Pando

Why the Twittersphere is being too hard on Dorsey and also not hard enough

By Sarah Lacy , written on January 6, 2016

From The Facepalm Desk

Back in 2010 or so, amid Twitter’s ascendancy as a cultural phenomenon and utter chaos as an organization, there was a meeting at with its management (then with a new CEO in Dick Costolo) and its new investors at Kleiner Perkins.

Former Vice President Al Gore -- also a senior partner at KP-- was present. I’m told by someone there, he suggested that Twitter should allow Tweets to be longer and simply get summarized for users in the feed.

While everyone in the room was polite, the Twitter team looked between one another.

Uh….. you aren’t describing Twitter, the exchanged looks said. 140-characters is kinda our thing. When I heard this years ago, it was a funny anecdote.

Turns out, Gore was a visionary.

Re/Code reported yesterday that Twitter is considering a plan to allow people to post 10,000 characters to Twitter. Of course the Twittersphere exploded on reporting of the news.

Sometimes you wonder if Jack Dorsey is doing it on purpose. The most sure-fire way to get Twitter’s core users to Tweet -- a lot -- is to threaten the very core of what Twitter is. It’s sort of like putting up a going out of business sign to get a neighborhood engaged in keeping a local retailer. To many, three things are sacred about Twitter: A reverse chronological feed, a feed that contains everything, rather than algorithmically picking and choosing, and a 140 character limit. Like a Haiku, the limit forces brevity, wit, and creativity. It also makes a feed easy to scan.

Former embattled CEO Dick Costolo was unpopular mostly for two reasons: He tried to build Twitter in an era of Facebook’s astounding operational precision, first. And the second sin was refusing to allow Twitter to just ape Facebook.

Dorsey has no such qualms on the latter. Favorites were replaced by hearts, and the move to allow much longer Tweets will allow content creators to publish straight to Twitter, as they do to Facebook. People come to Twitter for news, so let’s keep ‘em there, is one logic to the move.

For what it’s worth, Wall Street -- typically at odds with the desires of power Twitter users-- didn’t like the news either. Twitter came close to its 52-week low in after-hours trading. Here’s a graph of the stock since Costolo stepped down:

The outrage was partially overblown. The Re/Code story clearly stated that the current thinking was that Tweets would still be short, and would only expand if clicked on. If done well, it doesn’t have to change the Twitter experience too dramatically, while offering something new.

Indeed, it could represent a more useful version of Moments, which was meant to give more context to Twitter and wound up being a warmed over Yahoo homepage-meets-Buzzfeed. Twitter had to swap “notifications” with “moments” get trick people into clicking on it. If you were to consider the three sacred tenets of Twitter this is -- if done right-- would be less disruptive than changing the order or making Twitter algorithmic.

The question is whether it’ll do anything to solve Twitter’s underlying problems, which is user growth. Critics say people not on Twitter don’t understand what it’s for. I fail to see how this helps.

The most astute reflection of the news I saw came from Greylock’s Josh Elman [Disclosure: Greylock is a Pando investor], who previously worked at Twitter and is an investor in Medium, which some said Twitter would look a lot like with a move like this:

I agree completely. My Twitter feed is the best way I’ve found to quickly get informed of news and popular culture. But it’s taken years of pruning that most users simply won’t do. This is the gulf between power users and non-power users. Not simply because of how much they use Twitter, but the fact that they’ve taken the time to construct their feed, and many have grown their use case along with the service.

Twitter has tried lists before. They didn’t catch on, but arguably, they weren’t done well. While it would be a bigger outrage and more jarring, you could argue violating the sacred tenet of the algorithmic feed gets closer at solving the problem Elman points out than adding the ability for news articles and essays to fit into the stream.

Look at the company who is stealing the most relevance from Twitter. It’s not Facebook, it’s Instagram and Snapchat. Which are inherently visual and video mediums, not homes for long form text. Does Dorsey even know what year it is?

But one thing is for sure-- and this is where users aren’t outraged enough-- this move isn’t remotely innovative. And this from Jack Dorsey, a CEO who couldn’t even commit full time but was hired anyway because of his “next Steve Jobs like” powers.

That may seem unfair to have expected Dorsey to do more by now, but he’s the one who set the bar so high. He’s the one who trashed Costolo’s efforts on his first ever earnings call, tanking the stock. He’s the one who lobbied for the job even though he knew he couldn’t commit full time.

A novel way for Twitter to solve the problem Elman articulates. A novel way to change up DMs to make Twitter a more relevant messaging app. A better way of integrating video so that Snapchat’s Live Stories don’t continue to erode Twitter’s home turf of global you-are-there citizen journalism. These would all be innovations.


Simply enacting the thing Gore suggested in a meeting years earlier -- scoffed at back then-- is not.