Want to understand Twitter? Look at its acting CEO’s beard.

The Beard That Explains Twitter

The Beard That Explains Twitter

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 12 2015 3:19 PM

How One CEO’s Formidable Beard Explains Twitter’s Future

FT-150611-Dorsey

Screenshot from CNBC

Twitter is a site that rewards large personalities and loud voices. Maybe that’s why much of what you hear today suggests that the company’s real problems aren’t with its technology or its user base, but its upper management. Facing flagging shareholder confidence, Dick Costolo—who has been CEO since 2010—resigned Thursday, making way for company co-founder Jack Dorsey to step in as acting CEO. The two men appeared together on CNBC Friday morning, providing a unified front as they laid out the company’s future.

Many of the concerns they identified resonated with those of Twitter’s closest observers. They spoke, for example, to the importance of “lowering barriers for consumption,” making it easier for those without active accounts to access and use the site. As Will Oremus explained in April, they’ve attempted this in part by changing the way the site’s homepage looks if you aren’t logged in. Likewise, they alluded to the importance of curating accounts to follow, thereby saving new users the burden of seeking out other users to follow.

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More generally, though, Costolo and Dorsey made clear that the change of leadership would not entail a change of course. Asked about his greatest frustrations at the company, Costolo remained cagey. “I don’t think of it that way,” he said, adding that in his time as CEO, “the biggest moments of growth would be through thinking about mistakes we’d made.” And yet he declined to elaborate on what those mistakes might have been.

Instead, both Costolo and Dorsey insisted that Twitter would go on as before. Dorsey refused to say whether he would consider taking on the CEO role full-time, allowing only that he intended to ensure Twitter could “continue with our cadence and amplify and accelerate our execution.” This bit of business-speak, variants of which recurred several times throughout the 15-minute segment, took the place of frank discussion about plans.

Dorsey’s reluctance to outline concrete strategies should worry Twitter’s investors and users alike. The greatest evidence for concern may be Dorsey’s emphasis on the importance of Periscope, Twitter’s integrated live video-streaming service. As I’ve explained previously, Periscope’s impact remains minimal—only a tiny sliver of Twitter’s user base has committed to it. The company’s ongoing insistence that the service counts as a success remains puzzling.

Ultimately, if you want to know what’s wrong with Twitter, you need look no further than the parody accounts that cropped up for the formidable beard Dorsey sported during his appearance with Costolo. Near the end of the segment, host David Faber joked that the majority of the questions coming in were about Dorsey’s admittedly impressive facial hair. Soon the beard, which Dorsey’s mother does not approve of, had at least two Twitter accounts of its own. And while users tweeted excitedly about those accounts, hardly anyone was actually following them. Loud as the conversation was, its participants were few, and that may be the problem across the site as a whole. If Twitter is going to thrive, it needs to take advantage of its volume.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.