SAN FRANCISCO — With its future hanging in the balance, Twitter missed a major opportunity at its annual Flight developer conference last week to refocus the direction of its struggling platform. Jack Dorsey, the company's CEO, issued a long overdue mea culpa to developers and spoke eloquently about the important role Twitter serves in the lives of the downtrodden and oppressed, but he mostly ignored the company's most pressing problems: sagging use and a lack of growth.
Twitter's potential to help further movements such as #BlackLivesMatter (a cause Dorsey actively promotes) should not be understated. However, a nagging confusion about how Twitter works and why everyday Joes should use it negates its overall value. And though the company can't be faulted for playing to the audience at its developer event, the time for change is now.
"Twitter is truly unique because it is a brand, a bird, a logo that almost every person on this planet has seen at some point in their life," Dorsey said at Twitter Flight. What the CEO failed to mention is that more people sign up for Twitter and quickly abandon the service than users who remain active.
Silence at Twitter Flight unacceptable
Instead of addressing the underlying cause of those problems outright and teasing possible improvements that could reverse the troublesome trend, Twitter executives and partners spent the day talking about additional types of user data available that could be released to advertisers and businesses. Dorsey essentially punted the challenge to users by asking them to tweet and share their ideas using the #helloworld hashtag.
"It's going to take some time, it's not going to happen overnight, but I commit to you that we will make the right decisions and serve this community in the right way," he said.
Dorsey's general lack of confidence in formulating a new direction for the company doesn't portend a rapid turnaround. In fact, he set the bar uncharacteristically low during the Flight opening keynote. Dorsey apologized to developers and pled for patience, and then asked for another chance to reset and reboot their relationship. However, he failed to specify how exactly Twitter plans to change its ways, all the while insisting that Twitter has a responsibility to maintain an open dialogue about its product road map.
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If Twitter is indeed unique in part because it's "made for the people, by the people," as Dorsey said on stage, the company should have placed more emphasis on the 316 million people who use Twitter every month. Twitter is nothing without its community of users, and deep ad targeting and APIs for business insights aren't going to change that. For a company that proudly stands for "freedom of expression" and "speaking truth to power," as Dorsey said, he shared absolutely no indication of how Twitter plans to further empower its users and achieve its altruistic goals.
For years, Twitter's leaders have readily admitted that its service can seem awkward and unorganized to many users. The issue evolved into the company's most significant challenge, and for those on the outside looking in patience is wearing thin.
Twitter asks developers for another chance
Twitter says it's turning attention back to the developer community to address its faults. But these developers have been fooled before. Will Twitter burn them again?
Twitter is just five months shy of celebrating its 10th birthday, and it's difficult to predict how well this "reset" with developers will play out. Omid Kordestani, a former Google executive who was recently named executive chairman of Twitter's board, similarly told The Wall Street Journal the company is in a period of "rebirth."
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However, it's rare for a company of Twitter's age and stature to undergo such a significant turnaround under pressure. Does Twitter even deserve another chance to right its relationships with developers and users?
"Twitter is the most revolutionary communications tool of our time," Dorsey said last week. Unfortunately for Twitter, the strategy (or lack thereof) that he and other leaders at the company have set forth of late did little to suggest the level of significance they aim to achieve. Absent a more clear direction, the company is merely hedging its bet on the importance, and likely cautious, aid of developers. The ball is now in the developers' court, a fact Dorsey readily admitted. "We need your help, we need the help of everyone," at Flight, he said.