Jack Dorsey has an impossible task: to make Twitter better

I am not sure what a low-key billionaire is supposed to look like, but I’m certain that’s the look Jack Dorsey was aiming for when he opened Twitter’s developer conference last month.

He was wearing one of the first Twitter T-shirts (slightly creased, with the slogan: “Wearing my Twitter shirt”), jeans, trainers and an unidentifiable smartwatch, having ditched the beard shortly before the CEO job looked permanent. That’s a shame, because however post-beard San Francisco likes to think it is, it’s still a pleasingly jarring thing to have some facial fur among all the achingly dull preppy blue shirts and dark jeans of the Valley.

As Dorsey came on stage, I was only slightly distracted by remembering that his net worth is $2.3bn. That’s so much money as to be almost abstract. Would he notice if he lost any of that? I mean, if he carelessly lost most of it down the back of the Tesla, wouldn’t $100m still be more than enough to buy a nice home, travel a bit, give some away and still never work again? Anyway, I have no privileged knowledge of Dorsey planning to leave anything on any of the buses he used to say he took to work in San Francisco. In the meantime, he’s probably focused on pulling Twitter out of its fog of despondency. It was for this reason that Twitter decided to name its developer conference Flight, in the hope it might give it wings.

The first thing to know about Flight is that Bill Murray wasn’t there. For some inexplicable reason he was back in Twitter HQ across the road, where most of Twitter’s employees were if they could sneak out of the conference. Murray was promoting a new film in which he probably plays a variant of himself, but when the schedule lists three “secret speakers” in the afternoon and then none of them turns out to be Murray, that’s quietly heartbreaking. If only there were some global, free messaging service on which we could complain to the world about Bill Murray not showing up?

Second and, no joke, Flight had a noticeably more diverse audience than most other tech events. Almost a third were women, up from 18% the year before, and four of the 10 keynoters were female. Twitter worked with campaign groups to invite women and underrepresented minorities to the event and backed it up with some ambitious if sadly realistic targets that include increasing the proportion of female developers to 16% by the end of 2016.

Third, there’s the small matter of Twitter’s corporate lack of existential clarity – or, if you prefer, crisis. Pushy investors have been disappointed with Twitter’s lack of growth in users and revenues, constantly overshadowed by Facebook, which has 1.49 billion users every month to Twitter’s 316 million. There’s also a more fundamental problem about identity; who is Twitter for, and what does it do, especially when simpler, private messaging apps are so popular, especially with younger users.

Within two weeks of Dorsey’s confirmation as CEO, there followed a neatly engineered schedule designed to prove he has a plan: Twitter pushed out its news service Moments (terrible name, but a promising and immediately powerful news aggregator), sacked 8% of staff, including engineers (essentially admitting it had recruited the wrong people) and hired ex-Googler Omid Kordestani as executive chairman. Kordestani is sometimes referred to as Google’s “business founder” and his recruitment followed a summer of speculation that Google could buy Twitter. That’s still not impossible, though the implications for monopoly of access to the world’s breaking news are complex and worrying.

Dorsey’s task is almost impossible. He knows that Twitter needs to change significantly, making it more appealing to new users without alienating long-term users, and making more money, faster, without overloading the service with ads. He’s a product guy and will start by focusing on the core service, which could mean allowing users to post more than 140 characters. Three engineers I spoke to wouldn’t comment on that, but there was a knowing smile. There were minor announcements during Flight, including a new poll feature, an updated Mac app and – this will save them – three new Star Wars emojis. Obi Wan, you are possibly their only hope.

When I’d tired of tweeting about Bill Murray, I responded to Dorsey’s plea for tweets about how to make Twitter better. I couldn’t reconcile his lofty ambition to redefine Twitter as the home of global free speech with the obligation of a private company to make money above all else. So I suggested that Twitter be relisted as a non-profit, become the home of free speech as a public service and create, somehow, an environment that encourages free expression without tolerating harassment. If Jack could do that, maybe he really would be worth all that money.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jemima Kiss, for The Observer on Wednesday 4th November 2015 07.30 Europe/London

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