Twitter’s executive turmoil masks a deeper problem: Confusion over what Twitter wants to be

Fans of Silicon Valley’s version of “Game of Thrones” got a front-row seat to a shake-up in Twitter’s executive suite this week, in which the company’s chief operating officer Ali Rowghani was ousted and Chloe Sladden — head of the media unit that has been a big driver of Twitter’s success with TV networks — also left. Somewhere between the backroom intrigue and the cheerful public-facing tweets of support for those departed executives is the source of Twitter’s real challenge: Namely, what does the company want Twitter to be?

But we already know what Twitter is, you protest! It’s a lightweight, real-time information network or platform that allows users anywhere to post things of interest and reach a potential audience of millions. Within that description, however, lies a multitude of experiences — a hall of mirrors in which my version of Twitter is nothing like your version, and nothing like that of the person sitting next to you on the train or the airplane, or at the basketball game.

Is Twitter for connecting dissidents in Ukraine or Turkey with their supporters in other countries, and for speaking truth to power? Yes. Is it for people who want to live-tweet their dissatisfaction with the Oscars or House of Cards or Game of Thrones or the World Cup? Yes. Is it for celebrities who want to reach out to their fans to correct some horrible rumor? Yes. And it is many other things in between.

Who is Twitter intended to serve?

Even those descriptions fail to capture the variations of Twitter usage: some users — in fact, close to a majority of users — never tweet at all, or have tweeted only once. For them, it is a consumption mechanism, or maybe just another source of noise. A smaller group of users (many of them in the media or marketing field) create the vast majority of the content on Twitter, and use tools like Tweetdeck to manage the streams, and complain bitterly (as I have) about the lack of filters and features to help them tame the ocean of information.

social media

Which of these markets is the one that Twitter needs to focus on or amplify? It’s not clear that anyone at Twitter even knows the answer to that question — and I can’t blame them, because it’s a difficult one. As freelance tech analyst Ben Thompson noted in a recent post at his blog Stratechery, a big part of Twitter’s problem is that it was too successful too quickly, before it even realized what it was:

“The initial concept was so good, and so perfectly fit such a large market, that they never needed to go through the process of achieving product market fit… the problem, though, was that by skipping over the wrenching process of finding a market, Twitter still has no idea what their market actually is, and how they might expand it. Twitter is the company equivalent of a lottery winner who never actually learns how to make money.”

According to a number of reports, one of the reasons Ali Rowghani was ejected (and won’t be replaced) is that CEO Dick Costolo wanted to bring control of the product under his purview, rather than the COO’s. Twitter also recently hired a new director of product, former Google Maps executive Daniel Graf, presumably to try and get some traction with users and improve the lackluster growth numbers that investors seem concerned about. Last year, Costolo projected Twitter would have 400 million users by the end of 2013, and it has about 250 million.

A revolving door of product chiefs

As Thompson and others have pointed out, one of the most crucial factors for a tech or consumer-facing company is product-market fit. Twitter has spent years now trying to get that right, and in some ways it seems to be farther from its goal than it has ever been. Co-founder and former CEO Evan Williams tried to shape the product and was ousted, then co-founder Jack Dorsey was supposed to help, then came Michael Sippey. Along the way there have been aborted features like the “Dick bar” and multiple redesigns that are supposed to appeal to new users but appear to be simply irritating the loyal and not attracting anyone.

Photo from Shutterstock/Anthony Corrella

And while Twitter’s numbers fail to impress, newer services that connect people quickly and easily and focus on short messaging — from WhatsApp and Instagram to Snapchat and Whisper — are rocketing skyward growth-wise. This is not lost on Costolo, one source told Business Insider: “When you talk to Dick about messaging, he’s like, ‘Sigh, that should have been us.'”

The media team that Chloe Sladden built up was supposed to be the savior of Twitter, because it brought in large media companies as partners for second-screen type deals like the Olympics with NBC or the Oscars. And reaching out to celebrities to get them to tweet was designed to appeal to users who just want to follow a few high-profile accounts and see what they are doing. But many of the things that were done in the name of both of those efforts — large images, auto-play videos, and so on — have made the service less appealing for others.

Stranded between many worlds

So at this point, Twitter is caught between two (or more) worlds: The catering to media entities and celebs doesn’t seem to have produced enough traction compared to other players like Facebook to make it worthwhile, and there hasn’t been enough of a focus on tools or design features for hard-core users to keep them loyal. In some ways, the company is failing to serve any of its theoretical markets very well — and that includes advertisers, at least until acquisitions like MoPub start to show that they can help solve that particular problem.

As a longtime fan of Saturday Night Live, I can’t help but think of an ancient skit in which a husband and wife are arguing over whether a new product is a floor wax or a dessert topping. “It’s both!” the cheerful salesman (played by Chevy Chase) exclaims. The joke, of course, is that if it’s a good floor wax, it’s probably not going to be a very good dessert topping, and vice versa.

In the same sense, the things that make Twitter useful to advertisers and large media companies and celebrities aren’t necessarily the things that are going to appeal to Turkish dissidents or free-speech advocates or even just fans of the kind of quiet link-sharing that Twitter used to be known for, rather than the stream of frenzied hashtag and multiple-photo blasting that it has become.

Increasing the pressure is the fact that Twitter is a public company, and it has to show the kinds of growth in both users and revenue that can justify its vast market value — something it has so far failed to do — and the public markets are not known for their patience. Not only that, but as previous social-media superstars like MySpace have shown us, the road to short-term market acceptance can also be the road to long-term irrelevance. Best of luck, Dick.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier as well as Shutterstock / noporn and Shutterstock / Anthony Corella