The world was a buzz last night- analysts, journalists, and bloggers were all talking about TWTR’s (Twitter’s stock symbol) S-1 filing, the US$ 1 billion dollars the company wants to raise, its valuation, and how it has yet to turn a profit (Twitter reported that it lost US$ 79.4 million on approximately US$ 317 million in sales in 2012. A greater loss is expected on greater sales for 2013.)While I’m not going to say that this data doesn’t matter (ditto for the fact that an impressive 75% of Twitter’s 218 million monthly active users (MAU) accessed the service from a mobile device), what matters more to me, and maybe to you, is how Twitter might change when it has to bow to the demands of Wall Street.
Money already changed Twitter once when the third party (non-Twitter employed) developers who wrote the Twitter apps that so many of us loved so much were hand-cuffed by the company and its non-founding CEO Dick Costolo.
The software engineers that had helped make Twitter so interesting were practically forced out of business because Twitter changed the rules on them. At the time, Box CEO Aaron Levie tweeted this: “Twitter’s API has more rules than North Korea.”
The move understandably angered developers; they started movements like #OccupyTwitter and talked about building an Open Source alternative which, had they been able to pull it off, would have been a great idea.
And though Costolo spun Twitter’s developer betrayal as being good for the user (his explanation at the time was that the company wanted to provide its users with a common, singular experience), he also pointed out that Twitter wasn’t a charity which, of course, it isn’t.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that Twitter founder Jack Dorsey would have ever said anything like that. At a recent presentation given before an auditorium full of aspiring entrepreneurs at Columbia University, Dorsey talked about how well Open Source Linux works. ”Put your ideas out there, share them with people, and make it better,” he said.
What he didn’t say is “then screw the developers who helped you out.”
I don’t think that he would do that. Ditto for Twitter co-founder Ev Williams.
And while Costolo is probably a great guy, at least part of his decision to make the move that upset the Twitter community, had to have been driven by investor pressure. The “We are not a charity,” attitude sounds like something he might have had thrown at him by investors in a board room.
Part of what has also made Twitter great was its free-wheeling attitude and its lack of ads. The latter which is, understandably, a necessary evil in a world where a company has to pay its bills.
Still, too many “sponsored tweets” could ruin the Twitter experience.
Dorsey, Williams and Biz Stone were so concerned about that that Twitter remained ad-free for a very, very long time. And while most of us haven’t been too disturbed by finding ads in our Twitter streams thus far, there would be something truly tasteless about them showing up at times of crisis when a tweet is often the best way to communicate and to reach out for help.
If Twitter becomes our window (screen) to the world, then its broadcasts will be brought to us by commercial sponsors.
Of course, this has been the case for television, radio and newspapers for a very long time, though I think television has a way of not “breaking away for a word from our sponsors.” I hope that Twitter has one or will find one as well.
And most of all, I hope that the Twitter we know and love won’t be forced to change solely to satisfy Wall Street’s greed.
Though there are those who will tell me that Twitter has always had ROI pressures, they’ve been mitigated by the dreams of Twitter’s founders who have held the controls for most of the company’s history. I’m speaking of Williams, Dorsey and Biz Stone (he must have sold his stock on the secondary market because the S-1 indicates that he no longer owns stock in the company.) These guys are idealists who like to build things that make the world a better, freer place; I don’t know how much of their dreams or careful work they’d be willing to sacrifice for the almighty dollar.
But as I learned in business classes long ago, Wall Street isn’t about dreams; it’s about money. CEOs are charged with maximizing Return On Investment for their stakeholders. If good things happen as a result, that’s the icing not the cake.
Still after reading Twitter’s S-1, I see hope.
Jack Dorsey, speaking for Twitter, Inc. said this:
We started with a simple idea: share what you’re doing, 140 characters at a time. People took that idea and strengthened it by using @names to have public conversations, #hashtags to organize movements, and Retweets to spread news around the world.
Twitter represents a service shaped by the people, for the people.
The mission we serve as Twitter, Inc. is to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. Our business and revenue will always follow that mission in ways that improve -- and do not detract from -- a free and global conversation.
I’m going to hold on to that last line.