume users, i.e. those who have trouble editing themselves; now the company is doing away with the 140 character limit which will encourage the fill the news feeds with endless oceans of boring and self-indulgent text.  But alienating these folks might be fine, if the company can find features and capabilities that will generate a large stream of new, active users.

This all feels so familiar, but Twitter had better rid itself of its worst cultural and organizational  practices before it becomes yesterdays news.

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