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The real reason Twitter keeps tripping over itself

August 16 · Issue #188 · View online
The Interface
Thanks to my hero-friends Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher for the kind tweets on Tuesday, which sent many new visitors here. I hope you’ll come to enjoy this daily evening dose of social media and democracy! Feedback welcome at Now, on with today’s update.
Why does Twitter move so slowly?
It’s a question that has been on my mind since Monday, as we watched the company belatedly tiptoe into enforcement of its guidelines against inciting violence. It came up again Thursday, as we saw the company move — a staggering six years after first promising to do so — to significantly restrict the capabilities of third-party apps.
Nothing defines Twitter so thoroughly as its bias toward inaction. In February, Bloomberg’s Selina Wang diagnosed the problem in an article titled “Why Twitter can’t pull the trigger on new products.” Largely, Wang’s reporting laid the blame at the feet of CEO Jack Dorsey.
Dorsey’s leadership style fosters caution, according to about a dozen people who’ve worked with him. He encourages debate among his employees and waits — and waits — for a consensus emerge. As a result, ideas are often debated “ad nauseum” and fail to come to fruition. “They need leadership that can make tough decisions and keep the ball rolling,” says a former employee who left last year. “There are a lot of times when Jack will instead wring his hands and punt on a decision that needs to be made quickly.”
This view closely tracks my own discussions with current and former employees. They’ve described for me the regular hack weeks that take place at Twitter, in which employees mock up a variety of useful new features, almost none of which ever ship in the core product.
It’s true that Twitter has fewer employees, and less money, than its rivals at Facebook. And even its recent glacial pace of development is arguably faster than it was under previous CEO Dick Costolo.
But time and again, Twitter’s move-slow-and-apologize ethos gets it into trouble. Today’s action against third-party apps illustrates the problem.
Once upon a time, Twitter let people build whatever kind of Twitter apps they wanted to. For a brief, shining time, Twitter was a design playground. Developers making Twitter apps invented new features, such as “pull to fresh” and account muting, that became industry standards.
Then, in 2012, Twitter reversed course. Under Costolo, the company decided that its feature lay in Facebook-style feed advertising, which meant consolidating everything into a single native app it could control.
But rather than kill off third-party apps for good, it introduced a series of half-measures designed to bleed them out slowly: denying them new features, for example, or capping the number of users they could acquire by limiting their API tokens. While this spared some amount of yelling in the short term, the move — which was still hugely unpopular with a vocal segment of the user base — needlessly prolonged the agony.
Even after today’s action, third-party apps aren’t dead. They can no longer send push notifications, and their timelines will no longer refresh automatically — making them useless to people like me who, as a Tweetbot user, relies on a waterfall of tweets cascading down my screen each day to stay in touch with the day’s news. (As of today I am, God help me, a Tweetdeck user.)
The fate of the third-party apps is a relatively small concern for Twitter; the overwhelming majority of its user base uses the flagship app. They are going to die eventually, but Twitter refuses to kill them off once and for all. It’s a prime example of how the company, when presented with an obvious decision, goes out of its way to avoid making it.
That’s why I’ve been baffled this week by Dorsey’s media tour, in which he has sought to explain the company’s ambivalent approach to disciplining Alex Jones. Over the past week, Twitter found that Jones violated its rules eight times, then gave him a one-week suspension in which he could still read tweets and send direct messages.
Here is how Dorsey described that process to The Hill‘s Harper Neidig:
“We’re always trying to cultivate more of a learning mindset and help guide people back towards healthier behaviors and healthier public conversation.“
“We also think it’s important to clarify what our principles are, which we haven’t done a great job of in the past, and we need to take a step back and make sure that we are clearly articulating what those mean and what our objectives are.”
Again, presented with an obvious decision, Twitter declines to make it. Then, even more surprisingly, it suggests the problem is that it hasn’t clearly articulated its own policies — when, in fact, it articulated perfectly clear policies online, to the point that CNN’s Oliver Darcy was able to use them to identify the very instances of rule-breaking that eventually got Jones into trouble.
On Wednesday, Jack Dorsey told the Washington Post that he is ”rethinking the core of how Twitter works.“ And yet the company’s history suggests that it hasn’t failed for lack of thinking. The problem, rather, is that thinking has so often served as a substitute for action.

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