Hi, it’s Steven again, still on book tour but now back to newslettering. It’s been two weeks since you’ve heard me say that, at first, this weekly column—which has had its hands washed for 20 seconds before sending!—will be free for everyone to access. Eventually, only WIRED subscribers will get Plaintext as a newsletter. You’ll get to keep reading it in your inbox by subscribing to WIRED (discounted 50%), and in the process getting all our amazing tech coverage in print and online.
The Plain View
Two things everyone wants to avoid are Covid-19 and activist investor Paul Singer trying to take over your company so he can fire you. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has crafted a plan to deal with Threat One—he has encouraged employees to work from home—but it’s unclear what he’s going to do with Threat Two, as Singer has accumulated a significant share of Twitter and wants Dorsey out. Singer does make the point that, under Dorsey, Twitter’s stock price and growth has underperformed, and that Twitter might benefit from a full-time CEO, instead of one who splits time between two public companies (Twitter and Square) and a possible months-long vision quest to Africa to ponder cryptocurrencies.
In light of this crisis in the Twitterverse, I began to wonder what things might have been like if a fateful decision in 2008 went the other way. That was when Facebook tried to buy Twitter. CEO Mark Zuckerberg had not yet perfected his skills at breaking the will of founders who wanted to stay independent; Evan Williams, Twitter’s CEO at the time, advised his board to turn down the $500 million offer, even though the sum was twice the current valuation. But what if the board had taken the cash?
Here’s my version of this counterhistory. First of all, Williams would have left right away. He is not a fan of Zuckerberg, and would not have wanted to replay his unhappy experience at Google, in which he’d sold an early company to the giant and was then unable to execute his vision for it. Facebook-owned Twitter would replace him with … Jack Dorsey. Around that time, in real life, Facebook executive Chris Cox had been meeting in coffee shops with Dorsey, who had just been exiled from Twitter. Cox wanted to hire Dorsey. So what better choice to run this fictional acquisition than the guy who thought up the idea in the first place?
The Twitter buy would have had an impact on Facebook’s News Feed also. In real life, after the rejected offer, Facebook tried to copy a number of Twitter’s features, including a real-time urgency and an increased viral pulse. That would not have been necessary if Facebook owned Twitter. Maybe the News Feed would not have courted so much of the toxicity it became known for later on.
The big impact for Facebook, though, would have been a massive data merger of the databases of both companies. As it would later do with WhatsApp, Facebook undoubtedly would have integrated the profile information between the two apps, much to the consternation of privacy advocates. In addition to all the likes, shared interests, and other data from its Blue app, one’s dossier would have included Twitter behavior—whom you follow, what you shared, what tweets you clicked on. This would have reaped bigger profits, making ads on Facebook a little better, but really supercharging the ads on Twitter, as the combined information would have allowed for precision targeting of sponsored tweets.
Facebook would also have used its growth acumen to drive up Twitter’s membership, as it has done with Instagram and WhatsApp. The 330 million or so users on Twitter now are chicken feed for Facebook. In our alternate universe, at least a billion users all over the world might have ended up on Twitter.
If Facebook had owned Twitter in addition to Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger, it would have ended up even more powerful—and profitable—than it is now. On the other hand, it probably would have added to Facebook’s woes in the aftermath of the election, as the social conglomerate would have become a one-stop shop for disinformation. (One thing Facebook and Twitter share: Both allow Donald Trump to say anything he cares to, even if it violates content policy. He could cross-post!)
As time went on, Dorsey would have eventually joined his fellow founders in the Facebook sphere in feeling disempowered and betrayed. Eventually, he would have resigned, just as the others did. Meanwhile, regulators, legislators, and attorneys general would be calling to break off Twitter from Facebook—as they are demanding with WhatsApp and Instagram.
If that happened, Twitter might be independent once more. Dorsey, fresh from a meditation retreat in Botswana, would reassume leadership and return Twitter to what it once was—quirky, underperforming, and less of a worry than Facebook is.
With one exception. In my counterhistory, Twitter would have adopted a feature beloved by anyone who has ever posted on Facebook’s News Feed. Yes, if Facebook had bought Twitter, we’d be able to edit our tweets.
Or so goes my dream.
In real life, Dorsey’s exile from Twitter ended in March 2011, when then-CEO Dick Costolo brought him back both for his design savvy and, as he puts it, a “sincere appreciation for the vision of the founder.” That’s when Dorsey’s double-tracking—reviled by outside investor Singer—began. He addressed this in interviews I conducted with him for a 2012 profile in WIRED:
Dorsey splits his time between the two companies. “It’s unusual, but the companies have a lot of parallels,” he says. “They’re both utilities. They both can be used by a dynamic range—from individuals to the largest organizations in the world. They both have social aspects; payments are just another form of communication. Both are exchanges of value.”
Some have criticized Dorsey’s dual role, arguing that he is spreading himself thin. “I will do whatever it takes to make sure both succeed,” Dorsey insists. “It’s like two family members you care for and love deeply.”
Ask Me One Thing
Louis writes, “Lately Microsoft, Adobe, Quicken, and other producers of programs I use to organize my life are issuing updates that A. Make their software less stable B. Take away features that are hardwired into my fingers and C. Try to force me to ‘subscribe’ to use software online (and depend on internet access to use it) instead of on my laptop where I can continue to work even if the power goes down. How do we fight back against soulless corporate profiteering taking unfair advantage of our addiction to the old familiar software we depend on to run our lives?”
Louis, you are right. Companies like Microsoft found themselves at a disadvantage when Google and others began offering productivity software for free. And cloud-based software is increasingly dominant. So they moved to subscriptions, which turned out to be more profitable than trying to convince their customers to buy upgrades. I also agree that those companies are insensitive to the frequent times that we users are offline. So how do you fight back? You break your addiction and use alternatives. Smaller and friendlier companies have created apps just for people in your situation. (They almost always let you import your existing files.) I broke my Microsoft Word habit by using Scrivener to write my book. For under $50 I got a tool that was far superior than Word for my purposes, with imaginative features that I now can’t live without. So, Louis, swallow hard and move to something newer. You have nothing to lose but your chains.
You can submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
Between the virus, the tornado, and, well, politics, I don’t think I can pick out just one this week. Sorry.