Twitter--too many cooks could spoil this bird

Twitter's power is in being the collective voice of millions of people around the world pulling the conversation in more directions than they can count. Note to the company: Your management should not operate the same way.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
6 min read
Is Twitter's flock not sure where it's flying? CC: Flickr user shutter41

Over at Twitter, they like metaphors that involve birds. Maybe a little too much. So here's one for them: Right now, according to a couple of in-depth reports about Twitter's past and present executive structure, the whole company sure looks like a flock of birds that can't quite tell which among them is the leader. And as a result, they're all crashing into one another.

These reports run the gamut from well-researched to wildly speculative, from a Fortune profile of the company's current management turmoil--co-founder Evan Williams is out, ex-CEO Jack Dorsey is back, current CEO Dick Costolo can't seem to sharpen the Twitter business model--to missives from a "lost" Twitter co-founder and rumors that someone "high-level" at Twitter is actually spying for Google and has helped to thwart Twitter's attempts to poach talent. The rumors go one step further with the speculation that maybe it's legendary venture capitalist John Doerr.

Seriously. Some of it's so salacious that it seems like Twitter, seeing the success of "The Social Network," is trying to position itself as the subject of its own tense but acclaimed biopic by making the entire establishment seem packed to the walls with drama queens. I surmise that there's a giant whiteboard in the Twitter office that contains, on one side, Costolo's scribbled notes for a business plan that will actually work but which they aren't willing to release yet because, guys, we have to let it all look like it's really gone completely to hell first before we do that whole rise-like-a-phoenix thing, O.K.?, and on the other, everybody's suggestions for who's going to play them in the inevitable movie (the kid from "Hot Tub Time Machine" will totally play co-founder Biz Stone). Across the room, Jack Dorsey is sitting at a MacBook Air surfing fashion site Gilt Man for the tux that he's going to wear to the premiere.

Well, no. In fact, not at all. There are clearly real problems at Twitter, and at the root of them is the fact that it doesn't seem like this fast-growing, rapidly changing company has any clue who's actually in charge.

There are a couple of things that should be pointed out here.

First, the "trouble in the upper ranks" reports are something that no one should find surprising: Just about every groundbreaking tech company that's dealing with untested waters goes through them. Remember when everyone thought Mark Zuckerberg was on the verge of stepping down as Facebook CEO--and that if he wasn't, he should be? There was some serious upheaval in 2008 and 2009 at Facebook, which was about the same age that Twitter is now, as Chief Operating Officer Owen Van Natta resigned (according to many, because he realized he wasn't going to be getting Zuckerberg's job), Chief Financial Officer Gideon Yu was ousted, and Zuckerberg's original co-founders drifted away from the company to start new projects.

Now, look at the situation: Zuckerberg, despite his youth and reports of personality clashes with other executives, remains at the helm of Facebook. He hired former Googler Sheryl Sandberg to head up company operations so that he can focus on leading an energetic army of hacker-engineers. The pundits who were calling for him to step aside have, by this point, realized that Facebook would not have accomplished everything that it has since the "Does Mark Zuckerberg need adult supervision?" headline days.

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But--and here's my second point--we can't be confident that Twitter will persevere through these issues as effectively as Facebook did. That's because Twitter, with all its twee bird motifs and promotional videos of happy engineers in hipster T-shirts, lacks a powerful and brash visionary at the helm. Facebook is, at its core, "a Mark Zuckerberg production," as the bottom of every page on its servers used to display in small text. Yes, its origins have been contested. Yes, there are investors and senior executives whose last names are not Zuckerberg. But he's the guy at the top of the heap--no contest. At Twitter, is Costolo really in charge if he's brought in Dorsey as "executive chairman?" Even though Evan Williams has left the company, does the fact that he remains its biggest shareholder change things?

There are a lot of subtle lessons about running a business that can be gleaned from David Kirkpatrick's company-sanctioned tome "The Facebook Effect," not the least of which is that Facebook seems to have been the most unstable, management- and culture-wise, when there were a lot of people trying to get a piece of the action. Early investor meetings, Kirkpatrick relates, left Zuckerberg in tears on the floor of a restaurant bathroom. Multi-executive clashes over whether the company should prioritize revenue led to some of Facebook's worst in-fighting. Facebook's first massive product launch involving an advertising program with a whole host of Madison Avenue partners was an absolute disaster. It's a mature company that knows how to balance these relationships--either that, or it's one that has a CEO with steely confidence like Zuckerberg, whose own alleged megalomania may have saved the company time and again. Twitter isn't a mature company; it's one trying to get there. And it increasingly looks as though no one is quite willing to take the helm.

Evan Williams might be shrewd, as Business Insider characterizes him in its rundown of how early Twitter brain Noah Glass was ousted from the company, but he didn't grab the company by the horns (er, wings) the way Zuckerberg was able to do with Facebook. Dorsey, per Fortune, hasn't made a full commitment in his return to the company. And it seems that Twitter's investors have significantly more sway over the company than Facebook's do over Zuckerberg's team.

Twitter's real problem isn't whether there's someone sneaking into board meetings under a cloak of invisibility so that he or she can sell tips to Google and Facebook like some kind of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" villain. It's that there are way too many people in positions of power and no one willing or able to declare that he (since we are dealing exclusively with a bunch of dudes here) is the real face of the company. There are plenty of other issues at Twitter that are perfectly normal for a young technology brand--the need to sustain growth, the need to keep its servers afloat, a way to turn millions of "passive" users into contributors as eager as Twitter power user Ashton Kutcher. A lack of clarity as to who's exactly calling the shots in upper management is not helping.

It might look obnoxious. There might be (figurative) bloodshed. We've seen this in the days since Larry Page returned to the CEO post at Google, where one senior vice president has already departed and more are rumored to be on the way as Page attempts to clean out bureaucracy. But Twitter is still a service protected largely by the fragile shell of trendiness, cushioned by hordes of newshounds and Justin Bieber fangirls but still not counting the average Web user as an active participant. It's still unstable in so many ways that a management mess could, indeed, cripple it.

I don't know who it'll be who steps up to the plate, or how much of it will be smoke and mirrors. But I'd argue that what Twitter needs is less a matter of Steve Jobs-like "vision" and more about practical leadership. The irony here is that what causes chaos in Twitter's management is exactly why the product itself is so special. From its inception, Twitter has had beauty in its mass malleability, one moment a breaking-news platform in the Middle East and the next a comedy one-liner generator stoked by Conan O'Brien, letting its "vision" be dictated not by an executive with a pitch-perfect blend of marketing and digital product expertise but by the users themselves.

Force-feed them, and then, yes, they'll fly away.