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Is Twitter doomed?

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As good an idea as any
As good an idea as any

On Sunday night, following reports by our sister publication Recode, Twitter confirmed that several of its top executives were leaving the company. The list included Kevin Weil, its fifth head of product since 2009; Jason Toff, who ran Vine; and vice presidents in charge of engineering and human resources. It’s an ugly list of departures for a company that has seen its user growth stall and its stock price drop 55 percent over the past year. And it calls into question CEO Jack Dorsey’s efforts to stabilize a company that was in turmoil for much of 2015. The Verge’s Nilay Patel and Casey Newton recently sat down in a Google Doc to tackle a question no one in the media has ever dared to ask: is Twitter doomed?

Nilay Patel: So I think Twitter has a deep existential problem, which is that no one knows what Twitter is for, or how people should use it. That sense of gleeful anarchy propelled the service in the early days, when a small group of power users made and remade norms and etiquette on a near-constant basis, but now it’s just a mess.

Why should anyone use Twitter right now?

It’s pretty normal for companies to have some management turnover after a leadership change, so all these VPs leaving isn’t necessarily a bad thing — but the fact that Jack Dorsey hasn’t articulated a coherent vision for why anyone should touch the Twitter icon on their phone instead of the Facebook icon is the real problem. Why should anyone use Twitter right now?

Casey Newton: Twitter remains the best answer to the question: what’s going on right now? And it’s a pretty good answer to the question: what are people saying about what’s going on right now? That’s one reason that Twitter completely replaced a television showing CNN on most journalists’ desks over the past few years. And at 320 million monthly users, it’s not just for the media that Twitter replaced CNN. Which is one reason it's making more money now than ever: Twitter ranks number two in revenue growth for tech companies with at least $2 billion in sales. And it has $3.5 billion in cash sitting in the bank.

Anyway, it strikes me that first-time Instagram users face most of the same supposed problems that Twitter users do. They have to seek out accounts to follow, master quirks like @ mentions and hashtags, and — by the way! — learn a suite of elaborate photo editing tools. And yet Instagram has more than 400 million active users and could bring in $3 billion this year. So where exactly did Twitter go wrong?

Nilay: So I have this theory about parties: you know you’ve thrown a good one if there’s someone there who doesn’t like you. It means your party is too important to ignore.

Cocktail parties are not a sustainable business model

That was Twitter at its peak: a cocktail party that everyone was at, and drive-by snark at rivals and strangers just added to the excitement of the place. The problem, sadly, is that "media-insidery cocktail parties" is not a scalable business model. Twitter grew so fast that suddenly the party got overwhelmed with people who don’t seem to like anyone, and it’s never taken the time to build tools to preserve even basic civility.

Add in the fact that the tools power users want — a better Tweetdeck! — have nothing to do with the problems of the masses — a better login experience! — and the misalignment between what Twitter needed to scale and the needs of the people who actually make all the content just got deeper and deeper. Instagram doesn’t have that problem; everyone just uses it the same way.

And while sales and cash are great, they basically just make Twitter a takeover target while user growth continues to flatline and the stock keeps falling. The company needs to make moves fast if it wants to be anything other than the next thing Yahoo somehow destroys.

Twitter stock image

Casey: Drive-by snark at rivals is actually going to be the theme of my birthday party this year. Hope you will attend!

So Twitter turned out to be many things to many people, and wrangling them all proved incredibly difficult. More difficult than, say, telling the world to capture their brunch in a square frame. That’s fair. So where does Twitter go from here?

We actually know, to some extent. We know they’re going to let us post ultra-long tweets of up to 10,000 characters. And we know that they’re going to offer a Facebook-style, algorithmic timeline that tries to rank tweets by importance. If you were running Twitter, can we agree that those are literally the last things you would do?

Nilay: It’s always felt like simply turning into Facebook has been the biggest idea Twitter has stubbornly refused to engage with, hasn’t it? Twitter is the service we all want to love, but Facebook is the company that got successful by shamelessly building or buying products people actually want. If the biggest vision issue at Twitter is character limit, the battle’s already lost.

Twitter’s biggest value is actually that unfiltered firehose of a timeline. I’d embrace it, and the tension it causes: build one set of apps that let power users put great stuff in the timeline, and another that let regular users find that stuff way more easily. Even that might not work, though.

Or I’d just hire you and tell you to figure it out. What would you do?

Borrowing another idea from Facebook

Casey: Get fired in under a year, if history is any guide! In the meantime, I’d borrow a different idea from Facebook — its Creative Labs division. In its relatively short life, Creative Labs was a small part of the company that churned out a number of big ideas. Most notable were Paper, a radical rethinking of Facebook for mobile devices, and Moments, which is now its default photo-syncing solution.

There were also a lot of flops along the way, several of which were just bad clones of Snapchat features. What I liked about Creative Labs was that it allowed Facebook to constantly rethink its approach to sharing and social networking. It took a dozen shots to find two that worked. I’d love to see Twitter take a similar approach, not unlike the one you suggest: build a series of apps that deliver Twitter in interesting new ways. See which gain traction. Incorporate big wins back into the flagship app.

Alternatively, Twitter could simply have allowed its once-thriving developer ecosystem to continue experimenting with new designs and features instead of crippling its API in 2012. But the company has only $3.5 billion in cash on hand — not nearly enough to develop a working time machine.

The company’s best path forward may be the one floated by pseudonymous Silicon Valley gadfly Startup L. Jackson: use Twitter’s 300 million or so core users to bootstrap a network of related but different apps, eventually amassing Facebook-like scale in the aggregate. Vine and Periscope have been hits; Twitter ought to pick up (or homebrew) a few more.

Should Twitter put out an iPod?

We’re coming dangerously close to 10,000 characters here. Any parting thoughts?

Nilay: Jack Dorsey wants to emulate Steve Jobs, so maybe Twitter should just put out an iPod? It’s basically as good as any other idea we’ve had.

Casey: It holds more than 10,000 tweets!

Nilay: Seriously though: if Dorsey wants his Jobs moment, the thing to do is articulate a real vision for Twitter. Who is it for? How should we use it? It hasn’t happened yet, and the clock seems to be ticking.

Casey: Totally unrelated, but follow us on Snapchat. Please RT!!