Why Biz Stone Really Left Twitter

I have no inside information, but I can put two and two together; Biz Stone left Twitter because Twitter, for him, is over. All that's left is the problems. And who wants to deal with those, especially if you have lots of relative strangers to do that for you.

The fun part, where you come together with friends to stay up late at night and try to solve a big problem, is definitely over. Now Twitter is "merely" a utility, a tool we have become accustomed to, but which has no more to discover for either an entrepreneur or an early adopter. Twitter is what it is. The thrill is gone.

Instead, Twitter is a company with big problems. A small number of athletes and celebrities have more than a million followers, but some of them hardly ever tweet. For every Ashton Kutcher there's an Oprah Winfrey. Or someone else tweets for them. Their followers are following a brand, an account--not a person. Twitter has become largely impersonal. Always a problem for a social network.

A similar small number of Twitter users are amazingly active on the service, having tweeted more than 100,000 times since joining (one of them is a good friend of mine). They produce and share content, get involved in arguments, and provide incredible value because they are putting themselves out there in almost total transparency. They let themselves be abused by drunks and bots.

The rest of us, some 190 million as of a year ago, are largely disengaged, tuning in during earthquakes, elections, and scandals. At the end of March of this year, Business Insider reported that:

  • There were 119 million Twitter accounts following one or more other accounts.
  • There were 85 million accounts with one or more followers.
  • Thus, a little subtraction shows us that there are 56 million Twitter accounts following zero other accounts, and 90 million Twitter accounts with zero followers.

As an early adopter of Twitter, I was fortunate enough to make good friends on the service, and to have conversations with them. As the service grew, however, it became a victim of its own success. The brands got on, and began hawking their wares. People experimented with auto-following the people who followed them, in order to grow their follower-base. It was hard for me to see my old friends. I had to make a list of them.

It took quite a while for folks to figure out that it doesn't matter how many followers you have; the value of the service is in engagement. If people continue to do what they have been doing, they will get on Twitter, follow a bunch of people, and leave if no one follows them.

In addition to the race for followers, there's the noise of the news media, who have now been told by their editors that they MUST tweet, at least to send out links to their own stories, so they can get their page views up. Until Anthony Weiner's gaffe, politicians had been advised to tweet, too, and Congress was full of tweeters,

With all the noise on Twitter, the conversations vanished. The vast majority of Twitter accounts are not very active. The ones that are, are largely self-serving.

And that, we could say, is almost the good news. With its growth plateauing (190 million last year v. 175 million this year) and its engagement declining, Twitter has yet to find a business model. It has tried a few advertising schemes very tentatively (remember the short-lived Dick bar)? And when they had to abandon them, Twitter retreated into living off its VC money.

But if it can't find a way to support itself, Twitter will eventually have to sell itself or just go away. VCs don't wait forever for exits. Those are interesting choices.

No wonder Biz Stone decided now might be a good time to go back to what he wanted to do in the first place: solve a big world problem. I wish him good luck. At least he won't be poor as a startup entrepreneur, because the Twitter founders have been able to use the secondary markets to take money off the table. They deserve it.

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2 Comments

  • Linda Lee

    What I really enjoyed in this article are the statistics. I am always trying to source real numbers on who is actually using Twitter and who is benefiting from the time it takes to engage and use twitter and see some actual results. I have always felt that twitter had the earmarks of a "fad". Watching my own clients I have seen the exact same process, set it up, use it and lose interest.
    There are so many abandoned Twitter sites and unused accounts. I wonder what you see in the future for twitter?

  • M. Edward (Ed) Borasky

    This makes sense. I've heard both Ev and Biz talk about the growth of Twitter, although I haven't heard Jason Goldman. From what I've heard, Twitter evolved mostly from how the users used it, not by "executive direction" from founders or the managers they hired. I wonder, though, if Ev and Biz wanted to sell to Google and the rest of the decision makers didn't.

    It's going to be interesting to see what Obvious comes up with next. I'm not sure there's room for another "social network."