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As Twitter’s quarterly conference call with analysts began, Jack Dorsey laughed as he played with his iPhone.
The social network’s co-founder and interim chief executive was being streamed live on Periscope, the company’s video app, as he prepared to discuss second-quarter results.
Just before the film began, Twitter was buzzing about the apparent race between Mr Dorsey and Adam Bain, the company’s head of advertising sales, to become its next chief executive. A report on Recode, the technology news site, said that Mr Bain was “beloved company-wide” and seen as “such a nice guy”, in contrast to the “enigmatic” Mr Dorsey.
This prompted a sequence of jokey tweets from company insiders, all using the hashtag #AdamBainIsSoNice. Chris Moody, Twitter’s vice-president of data strategy, tweeted: “One time @adambain borrowed my office & spilled salad dressing all over it. When I confronted him, he admitted it.” Its head of global media, Katie Jacobs Stanton, declared: “One time, @adambain opened the door for me.” (Both tweets were starred as a “favourite” by Mr Dorsey’s account).
Mr Dorsey, wearing a grey hoodie and waving to the camera, told 4,000 Periscope viewers: “It’s pretty amazing we’re able to follow the commentary about this call and our earnings report live directly through our service.”
Twitter employees and close observers may have been in on the joke, but those who stumbled across the tweets were more likely baffled. Anyone who clicked on the hashtag would see the messages but not the story that prompted them — or even understand that they were meant in affectionate jest.
Approachability and accessibility for those who are not already Twitter users is just one of the problems to have contributed to the social network’s slowing growth in recent years.
While Twitter’s revenues leapt 61 per cent in its second quarter, better than Wall Street expected, it added only 2m users during that period. With user growth flat in the US, its largest market, and up just 1 per cent worldwide, some say Twitter needs radical change if it is to avoid a decline in audience numbers.
Mr Dorsey set out his three-point plan to solve Twitter’s travails. “One, we need to ensure a more disciplined execution,” he said. “Two, we need to simplify our service to deliver Twitter’s value faster. Three, we need to better communicate our value.”
Twitter’s users “must come first”, he said — a change in emphasis from former chief executive Dick Costolo, who tended to stress popularity with the advertisers.
To make Twitter “the first thing everyone in the world checks when they start their day”, Mr Dorsey said he would spare no sacred cows — including considering changes to the unfiltered “timeline” of tweets that has been a distinguishing feature from Facebook’s algorithmically ranked news feed.
“We continue to show a questioning of our fundamentals in order to make the product easier and more compelling to more people,” he said. “Our goal is to show more meaningful tweets and conversations faster.”
Jan Dawson, technology analyst at Jackdaw Research, reckoned Mr Dorsey’s speech had “shades of Steve Jobs”, who returned to Apple as its part-time chief executive in 1997 only to end up running the company.
Setting out such a clear vision of what was wrong with the company is “not really what you expect a caretaker CEO to do”, he added. “It was much more along the lines of someone who intends to run the company for a few years.”
Mr Dorsey’s prescription of focus and simplification was reminiscent of his approach when he last returned to the company as executive chairman in 2011, at the request of Mr Costolo.
Back then, he tweeted that he was both leading product at the company and running Square, the ecommerce company he co-founded, “#200%”.
But Mr Dorsey was back full-time at Square less than a year later and many question whether he succeeded in refocusing Twitter’s product strategy or merely left unresolved the same questions about attracting and retaining users that still hang over it.
If Mr Dorsey wants to take on the permanent post of Twitter chief executive this time, “200%” will not fly with the board. In June, Peter Currie, the Twitter director who heads its search committee, said it was looking for a full-time candidate.
It has been reported that Square filed for an initial public offering, and potential investors in Mr Dorsey’s other start-up would also want clarity over its leadership, Mr Dawson said.
“He has to leave one company or the other,” Mr Dawson said, and “he has to decide one way or the other pretty quickly.”
Square employees watching Tuesday’s Periscope stream may have wondered what to make of seeing their boss so happy to be back at the helm of Twitter.
“I’ve never been more sure of the value Twitter brings to people and to our world,” Mr Dorsey said as he concluded the broadcast — but then the stream abruptly cut out before he could finish the thought.
It is for Twitter’s board to decide whether Mr Dorsey will be given another chance to overhaul the company he co-founded or whether he too will be cut off midstream.
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