The Vision Thing: What Twitter Needs to Learn From Apple

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Even as it fends off what are rumored to be multibillion-dollar acquisition offers from the likes of Google, Twitter seems to be in turmoil — not only on the product side, where it has brought in co-founder Jack Dorsey to try and right the ship, but on the management side as well. A recent Fortune magazine feature paints a portrait of a company being pulled in different directions by its board, by its founders and by its senior executives. So what is missing from this picture? A consistent and tangible vision for what Twitter is, and what it wants to become — and a single person who can stand for and champion that vision.

Who does that sound like? It sounds a lot like Apple. More than almost any other company in recent memory, the iconic computer-maker-turned-consumer-appliance company has a compelling vision of what it stands for — and it doesn’t really have anything to do with a specific product, as Apple has shown by moving into completely new product areas like phones and tablets. It’s more a way of thinking about what your purpose is, and what benefits you bring for users, regardless of what you do. And Steve Jobs is the icon that represents all of that, both for users and for investors. Mark Zuckerberg, for better or worse, has arguably done the same thing at Facebook.

So who fulfills this crucial function at Twitter? Part of the company’s problem is that no one really knows. It used to be co-founder and CEO Evan Williams — but he has been sidelined, whether by the board or by his own desire to move on, or by some combination of those factors. Dick Costolo took over as CEO in October, and there were jokes at the time about how he had planned this coup since joining as chief operating officer a year earlier, but the reality is that within months of his arrival, Williams was taking on less of a role in Twitter’s evolution and now he is effectively gone for good.

The perception is that Costolo was brought in to turn what was an interesting social experiment into a business, with revenues and profits — to justify the millions of dollars that venture capital groups have poured into the company, and the billions that the company is now theoretically worth in the private market. Rightly or wrongly, he has also been blamed for all sorts of product mis-steps, including the ill-fated “Quick Bar,” as well as for the crackdowns on companies like UberMedia and the tightening of restrictions on the company’s API and its relationships with outside developers.

Costolo may be making some headway on the revenue and profitability front, but for a social network or social utility like Twitter — which depends so heavily on the goodwill it has with users and with the broader market of web apps and services — a mission statement like “we really want to make money” isn’t very compelling (saying “Hey, we don’t go down as much as we used to!” isn’t really much of a sales pitch either). And as we’ve seen already, in many cases the pressure to monetize the network directly conflicts with the first goal, which is to maintain and grow the network itself.

What Twitter needs more than anything is compelling features it can add to the existing experience (and hopefully make money from). In some ways, the service hasn’t changed much at all in the past several years, apart from getting larger, and only recently has it started adding related services — in part through partnerships with companies like DataSift, which does analytics, and Sulia for smart aggregation — that it arguably should have had a long time ago. There still isn’t anything approaching a useful Twitter search function, which is a fairly gaping hole for a social information service to have.

So if Jack Dorsey, who came up with the idea for Twitter as a side project at Evan Williams’ company Odeo (along with colleague Noah Glass, who is only now getting a small share of the public profile that Dorsey and Williams and Biz Stone have had as Twitter founders) is rejoining the company to look after product development, does that mean he’s going to be the product visionary? Is he Twitter’s Steve Jobs? As more than one person has noted, one of the big challenges for Dorsey is that he’s already co-founder and CEO of another fast-growing startup, the mobile-payments company Square. And according to Fortune, he doesn’t see his assignment with Twitter as being long term. And what happens when he clashes with Costolo over something like the Quick Bar?

One of the aspects of the Facebook story that hits home when you see the movie The Social Network is that founder Mark Zuckerberg didn’t want to try and monetize the network before it had a chance to grow — before he and the rest of the company could figure out what it was. That was part of his vision. Twitter doesn’t have that luxury any longer: it has to figure all that out soon, and in-fighting over who gets credit for what, or who the board has confidence in, is not helping. But more than anything, the company needs to find that consistent vision and make it obvious.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Scott Maxwell

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