In the summer of 2013, Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter, reflected on his vision of the company as a “global town square.” The social network is “all public, real-time conversational, and widely distributed, and public is the first word in there,” he told an audience at the Brookings Institution.
Thousands of years ago, he added, the Greek Agora was “where you went to find out what was going on and talk about it, right? You came and talked about what was going on in your part of the village, and I came and talked about what was going on in mine, and the politician was there, and we listened to the issues of the day, and a musician was there and a preacher was there, etcetera, and it was multidirectional and it was unfiltered, and it was inside out, meaning the news was coming from the people it was happening to, not some observer. And, you know, along comes the printing press, and then radio, and then television, etcetera, etcetera, and all of these advances in technology are in service to removing the friction of distance and time in distributing the information. So we get to the point, ultimately, with CNN World Wide News, that you’ve completely eliminated the friction of time and distance, and then along comes a service like Twitter that has the elimination of time and distance built into it, but also brings back all those capabilities of the Agora. It’s inside out again, it’s coming from the participants.”
It was a bold vision of Twitter, which at the time was just seven years old, as the preeminent resource for accessing opinion across countries and cultures. And yet two years later, Costolo has resigned as CEO and Twitter is sputtering. In an earnings call late last month, interim CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged that the growth of Twitter’s active-user base had slowed to an “unacceptable” rate.