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Twitter's leadership shake-up comes at a critical moment

Parag Agrawal, the new CEO, will have his hands full.

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Twitter has a new chief executive.

Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

When co-founder Jack Dorsey returned to Twitter as chief executive in 2015, he made it clear the social media company needed to constantly reinvent itself. 

"The world needs a Twitter that not only remains relevant," Dorsey said during a conference call that year, "but thrives and continues to redefine what came before it."

New Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal

Parag Agrawal became Twitter CEO with Jack Dorsey's departure.

Twitter

On Monday, Dorsey handed that undertaking to Parag Agrawal, Twitter's chief technology officer and an architect of the company's effort to create a decentralized and open standard for the social media industry. The 10-year Twitter veteran, who has a Ph.D. from Stanford and an undergraduate degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, as the new CEO will now have to balance the projects that set the company up for the future with the daily challenges of a social media platform that is under scrutiny from investors, lawmakers and activists.

The transition to Agrawal's leadership comes at a critical time for Twitter, which seeks to achieve ambitious revenue and user growth goals to satisfy investors. Some investors had complained that Dorsey wasn't fully focused on those targets because he also runs Square, a digital payments company that he co-founded. 

Twitter's goals include doubling annual revenue to at least $7.5 billion and adding more than 100 million monetizable daily active users by 2023. The company currently has 211 million daily users who see ads.

On Friday, Twitter announced a major reorganization within the company. Dantley Davis, who oversees design and research at Twitter, and Michael Montano, Twitter's head of engineering, are stepping down by the end of the year, according to a filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Kayvon Beykpour, Bruce Falck and Nick Caldwell will lead Twitter's engineering, product management, design, and research teams.

The company didn't comment for this story beyond pointing to its press release on the transition and statements from Dorsey and Agrawal.

To rope in and retain new users, Twitter has been experimenting more than ever with new features and looking beyond ads to make money. The company rolled out a new subscription service called Twitter Blue in the US, New Zealand, Australia and Canada that allows users to undo tweets and read ad-free articles. It has also been exploring tipping, newsletters, live audio and incorporating cryptocurrency into its service.

"Twitter is in the midst of shaking up its business model," Jasmine Enberg, a senior analyst at eMarketer, said in a statement. "The ad world is facing real challenges with the new targeting and privacy initiatives, and Twitter is experimenting with new revenue streams to augment its ads business and meet the aggressive revenue goals it set last February. The next CEO will have to face the challenge of making good on those goals." 

Twitter's business challenges include issues beyond its control. Changes that Apple introduced to improve privacy on its iOS mobile operating system have made it tougher for advertisers to measure the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns. That's affected revenue at social media companies, including Twitter. The company hasn't detailed how badly Apple's changes have affected its business, but acknowledged they had a "modest" impact on its third-quarter revenue. 

Meanwhile, Twitter continues to face stiff competition from tech companies such as Facebook, which recently rebranded as Meta, as well as Google, TikTok and Snapchat. 

"The world is watching us right now, even more than they have before," Agrawal said in a note to Twitter's employees that he tweeted out Monday.

Increased scrutiny

Outside of business, Twitter and other social networks have been dealing with criticism from lawmakers and advocacy groups.

In March, Dorsey appeared alongside Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai at a testy congressional hearing on misinformation, tech addiction and the impact tech companies have on children's screen time. Members of Congress repeatedly interrupted the executives, who avoided providing yes or no answers to questions. 

Dorsey pushed back on accusations the company censors conservative speech following Twitter's decision to block Donald Trump, in his final days as president, because of concerns his remarks would incite violence after the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots. The executive was also challenged about how Twitter decided to block an October 2020 story in The New York Post about Hunter Biden, son of President Joe Biden. Dorsey acknowledged Twitter's handling of the article was a "total mistake."

Scrutiny of social media companies spiked again this fall after Frances Haugen, a Facebook product manager turned whistleblower, leaked a trove of internal company documents to Congress and the US Securities and Exchange Commission. The document drop prompted renewed attention, as well as congressional hearings, on social media's effects on society. 

Lawmakers have held a series of hearings on child safety that included Facebook, Snapchat, Google-owned YouTube and TikTok. Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri is expected to testify before Congress the week of Dec. 6 for the first time. 

Agrawal, who worked at AT&T Labs, Microsoft and Yahoo before joining Twitter, now has to worry that he'll have to represent the company if it's called to testify. That will pull him away from Project Bluesky, Twitter's attempt to combat hate speech and misinformation on a new decentralized technology. 

"With social media under increased public scrutiny due to mental health and misinformation issues," Forrester vice president and research director Mike Proulx said in a statement, "Parag's focus will be torn from product and platform design towards policy decision making."