June 13, 2024, 3:07

Twitter is again losing Jack Dorsey, its multitasking, wizard-bearded visionary

Twitter is again losing Jack Dorsey, its multitasking, wizard-bearded visionary

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Twitter’s co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey is stepping down as the company’s chief executive, marking the end of an era for the company, which has been shaped and guided by its forward-thinking and at times distracted founder. Dorsey will remain a member of Twitter’s board until at least next year.

The news, first reported by CNBC, was in some ways a surprise, especially given the timing: a Monday morning and a company holiday at Twitter after the Thanksgiving weekend.

In other ways, Dorsey’s resignation has long been anticipated. Wall Street investors have criticized the Twitter co-founder for his outside interests: running another important tech company he started, Square; pursuing futuristic projects around decentralizing the internet with blockchain; and traveling the world. In just the last year, formidable activist investor Elliott Management had pushed aggressively for him to resign even sooner.

Dorsey’s replacement is former Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal, who has worked at the company for 10 years and is regarded as a trusted leader among his staff. Agrawal was in charge of executing Dorsey’s vision to build a decentralized version of social media, built on blockchain technology, which would allow users to choose their own algorithms.

While it’s still too early to say if and how Twitter will operate any differently under Agrawal’s watch, what we do know is the company is losing its vision-oriented, original-thinking founding leader. He may have been an absent CEO at times, but was nevertheless respected by many in the tech industry for inventing a platform that put the public in conversation with each other about topics both trivial and world-changing, while retaining a sense of humor and eccentric personal style.

“I want you all to know that this was my decision and I own it. It was a tough one for me, of course. I love this service and company … and all of you so much. I’m really sad … yet really happy,” wrote Dorsey on Monday in a company email that he also tweeted. “There aren’t many companies that get to this level. And there aren’t many founders that choose their company over their own ego. I know we’ll prove this was the right move.”

You could read Dorsey’s emphasis on “founder ego” in his goodbye note as a dig at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who founded that company 17 years ago and seems to have no plans to relinquish his control over it. Unlike Zuckerberg, Dorsey has been famously hands-off in delegating some key decisions — like whether or not to boot former President Donald Trump from the platform — to his employees, like chief legal officer Vijaya Gadde, whose team made the final call to ban Trump, with Dorsey’s sign-off (Dorsey was reportedly traveling in French Polynesia around the time of the decision).

Dorsey was in some ways an unconventional leader, and under his guidance, Twitter did things a little differently. While Twitter suffers the same problems around hate speech, extremism, and harassment that every major social media platform faces, it has managed to garner praise from members of the social media research community for offering more transparency, at least compared to competitors, about what goes viral on its platform. And the company clearly wields incredible influence as the social media platform of choice for world leaders, journalists, and many celebrities and newsworthy figures.

But at the same time, it has struggled to gain the volume of users and financial success as competitors like YouTube, TikTok, and Facebook. This is partly because Twitter, unlike some of its competitors, has taken a relatively measured approach to growing its product. For a long time, Twitter wasn’t focused on making money; it didn’t sell ads for years. Its product design hasn’t changed much. It also didn’t, as a habit, acquire or copy its competition, as Facebook often does.

And some of Dorsey’s personal plans and interests gave external critics more reasons to push for his replacement in recent years. Dorsey famously wanted to leave Silicon Valley to move to Africa for at least three months in 2019 (he later scrapped those plans), and for the past few years, he began devoting more of his time to developing a new decentralized social media ecosystem, Bluesky. In Dorsey’s tweets and public interviews over the past few years, he’s spent more time talking about Bluesky, crypto, blockchain, and other related decentralized internet endeavors than growing Twitter’s main product itself.

Elliott Management group made Dorsey’s divided attention the backbone of its failed attempt to push Dorsey out of the company last year.

Still, despite these challenges, Dorsey is leaving Twitter in a place of relative strength compared to even a year ago. In recent months, Twitter has been monetizing more of its products at a rapid pace beyond just advertising, introducing tools like Twitter Blue, a paid subscription version of the platform. And the company’s earnings the past few quarters have been relatively strong.

“Jack says he is choosing the company over his own ego, but I think this is about as good as it gets for the company — and he is leaving being able to say the stock was up,” one former Twitter executive told Recode. The source also said that Dorsey trusts the new CEO Agrawal, who has executed his vision so far. “Leadership change always gives engineers a reason to freak out … so putting a CTO in place keeps the engineers placated and maintains the steady, iterative product direction Jack oversaw.”

Dorsey stepped down as Twitter CEO once before, after being pushed out by his board in 2008, only to have a Steve Jobs-style return in 2015. It seems less likely, though, that he would return a second time.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the leadership switch at Twitter. In the coming weeks, we should expect to find out more about the circumstances around Dorsey’s exit and how the company might change under Agrawal.

But what’s most clear now is that Dorsey’s exit is another example of a trend at other significant tech companies. As my colleague Peter Kafka wrote earlier this year when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said he’d step down from his CEO role, Big Tech has gotten so big that it no longer needs its demigod-like startup founders at the helm. Bezos, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google all turned over their companies to trusted stewards with more low-key personas — and those companies are still financially doing great.

The exception to that is Mark Zuckerberg, the tech founder CEO who seems to have no plans to step down, even though he and his company are perpetually mired in scandal. Unlike Dorsey, Zuckerberg has been rewarded by Wall Street for his relentless focus on growing his company’s profits. And also unlike Dorsey, Zuckerberg managed to negotiate unilateral control over his board from the very beginning.

Dorsey could still be in charge if he had more power over Twitter’s board or if he grew the company at an expansive scale like Facebook.

But instead, Twitter will move into a new era — one without an eccentric, wizard-bearded leader who trolled Congress and waxed poetic about the future of the decentralized web. The Dorsey years may not have been the most focused, but they were memorable.

Peter Kafka contributed reporting to this article.

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