Twitter’s Slow Execution is Killing It

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 3 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’s been no evidence of faster or more disciplined execution. In fact, it’s arguable that things have got worse, rather than better. Twitter’s headcount 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 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 free up users and allow them 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 US 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
  • Fix the ad product – advertisers complain Twitter charges too much for an ad platform which isn’t fully-featured enough to merit the price premium, something which 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 it continues to deliver value to us and many others going forward.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

17 thoughts on “Twitter’s Slow Execution is Killing It”

  1. One question.

    If all that is wrong with Twitter is execution, then why don’t we see a Twitter clone?

    Google aped Facebook with the original Google+. Facebook has bought/aped messaging apps. Google has aped FaceTime. Facebook recently aped SnapChat.

    Given that Twitter allows 3rd parties to access their social graph via APIs, it should be relatively easy to bring your follow list to a Twitter clone.

    Why isn’t this happening? Why isn’t anybody large trying this?

    Or maybe it already has been cloned. If so, why are we still using Twitter?

    1. There are huge network effects and advantages from being the place where users are today. Any clone (see app.net and others) would have to get the users across in sufficient numbers to offset that, and that’s just extremely tough to do at this point. The reality is that Twitter serves many of its existing users well (with the exceptions I noted above). The big challenge is capturing new users, but all the value is going to be provided by the users it already has (see https://medium.com/beyond-devices/the-two-twitters-978836d36efa#.k66xunuf2)

      1. The network effect is real, but it hasn’t deterred Google from copying Facebook, Facebook from getting into messaging, Google from getting into video chat/messaging etc. Network effects alone cannot explain the lack of copying. I would assume that if the opportunity was important enough, the large players would still give it a try, taking advantage of whatever assets they already have. Looking at it the other way, Twitter is not being copied probably because the opportunity is not important enough, or because nobody understands it well enough.

        Also regarding the assertion that Twitter already has all the value it needs in its current users, that is a pretty bold statement to make. You are basically saying that Twitter is not an SNS but a TV channel. I would like to see that backed up with more data. In particular, I would like to see a more multifaceted analysis, with mention of Sina Weibo (the Chinese microblogging SNS) which reportedly now has as many MAUs as Twitter and is still growing fast. Why is Weibo succeeding while Twitter is faltering? What is different? What can Twitter learn and copy?

        Also consider that Twitter is very popular in Japan, but usage patterns may be markedly different.

        If your assertion is based on anecdotal evidence from your usage and your peers’ usage in English speaking countries alone, then I think there is a high risk that your view is not comprehensive enough. Social networks are shaped by your friends, and if your friends are different, the value proposition of an SNS itself changes. This has to be factored into any analysis, and hence comprehensive surveys are much more valuable than anecdotes in this area.

        Personally, I think that Twitter is such a complex animal and that even Twitter itself fails to understand what it’s about. I have no idea if that is why they are slow to execute, but that might be one cause of internal conflict.

        http://www.zdnet.com/article/sina-weibo-enhances-recreational-emphasis-for-further-growth/
        https://naofumi.castle104.com/how-twitter-is-used-in-japan/

    2. I think Google Now should do it. Support declarative posts and subscriptions, and short messages, instead of just trying to infer which web pages interest me. And become more real-time.
      I’m still a bit frustrated I’ve got no way to create a perma-search for articles about phablets that’d let me know when something meaningful gets published.

      I agree network effects are an issue, but Google has the userbase.

      1. Google Now might be useful if your use of Twitter is limited to learning about articles that are of interest to you.

        I pretty sure people use Twitter for many more things.

        1. I think we should try to break down what Twitter does for regular users (consumers of content, as opposed to producers of content). I’d say:

          – exogenous alerts (traffic issues, down servers, weather emergencies, major news…). To me, only Twitter does that in such a comprehensive way. But I think gNow should do it, and spice it up with topic-based (not just provider-based) alerts, and maybe manage to not require a specific subscription to suss out all the relevant alerts.
          – known publisher updates (tell when an story/articles gets published by someone I follow). RSS does it better.
          – content discovery. I’m unimpressed by the signal to noise ratio here, then again it’s pretty bad all across Twitter. Medium and gNow do it much better.
          – discussion. Not in 140 chars, sorry.
          – customer service. Works OK, though a web chat windows + email log at then end works too.

          Generally speaking, Twitter is Push to the Web’s Pull. That’s valuable, but there isn’t much I want pushed at me; and if you push too much I’m pushed away (see what I did here ^^).

          1. Depending on where you live and what your age group is, some people actually use Twitter as an SNS. It also has some OK messaging features which some people use quite a lot.

            Twitter removed the 140 character limit on DMs first and have yet to do so for regular tweets. They also introduced group DMs. That should be a hint for the pundits out there, but they don’t seem to be getting the message.

  2. I feel for high-profile people who bear the brunt of people’s scorn on Twitter, but I’m more concerned about Twitter getting draconian in deciding who gets to speak on their platform and who doesn’t. True abusers should get what they deserve, but the coordinated campaigns to ban users who happen to have unpopular opinions are even more shameful, and the people who lead/join these campaigns to silence speech should face the same consequences that abusers do.

  3. I keep thinking Twitter is doing several unrelated things, each of them a bit badly:

    – distribute alerts. I use Twitter only for very time-dependent stuff that can’t wait until I go through my RSS feeds. I feel Google Now would be a better fit for that, but gNow doesn’t support subscribing to specific semaphores.

    – distribute updates. Well, if it’s not time-dependent, I’ll wait till it shows up in my RSS. Stop bothering me, thank you.

    – public messaging. Except in 140 chars, you can’t say much of interest. The “public” part is interesting though, forum-ish but for the.. premature oratulator ?

    – discovery. Except as all discoveries since Amazon’s recommendations, those are both very redundant and quite off-target. And I’m still amazed at the lack of time dimension to those things. I sometimes check stuff I don’t agree with or don’t like just not to get to bubbled in. And now, for weeks, Twitter has been sending me stuff I object to… So Twitter’s hit rate for recommendations is much worse than Medium’s or gNow.

    Splitting up is en vogue. I’m wondering if Twitter shouldn’t split up into those, or other, functionalities, instead of remaining a spammy, noisy mess.

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