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Twitter is well suited to a short attention span – unless you’re in charge of it

Mr Dorsey will run the company while at the same time running Square

Andrew Dewson
Saturday 03 October 2015 00:08 BST
Global volatility in the markets since Shanghai’s ‘Black Monday’ in August has driven many investors to the sidelines
Global volatility in the markets since Shanghai’s ‘Black Monday’ in August has driven many investors to the sidelines (AFP)

Apparently Jack Dorsey is Superman. Multiple reports suggest that he will be offered the chief executive job at Twitter permanently (he has spent the past three months as interim boss at the company he co-founded before being ousted), he is also going to remain in the same position at Square, the mobile credit-transaction company planning an initial public offering at the end of the year. He could conceivably do both jobs wearing a red cape, matching boots and his underpants outside his tights – but in reality all work and no play is going to make Jack a very dull boy.

Twitter is mid-crisis, no doubt about it. The company has failed to meet growth expectations quarter after quarter, and while Wall Street might forgive missing growth numbers at a mature, profitable business, it won’t when you’re haemorrhaging cash and failing to deliver on early promise. Twitter has been at least partially rudderless since Dick Costolo was forced out earlier this summer and is even flirting with the idea of removing the character limit in tweets, therefore wiping out its entire raison d’être.

The media loves Twitter, of course. It’s a treasure trove of the stupid, inane and sometimes the profound. So what might be a significant piece of bad news for the company was the actress and writer Lena Dunham’s decision this week to stop tweeting because of the volume of abuse she receives. She just got fed up with it, and who can blame her?

If other celebrities decide that enough is enough, it will be a disaster for the micro-blogging site. What’s the point if celebrities aren’t posting their thoughts for millions of followers to dissect?

In the midst of this turmoil Twitter is trying to reinvent itself as a social media retail platform by rolling out its “Buy Now” button after several months of trials. The idea is that retailers will be able to advertise products directly to the “Twitterverse”, who will then buy on impulse. Sounds like a good way to increase revenue from a stagnant user base and a last throw of the dice all at once.

All of which makes the answer that Twitter has come up with regarding its leadership all the more baffling. Mr Dorsey will run the company while at the same time running Square, which was valued at $6bn (£4bn) last time it raised money and is expected to reach an even higher value when it hits the public markets.

While there can be no doubt that Mr Dorsey is a very talented executive, it’s also worth bearing in mind that one of the reasons his co-founders forced him out of the company back in 2009 was his apparent “lack of focus”. Running another public company at the same time ought to cure that, right?

Why Twitter and Square think this is a good idea is anyone’s bet. Investors ought to be up in arms. Running a company takes long hours and dedication, no matter how big or small – even if the Tesla chief executive Elon Musk seems to manage it with three companies (although it’s worth mentioning that neither SpaceX nor SolarCity are listed publicly or in the midst of an existential crisis).

It’s hard to believe that there isn’t a single able and willing tech executive mooching about Silicon Valley looking for a gig. Instead Twitter and Square are taking a huge, virtually unprecedented and possibly fatal risk in allowing Mr Dorsey to juggle both positions. Who knows, maybe he will confound his critics and make a success of both jobs. But juggling too many balls usually leads to dropping all of them.

It’s the land of hi-tech ... and chip and pin has just landed

Great excitement in my local Kroger store while picking up the weekly food shopping on Wednesday – staff were being trained in how to use “chip and pin” point-of-sale gadgets. Customers looked on, baffled and bemused, while the employees got the hang of it. “It’ll go live later this week,” the lad behind the checkout told me, a mixture of pride and awe in his voice.

For a nation that is at the cutting edge of so much new technology, Americans are sometimes incredibly slow on the uptake. This is especially true when technology has been developed in Europe, where most Americans assume the last technological advance was the abacus (a Sumerian invention, so not even European).

The basic belief is that if something is done a certain way in the US then by default that’s the best way of doing it. To admit Johnny Foreigner has an idea that is worth copying is an anathema to many Americans, because to do so would be to admit that “American exceptionalism” might just be a very successful government PR campaign.

American exceptionalism often manifests itself in this steadfast refusal to believe that any other nation might possibly come up with a decent idea. Many Americans still use cheques – not just when paying for groceries and goods, but to pick up their salaries. It’s not uncommon to see people running to the bank on a Friday afternoon to get their pay cheque deposited before the weekend.

When you tell them that things are done differently and, yes, often better elsewhere, many Americans simply will not believe you. Which is not to say that lots of things aren’t done well here and that there aren’t many brilliant innovations in the US – whoever came up with the idea for “drive-thru” beer stores needs a medal. It’s just that in so many ways this country is stuck in the 1950s.

So chip and pin launched in the US on Thursday this week, even if some retailers managed to get ahead of the game and accepted the seemingly antique technology a little while ago. We’re not talking years, though, we’re talking months. This despite the fact that hackers have made hay at the expense of several big retailers including giants like Target and Home Depot, even though chip and pin is far more secure.

The launch was not without hiccups, which will naturally make Americans even more suspicious of this European technology.

Not my lad behind the counter at Kroger, though, he knew all about chip and pin. From watching Peep Show, he was delighted to tell me.

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