The growth formula: Q&A with Kevin Weil, Twitter's head of product

Where the global town square goes from here

Even at a company where executive turnover is the norm, running Twitter's product organization has been a particularly precarious job. When Kevin Weil took the reins in October, he was the fifth person to take the job in five years. Improving Twitter's core product while growing its user base was a challenge Weil's predecessors never quite cracked; the man he replaced, the former Google Maps executive Daniel Graf, lasted a mere six months.

Inside Twitter, there was confidence Weil could succeed where past product leaders failed. Unlike Graf or Michael Sippey before him, Weil is a Twitter insider: he joined the company in 2009 as a data scientist and steadily rose until he became responsible for all of Twitter’s revenue-producing products. In his first few months since taking over the product team, Weil has overseen the release of several small but meaningful changes. Among them: improving tools for reporting abuse and harassment; unveiling a new home page for people who haven’t signed into Twitter; inserting popular tweets that you may have missed into the timeline; and letting you message multiple people in direct messages.

The changes have boosted morale within Twitter among the employees I’ve spoken with. But Twitter itself remains as turbulent as ever: Dick Costolo abruptly stepped down this month in part because of pressure from Wall Street to grow the company’s number of active users more quickly. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey has stepped back into the role while a CEO search takes place. And whoever takes the job permanently will be judged in large part on the performance of Weil and his team. How good are Twitter’s products? How many users will they attract — and retain?

The company’s latest strategy is to build a version of Twitter that shows you its best stuff instantly, without you having to figure out who or what to follow. Twitter calls it Project Lightning, and it’s likely to define Weil’s legacy at the company. Over two wide-ranging interviews this month, I chatted with Weil about Lightning, Twitter’s latest CEO, and why they had to go and get rid of the wallpaper on your profile. Highlights are below; the interview has been edited and condensed.

How many users will Twitter attract?

Casey Newton: You’re working with a new CEO now. What have your conversations been like since Jack came back?

Kevin Weil: They’ve been awesome, actually. I’ve really liked working with Jack. Look, I loved working for Dick — I worked with him for five years. He’s been a great mentor to me, and I think he's obviously made a huge impact at this company. But Jack brings the vision of the founder of the product back, so he has a very strong sense of Twitter’s place in the world. He’s bringing his perspective to how we develop products, and honestly it’s been a great experience so far.

Your team has consistently made moves to change the core Twitter experience. What are you up to?

Well, let me step back and try and place it into a broader context. Here are a few places where Twitter is making really bold product choices. The first is that tweets are getting richer. We’re moving from a world of 140 characters to a world where that 140 characters is a caption onto a much richer experience, and that richer experience travels wherever the tweet goes. You’re seeing tweets come with photos, videos, Vines, GIFs, and Periscope, [which] is a huge opportunity in the future. But it’s not just that. Commerce is an example of this: you’re beginning to take actions through tweets. So there’s a lot that you’re going to see coming from us in the coming months around that.

"Tweets are getting richer."

And then beyond that, we’re taking the timeline in a very new direction. Historically, the Twitter timeline has been about a set of reverse-chronological tweets from the people you've chosen to follow. That’s a great experience. Three hundred million people a month come to Twitter in a logged-in state, and that is their Twitter experience. And for people like you and me, we’ve spent a lot of time curating who we follow, getting to exactly the right amount, the right set of people, the right set of content, and we follow, we unfollow, we curate. We’ve put a lot of time into it. But the next 500 million people who come to Twitter aren’t going to put the same amount of time that you and I have into making our Twitter timeline the best representation of what’s happening in our world right now. And that’s our guiding light for where the Twitter timeline goes. We want, every time you open Twitter, we want to show you what’s happening in your world right now so that Twitter tells you first what matters to you. And so we’re evolving the way the timeline works. You’re seeing this with products like "While You Were Away," where for the first time, the Twitter timeline wasn’t reverse chronological. Maybe you went to bed the night before, you woke up in the morning, and you missed a lot of tweets; can we summarize the best of what you missed so you really did feel like Twitter was telling you what was going on in your world?

But that’s just one example of the work that we’re doing. The Instant Timeline, where for new users — rather than introducing you to Twitter by asking you to follow people, understand what "follow" means, understand all of our verbs and our actions, rather than doing that — with the Instant Timeline, we ask you a few questions that are easy about what you’re interested in — sports, music, news, et cetera. We understand from your address book who you know, and we know what they’re interested in on Twitter, so we can learn from that, and then we introduce you to Twitter through our content. The first experience you have of Twitter, 30 seconds after you sign up, is a timeline of tweets that are relevant to you right now based on everything we know about you. And from there you can follow people as you decide that you like what they’re expressing on Twitter, and you evolve yourself into more of a normal state on Twitter. But we’re introducing you to Twitter through the content. So those are two examples of how we’re evolving the timeline, and in general, our product direction is focused on making sure that Twitter tells you what’s happening in your world, first.

The most important thing you’re working on now may be Project Lightning. What’s the vision for this product, and how close are you to being able to show it off?

With 500 million tweets a day, everything that happens in the world, happens on Twitter. Literally everything that’s going on, there’s somebody with a phone, taking a photo, posting a video, putting it on Twitter. But it’s tough to find all of that content, even for you and me, who are expert Twitter users. And so Project Lightning is a bold take on how we can deliver that value to users instantly, without making them go and find it themselves. The idea is that we can give users a new experience, a guide to what’s happening on Twitter right now. It doesn’t need to be a big event like the World Cup or the NBA Finals or the Oscars. It could be a meme that’s breaking on Twitter. It could be a conversation that’s happening. One great example is the VMAs and all the chatter that was going back and forth — Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift, and Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran going back and forth and making fun of each other. If you don’t follow all four of them, you missed that. But these conversations are amazing, they’re only on Twitter, and Project Lightning is a way to bring these moments together.

"Project Lightning is a way to bring these moments together."

What does it look like? How does it work?

There are a couple new concepts we’re introducing. Part of Project Lightning is around human curation. We have a team of folks who are selecting the best tweets around what’s happening now, so we know that everything is super high quality and we can focus on providing a great experience around every individual tweet. So it’s a very different way of doing Twitter than a timeline is, and it also allows us to introduce some new concepts in the direction of showing you what’s happening in the world right now.

One of the things we’ve talked about with Project Lightning is the idea of a temporary or an event-based follow. The idea is that as the VMAs conversation is playing out, in Project Lightning, you’re getting the best of this particular conversation. You’re seeing it curated live, so you can go and flip through it in a very immersive view of this conversation. You can also follow it, and when you follow the best tweets from that conversation or that event or that location or the game or whatever, it will be added to your home timeline as they happen. So it’s again breaking this notion of a purely reverse chronological home timeline where the tweets are only from the people you follow, and reimagining it to make it more about what’s happening now in your world that you care about. So what you’ll see when we can finally show you Project Lightning is that it’s instant, it’s immersive, and you can immediately understand what’s going on in your world as it plays out on Twitter. It will give you an entirely new appreciation for the richness and the depth of content on Twitter, but there’s also a beautiful connection between the home timeline and Project Lightning via this idea of a temporary follow. After the event’s over, the content from that Project Lightning event doesn’t keep getting put into your timeline. It’s just while it’s happening.

How personalized can you get with this kind of thing?

That’s a great question. Project Lightning will initially be geographically focused, and it will be a set of content that is the same for every user that comes to Project Lightning. And I think that’ll be great. It’ll spur discussions. You’ll know that there’s this sense of shared experience happening around these moments, these events. But over time I can definitely imagine it becoming more personalized. There are a few different ways we’re thinking about doing that. It’s definitely an opportunity for us.

Lightning: geographically based first, personalized later

How different will Lightning make Twitter feel for core users?

We’re being very thoughtful about it. So for you as a power user, you’ve taken a ton of time — you’ve put a lot of effort into getting the exact right set of people to follow. And for you, your home timeline is very good. It’s a very true representation of who you are and what you care about. And it’s very real time. That’s not true for every single user. So for you, we may not make a lot of modifications. For other users who are newer to the product, or who don’t follow a set of people that produces a great timeline — for those people we can do a better job of bringing them what matters most to them right now.

You mentioned bold changes. And so I should ask — why is the wallpaper going away on profiles?

Here’s what I will tell you — it is not so that we can put ads there.

You just wanted a cleaner look?

A cleaner look that sets us up to make some changes that we have in the hopper.

A recent area of focus for you has been in handling abuse, particularly abuse experienced by women. What else do you want to do in this area? And do you have any data to suggest that what you’ve done so far has improved the situation?

It’s a good question — it’s something that is critically important to us, as you’ve seen from our focus on it. I don’t think we have any data that we’ve shared.

That’s literally why I’m here. So you can share with me.

It will be an ongoing area of focus for us. We’re never done when the work is protecting our users. We ultimately feel that this kind of work actually enhances free speech on the platform because it makes people feel safe to state their own opinions. So it’s incredibly, incredibly important to us. Free speech is at the very center of who we are. I can tell you we see and we feel that we’re making an impact. And there are various public tweets that we’ve seen from folks who have been involved in this in the past that they feel that there’s progress. But we have more to do, and we’re not going to stop.

"Free speech is at the very center of who we are."

How do you measure that, though? If you improve the reporting tools, you’ll probably see more reports. So how do you measure your effectiveness in handling abuse on the platform?

There’s only so much I want to say about that. I don’t want to reveal too much of our metrics because then we help the people who are doing the abuse learn the system. So I’ll stop there.

Just before you took over, Twitter tried to reset its relationship with developers by launching Fabric, your suite of developer tools. And just a few months later, the first app to really take off on the platform in a long time — Meerkat — got its wings clipped when you shut off access to Twitter’s social graph. Can developers trust Twitter? And is Fabric generating meaningful results now?

Fabric has been doing fantastically well. We’ve had a number of announcements since our developer conference at Flight; we’ll have more in the future, and hope to bring everyone together as well and talk about what’s happened in the past year. That product continues to add enormous value in the lives of the developers who are actually building the apps that we use day in and day out. It’s experienced a lot of growth as a result.

With Meerkat, we have great relationships with Ben and his team. We still talk fairly frequently. They still are heavy users of the Twitter API.

Let me ask about video. Like a lot of big social players, Twitter has made a big push around video this year, striking deals, improving the product. What is Twitter uniquely positioned to do with video?

We just made some big announcements around auto-play, which have been great. We’ve heard great responses from users around auto-play. So that’s exciting, and that gets at our mission of enabling users to understand all the great content that’s on Twitter. You don’t have to press play on the video; it just starts and you’re drawn in. So that’s a big step for us in mobile video because it isn’t just Twitter video. It’s also Vine, and it’s also Periscope. Both of those products are very valuable with their own set of users, their own app, their own communities. And that’s amazing. They also can post content to Twitter, and their content is represented authentically within our product. And so both Vine and Periscope enrich your experience of Twitter, and I think we can do more than we do today to help you see the best of Vine, the best of Periscope when you’re in those products or when you’re on Twitter.

"We need to put more of a focus on our desktop apps."

Sounds like that could be part of Project Lightning.

Who knows? There are so many possibilities.

Development on your desktop apps has tended to lag far behind the mobile apps. Do you see value in investing real resources in, say, the Mac client or Tweetdeck, or is that just a distraction from trying to win on mobile devices?

The thing that drives us is building great experiences for users wherever those users are. And it isn’t just Twitter-owned and Twitter-operated apps. We also think about our logged out experience, which is primarily on the desktop. And we think about our syndicated experience — syndicated tweets in desktop websites and in mobile apps through Fabric. So we care about the Twitter experience wherever users are.

We’ll have more to say on a couple of those things in the future. But I can tell you it’s absolutely a priority. We do think about building a great mobile experience first. It’s the most immediate, powerful use of Twitter. But we absolutely need to put more — effort is the wrong word — more of a focus on our desktop apps. And you’ll see those improving rapidly, in the same way that you’ve hopefully seen the mobile apps improving rapidly.

Recently Twitter has talked a lot about wanting to capitalize on the millions of people who visit it every month without logging in. Are you getting good results from your new home page for logged out users? How will it evolve?

Logged out in general is a massive opportunity for us. We have over 300 million active users, but we have over 500 million people coming to our various logged out properties [every month]. So there’s an incredible amount of folks coming in to look at individual tweets, to look at profiles, to do searches. And some come straight to the home page. So we focused first on building that home page product, because we wanted to have a great front door, a great introduction to Twitter to teach people how the product works and what it is. But now we have an opportunity to connect all these experiences so once you start on Twitter as a logged out user, you can browse endlessly from one place to the next. You look at a tweet, and then you look at related tweets. From there you look at someone’s profile. From there you look at one of our focused streams about what’s happening now on a topic you care about — say, college football. And we can create an endless browsing experience. Because again, there’s so much amazing content on Twitter, and it’s our job to do a better job connecting users to the content they care about it.

Is there an opportunity to create a logged out mobile experience, so you could browse the Twitter app without an account?

There may well be.

How do you feel about the rollout of Twitter commerce so far? It seems slow to me.

We’re being thoughtful and making sure we get the experience right before we go and put buy buttons everywhere. We want to make sure that when you see a buy button, the flow toward a purchase is quick and easy, that the feedback that you get once you make a purchase makes sense, that you know the right places to follow up. We want to make sure the buy buttons you do see are incredibly relevant for you. And we’re taking our time being thoughtful about it so we get that right.

A Twitter take on instant articles

One of the things Twitter does best is point people to other places: to articles and videos on other websites. Recently the mobile web has come under a lot of fire for offering a terrible experience, and Facebook has kicked off what I assume will become a trend by offering to host content natively inside its apps. How do you think about the mobile web? And how far along is your own take on "instant articles"?

(Laughs.) How very presumptuous of you!

Honestly, I can’t imagine you won’t do it. But if there’s an alternate perspective, I would love to hear it.

The thing we focus on at the end of the day is when a user clicks on a link, you want to get them to their goal, to the thing they were trying to read and understand, as fast as possible. Instant articles is one route to that. We think there may be others. And we also think there may be other approaches, and we’re exploring those. I’ll be cryptic and leave it at that.