It’s Jack Dorsey’s ego, not Moments, that will sink or save Twitter
In the space of two days, the long term internal machinations of Twitter’s most vocal shareholders, board, and executives have finally been made public: The future is a bet on part-time Jack Dorsey and a new product called “Moments.”
“Public” is the key word, because both moves have been in the works for month.
It became clear through the heel-dragging and strategically placed “leaks” that Twitter was ultimately going to capitulate making co-founder Dorsey the permanent CEO of the company, despite earlier protestations that it needed to be a full time job.
And Tuesday’s launch of Moments also gave us a hint at how the story is going to develop next. The launch was timed to make Dorsey appear the fast moving architect of a product that had actually been in development for nearly a year. Dorsey was to get the credit for Moments, for good or ill.
And it worked. Publication after publication hailed Dorsey as fast moving, and positioned Moments as “his” bet on transforming the company. As if we’re all to believe the entire thing was imagined and coded within 24 hours of Dorsey arriving at his new desk.
All of the above can be summed up in one word: Ego.
The fate of Twitter through the twists and turns of four CEO appointments (but only three people, given this is Dorsey’s second shot), the multiple versions of what all occurred during that time, the endless “I bleed aqua” style public concern-trolling and posturing, the debates over how many people were actually founders, the passive aggressive stares across boardroom tables-- it’s all ultimately been about ego. Twitter has been the chew-toy of multiple founders, investors, executives, and board members, all desperate for some sort of public vindication for whatever they felt was the previous slight against them.
That’s why nearly every insider I’ve spoken with thinks Dorsey was being more calculating than clueless when he tanked the stock on his first earnings call through his Periscope’d straight talk of just how much Twitter had sucked until now. (Forget for a moment he was on the board and deeply involved in the strategy throughout Costolo’s tenure.) It’s also why a product that was a year in the making had to come out the day after he was named. Not the day of: That would distract from Dorsey’s news. Not months later, when the story of him taking over was stale. The day after. When the two couldn’t help be forever paired together in ink and in our minds.
The day after so that publications like even the normally impeccably shrewd Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times would write this:
[Dorsey] is apparently keen to act fast. A day after Twitter’s board announced the appointment of Mr. Dorsey as permanent chief executive, the company unveiled a long-awaited new feature aimed squarely at attracting people who now find Twitter too confusing to use.
Keen to act fast or artfully time a couple of announcements that were long baked to look that way? Unlike some others, Manjoo notes it was nearly a year in the making, of course. But the coupling of the two is still hard wired in our brains. The stage for Dorsey’s resurrection of Twitter is set.
The question is whether he’ll pull it off.
Dorsey has set himself up for hero status in the legions of the tech world… or an absolutely epic Icarus-like fall. The fact that he’s engineered this so perfectly in the optics of the press, investors, and Twitter masses proves which one he is confident will occur.
Think of it:
- Returning founder who can right the sinking ship
- Man who the board feels is so talented that his part-time work is a better gamble than any full-time CEO candidate on the planet
- Man whose reputation is now so great, he can swat away all previous failures he experienced in the exact same job
- Man whose innate talent is so great that his ego, sense of wounded pride, sharp elbows are all seen as acceptable costs of doing business with him. Signs of his tortured genius even
Who does that sound like? Exactly one person: Steve Jobs. Someone much of the Valley used to compare Dorsey to with the design of his elegant second act in Square. Until Square started to flounder and those comparisons ceased… But never mind, say fanboys, NeXT didn’t do so well either.
Indeed, anytime anyone points out that Twitter’s employees and shareholders deserve the respect of a full time CEO in such a troubled time, the fan boys answer (usually on Twitter) “What about Steve Jobs? He did both!”
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want success or failure for me to hinge on being the Steve Jobs of my given profession. (And note: Jobs actually didn’t run Pixar day-to-day, so the analogy essentially admits Dorsey has abandoned his duty to Square, regardless of how he pretends to carve his time.)
Dorsey’s set-up-for-perfection playbook is not unlike the unicorn phenomenon in the Valley right now. In a zeal to be in the special unicorn club, companies have been prioritizing getting that magical valuation above anything else. For many companies, it’s a savvy way to lure employees and raise money at a good price. For many others who simply don’t have the business to justify it, they are set up for a fall. They’ll be considered failures even if they exit for a good price like $800 million.
Put another way: It’s not Dorsey’s ego-- his desire to lift a tanked stock and take credit for any resurrection of Twitter that may have started well before his tenure-- that is the problem. All CEOs have egos-- especially tech and media founders. It’s whether or not his talent can back it up. Travis Kalanick, for one, has a monstrous ego. Uber also has a great business.
We’ve all had months to opine on Dorsey as the new part-time Twitter CEO. Now that Twitter’s two big announcements are public, we’ll see.
If he pulls it off-- and he may-- it will be more because of this naked quest for vidication then it will be the success or failure of Moments.
The product is billed as a way to get people who don’t “get” Twitter to use it. And in some ways, it’s very well done. It’s the exact middle line between what Wall Street has been screaming that it wants and the things that power users have been screaming would be absolutely unacceptable. It doesn’t go as far as organizing the chaos of the Twitter firehose into a Facebook-like algorithm. You still control when you want to see Moments, and in the future users will be able to curate them.
And yet, it’s also a departure from many of the sacred tenets of Twitter. Moments aren’t reverse chronological. They are image and animation heavy, not text-centric. And they aren’t updated minute-by-minute. They are designed to be timely but not pinned to an exact second. It takes some liberties with Twitter’s self-description of being the place or real-time conversations.
I could see myself using Moments in exactly one use case: To get context about whatever shit people are freaking out about on Twitter. That moment when you come into Twitter and see everyone talking about something Taylor Swift just did, but not saying what it was. Instead of having to leave and go to BuzzFeed, you could toggle to Moments.
But that’s exactly the problem. Moments is supposed to be for people who don’t get Twitter, but it seems like something that’s been conceived and built by people who adore and frequently use Twitter. The value to me seems to be Moments as an adjunct for existing Twitter users, not a gateway to Twitter. If you come to Moments fresh-- and is it even clear how you do that if you are a new or abandoned user?-- it looks like…. just a prettier version of Yahoo’s home page.
For most people, Buzzfeed does what Moments does better than Moments. (Plus more kittens.) Moments only adds value within the context of existing Twitter usage.
Here’s the description of Moments by Madhu Muthukumar, the product manager responsible:
Every day, people share hundreds of millions of Tweets. Among them are things you can’t experience anywhere but on Twitter: conversations between world leaders and celebrities, citizens reporting events as they happen, cultural memes, live commentary on the night’s big game and many more. We know finding these only-on-Twitter moments can be a challenge, especially if you haven’t followed certain accounts. But it doesn’t have to be.
Totally agreed! That’s why Storify was created years ago. Now this may be a prettier, more reader-friendly-- versus creator-friendly-- version of Storify. But it further begs the question why this took Twitter so long to address this well known problem. And don’t say it was a lack of Dorsey in the blue bird’s life. Remember: Of the many ousted CEOs, Dorsey has had some sort of operational role and influence the longest and most consistently of any of them.
But this is just my read of the product after a few minutes using it. Like the people who built it, I’m an avid Twitter user, so maybe I don’t get the psychology of people who don’t get Twitter either.
One thing is worth considering: Twitter hashtags and handles have now been perma-embossed on every form of public, LCD, mass market entertainment for years. The news, every TV show, every film promo, every billboard of every large ad campaign. Every sporting event. Reality TV. The Oscars.
If people don’t “get” what Twitter is for yet, will Moments get them there? Dubious as I am of Dorsey’s ability to do this job part time given the gargantuan expectation he’s set for himself, his ego, talent, and determination probably have better odds at brute-forcing some turn around than this one launch.