Anyone who knows about social media would recognise Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter: unruly beard, black knitted hat, dark clothes. He’s a distinctive figure in a way that Mark Zuckerberg isn’t, though it’s also true that there’s yet to be a film made about Dorsey’s rise to prominence.
The Twitter boss recently took part in a 25-minute roundtable discussion at the TED Conference in Vancouver, in which he discussed the future of the platform, and threw out some ideas for how it might change and develop. That’s really the perfect storm: an iconic figure like Dorsey, talking about how one of the world’s favourite social media systems might change, at a TED gathering. So it’s worth looking at what he said, and thinking a little about what he might mean.
It’s obvious to me that Dorsey wants to change the way people use Twitter. He talked about de-emphasising the “like” function and the number of followers twitter users have, to the point that he admitted that, if he were starting afresh, he might not include either metric. He suggested that the underlying algorithm of the platform could change, switching its focus from people you follow towards content which will be of interest to you. In addition, Dorsey intends to let users hide replies to their tweets, which will be trialled from this summer with a limited number of customers.
He also wants lots of data. Twitter will carry our a four-part analysis of the fundamental “health” of conversations, measuring four factors: shared attention, common reality, reception, and the number of different perspectives expressed. This analysis should give the company a fairly in-depth picture of how the platform is operating.
What is interesting to me is that these questions are a reflection of long-standing complaints by users. And they matter, because however you look at it, Twitter is a big deal. Around 321 million people use it, from the Pope to Donald Trump to Nigella Lawson to, well, me. And it’s more than just sheer weight of numbers. It’s a conduit for influence and promotion, for people to connect, but also for governments to speak to voters and for industries to speak to consumers. The British diplomat Tom Fletcher, whose book Naked Diplomacy outlined how international relations will and must go digital, wrote that he would not employ anyone in the modern age who didn’t have a Twitter account. It’s that basic a tool of communication and influence.
Yet some people will argue from the numbers that Twitter isn’t as important as all that. Facebook has 2.3 billion monthly users, while WhatsApp has 1.5 billion. So is Twitter being left behind? Not necessarily. But I would argue that it is different. Crucially, Twitter is open to the public, in the main. Anyone can see pretty much anything, and interact with it. You might argue that the microblogging aspect of the platform limits its utility, but does it, really? Or does it act as a filter and a method for people and institutions to refine and reduce their messages to the essential features, the basic truth? Certainly the President of the United States thinks so: for the first time, we have a West Wing taking its tenor essentially from the blogosphere, and to great effect.
I use Twitter enthusiastically, and have developed a respectable following of 46,000. I’ve interacted with the BBC, Will Young and William Shatner, to take three diverse examples. Most celebrities, politicians and prominent entrepreneurs have an account, whether they ‘curate’ it personally or not (I do). And Twitter has an immediacy that even 24-hour rolling news can’t match (journalists follow Twitter as closely as anyone in any event). So in a sense I’m a cheerleader for it: it connects, it reveals, it delivers. It matters.
All of this means that Dorsey’s musings in Vancouver also have significance. If Twitter is going to change – and, more importantly, if the behaviour of its users is going to change – it’s going to affect a lot of us, whether we’re signed up or not. It’s a key channel of communication within wildly varying groups and industries. If you work in a public-facing industry, as I do, you should be watching the platform carefully, and thinking about the questions Jack Dorsey has posed. How will they affect you and your business? And you’d better get ready for the answers.