Twitter's new CEO has a number of challenges on his hands, but one of the most important is to rebuild the ecosystem the company previously destroyed

By Mathew Ingram
October 5, 2015

As expected, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey has once again taken the helm of the company he helped create, despite the fact that he also happens to be the CEO of another startup, digital payment company Square. Twitter’s board appears to be convinced that Dorsey has what it takes to build and grow the service, despite his somewhat troubled history with the company. But will he be able to fix the mistake Twitter made several years ago, when it turned its back on the idea of being an open ecosystem?

Much of the coverage of Twitter TWTR tends to focus on the minutiae of the service, and the features that it does or doesn’t have: Whether it should allow tweets of greater than 140 characters, for example, or the idea of introducing a curated feed a la Facebook, which is what the company’s highly-touted Project Lightning is supposed to be all about — as though that will make everything right.

These questions and debates, however, tend to assume that Twitter itself is the only one who can solve these problems. The assumption is that it needs to have a product-focused CEO who can dream up solutions or features that will magically make Twitter the billion-plus user service it has always wanted to be. This is partly why there was such a clamor for Dorsey to return — because founders, even ones with a troubled history, are seen as having quasi-magical powers when it comes to fixing the thing they created.

But this focus on Dorsey and all of the features that Twitter wants to introduce ignores the fact that the company has always had the ability to improve itself in a myriad of different ways, simply by embracing its place in a much larger ecosystem of social apps and services. Unfortunately, this is the future that Twitter deliberately rejected in 2010, when it started bulldozing its third-party developer community and “acting like a drunk guy with an Uzi,” as venture investor Chris Dixon described it at the time.

I tried to describe this in a piece I wrote for Medium: How Twitter could have taken a different path and become the real-time social plumbing or utility that connected people across a whole landscape of services and networks, but chose not to. Instead, it locked down its API, cut off a huge swath of third-party apps and services (including Google), abandoned or orphaned its own apps on various platforms, and spent a majority of its time and resources trying to drum up advertising revenue. As I put it then:

“What would Twitter be like today if it had embraced its ecosystem and tried to build on it instead of cutting it off at the knees? I don’t really know, and I’m not sure anyone does. But I think it would have a lot more goodwill to spend — both with developers and with users — than it does now, and I think many aspects of the service that it is now trying to build up, including smart recommendations and curation, would be a lot better off with outside input than they are now.”

In many ways, Twitter looks like a huge success: It went public at a $25-billion valuation, and it has generated an impressive stream of ad revenue. But growth — especially in terms of users and engagement — has slowed to a trickle, and the stock has sagged as investors question whether Twitter can ultimately deliver enough value to justify even its now $17-billion market cap. That’s the central challenge currently facing Dorsey and the board. And it’s not clear that Twitter can do all of that on its own.

 

Everyone wants to be like Apple or Facebook, both of which control their massive walled-garden networks with an iron fist, and still reach billions of users and generate billions of dollars in value. Much as it may want to, Twitter isn’t that kind of service, nor does it seem likely it will ever become one — its value is in the way it connects people in real time around news events and allows them to share their thoughts (for better or worse). That’s not something that benefits from a walled-garden approach.

Stratechery analyst Ben Thompson discussed this same idea earlier this year in a post about Twitter’s future, in which he said the core value of the service isn’t its ability to generate advertising, it’s the power of the social graph that users create by connecting to others across a range of topics and interests. And the best way to increase that graph and appeal to more potential users is by connecting to and through as many third-party services and apps as possible. Blogging veteran Anil Dash also made a similar point in a recent post:

“Twitter enables connections between accounts. What exists today as a social network between people who follow and reply to each other could tomorrow expand to be an information network between devices that could follow and reply to each other. Twitter could charge apps or devices (or humans!) that send high volumes of messages with Annotations, diversifying its revenue stream.”

Twitter has made a concerted effort to reach out to developers over the past year or so, launching a suite of tools called Fabric that are aimed at helping services connect to and use the Twitter interest graph and Twitter identities for a variety of purposes, such as logging in to different services on a mobile device. But for many, the perception of the company as a walled garden or a drunk guy with an Uzi remains.

In a letter he wrote to his former colleagues in 2010, when he left the company, Twitter’s former head of platform Alex Payne talked about his reasons for leaving, and one of those was the company’s decision to close down and cut off outside services. This was a mistake, Payne said, and one that could cripple Twitter’s ability to succeed in the long term. As he put it, the service needed to “become more decentralized or it will die.” I still believe that to be true.

If Jack Dorsey sincerely believes that Twitter’s ability to connect people around the world and give them the power to share what’s happening to them is the core of the company’s value, then he should be looking for any and all ways in which Twitter can increase people’s ability to do that. And that means looking outside the company itself, at ways of making it easier for people and networks to connect and share through Twitter, instead of just trying to come up with new in-house features.

You can follow Mathew Ingram on Twitter at @mathewi, and read all of his posts here or via his RSS feed. And please subscribe to Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology.

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