Twitter stayed pretty much the same for years. One of the most memorable product updates came in 2017 when the number of characters that could fit in a tweet doubled.
In the past few months, however, the company has signaled an itch for change. It plans an audio chat service, newsletter writers platform, ephemeral content, and new moderation tools that will give users more control over their conversations.
On Thursday, Twitter took it a step further and announced ambitious plans for an expansion with new subscription options and communities for specific interests.
“The idea that Twitter will even change feels like a novel concept,” said Kayvon Beykpour, Head of Consumer Product at Twitter, in a recent interview. “It is still a long way from realizing its potential, despite the great influence and value it has in the world.”
The heart of Twitter, which started in 2006, is still tweets. However, the company is desperate to attract more users – far more users – and impress skeptical investors without burdening its service with extensive features that appear as an afterthought.
Although Twitter was at the center of last year’s tumultuous presidential election and continues to exert an overwhelming influence in political and media circles, younger social media peers like TikTok, Snapchat, and Clubhouse have grown much faster.
Snapchat now has 265 million daily active users, more than Twitter’s 192 million. TikTok, which was widespread in the US in 2018 and doesn’t publish usage numbers regularly, said last fall that it had around 50 million active US users every day. The 11-month-old clubhouse has 10 million users.
In the next three years, Twitter wants to increase the number of daily active users by at least 64 percent to 315 million. Increase the speed at which new features are introduced to the public. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, said at an event for industry analysts and investors Thursday that he would at least double his annual sales.
The postponement, say Twitter managers and staff, is long overdue. “It comes down to three criticisms: we are slow, we are not innovative and we are not trustworthy,” said Dorsey.
Over the past several years, Mr. Dorsey has urged the company to expand its mandate beyond 280 character conversations and have broader discussions.
But Twitter has long resisted change. The leadership of the company’s product development team changed regularly, and the small changes Twitter made were routinely mocked by users. After Mr. Beykpour took over product development in 2018, he often joked that, like the product leaders before him, he might end up on the chopping block.
Last year, Elliott Management, a hedge fund, tacitly ran a 4 percent stake in the company and then tried to oust Mr. Dorsey. He argued that he hadn’t focused enough on developing innovative new products on Twitter as he also oversees the financial firm Square.
Twitter has reached an agreement with Elliott Management to keep Mr. Dorsey. But the episode put the company on a shopping spree. A mobile advertising company, social video app, podcasting company, design company and newsletter provider were all set up.
“We have bought nearly 20 companies for hundreds of millions of dollars in the past few years,” said Ned Segal, Twitter’s chief financial officer, in an interview earlier this month. “I think our M&A pace corresponds to the pace of innovation within the company. We move faster. “
Twitter also added a number of features including short-lived stories nicknamed “Fleets”, moderation tools that allow users to restrict who can reply to their tweets and live audio chats called Spaces.
It has also redesigned its network, which was largely built in the early days of Twitter, before modern cloud computing services were widely available. The company is also experimenting with subscription products like newsletters that developers can use to make money on Twitter.
“This is the transition Twitter is going through right now: there are a lot of different things Twitter would like to try,” said Esther Crawford, senior product manager at Twitter. Ms. Crawford co-founded the Social Video App Squad, which Twitter acquired in December. “People are actually in this moment of excitement about the experimentation we’re doing.”
On Thursday, Twitter teased new features like community groups and “Super Follows” that allow users to subscribe to exclusive content from other tweeters. The company also announced that it will be hiring teams of engineers in regions like India and Africa where it wants to grow.
Some of Twitter’s latest features are not available to all users, so it’s difficult to quantify their impact. But the company’s audience is growing. Twitter said it added more active users per day in January than the average for the last four January. And Twitter’s stock is higher than it has been in years, up more than 100 percent year over year.
Last week, several Twitter designers held a space to discuss what the app should look like. About 30 users listened to what could have been a pre-pandemic brainstorming session in a conference room at Twitter headquarters. On Wednesday, a group of Twitter engineers responsible for creating the company’s Android app held another open meeting.
“When you work in public, you work faster because you are held accountable to the people you interact with,” said Ms. Crawford.
However, some analysts remain skeptical that all of Twitter’s experiments will cause the competition to falter.
“You try all of these experiments and it feels like a lot of little pieces that don’t necessarily fit together into a larger cohesive app or social media experience,” said Jessica Liu, senior analyst at Forrester, in an interview earlier this year Month. “I just want to understand from your executive what the long-term vision for Twitter is.”