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Twitter Sends Signals with Executive Purge, New Board Members

This weekend brought the dramatic news that four of Twitter’s top executives were departing: product head Kevin Weil, media head Katie Stanton, human resources vice president Skip Schipper, and engineering chief Alex Roetter.

Twitter’s video streaming service Vine also lost its chief, Jason Toff, who said he was leaving for Google. Reuters notes that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey oddly failed to mention Toff’s departure when he was announcing the other four departures.

It was also announced that two new board members were incoming, possibly by the end of the week, with one of them slated to be a “high-profile executive in the media industry.”

That last detail led to much speculation that Twitter would send a signal — to users, shareholders, and/or the media — by picking a big, flashy name.  Maybe it will be a left-wing darling like Ta-Nehisi Coates or DeRay McKesson, to finish the task of positioning Twitter as a progressive media organ.

Maybe it will be a diversity hire, as suggested by Twitter investor Chris Sacca, who also hastened to assure his followers he won’t be one of the new board members:

If Twitter dissolves into this kind of bean-counting idiocy, it will finish its slow tumble into the grave.  “Mere political correctness” is exactly the kind of thinking that assumes users will accept or reject a product due to the sex or skin color of some executives, who most of the users will never see and whose names they will never care about.

Twitter needs to rebuild its brand, not become a politically correct laughing stock.  It’s hard to portray huge executive shake-ups at a company that lost 50 percent of its stock value in a year as a positive development, although Dorsey strove to do so in his announcement, speaking highly of the departing personnel and saying he wished to correct “inaccurate press rumors today regarding their departures.”

The New York Times reports that “at least one executive was asked to leave, according to people familiar with the matter, while others are departing of their own volition.”

The Chicago Tribune says analysts “interpreted Twitter’s changes as a distress signal instead of a reason to hope that the company is starting to head in the right direction.”

In the Tribune piece, Stifel analyst Scott Devitt explicitly made the point that his group didn’t see “how the departure of the heads of three major business divisions can be viewed as a positive in the middle of an attempted business turnaround.”  Devitt had been recommending Twitter stock but changed his mind after the executive departures were announced.

Another analyst, Citi’s Mark May, suggested that turmoil from the executive purge would make it harder for Twitter to change course — pretty much the opposite of the impression Dorsey wants to convey — and saw bad omens for the company’s February financial report.

Others view executive shakeups as a necessary signal to investors that big changes are in the wind.  It hurts to lose accumulated experience and the personal relationships developed by outgoing management, although sometimes those personal networks are part of the problem.  New hires with names recognizable to the user base might not win the approval of tough-minded analysts, while those with resumes impressive to insiders don’t usually make much of an impression on prospective users.

Many of the changes Dorsey has been talking about would profoundly alter, or maybe even ruin, the unique character of Twitter – most dramatically, the proposed lifting of the 140-character message limit that gives the platform its very identity.  (How could vastly longer messages be compared to the tweeting of birds?)  Swapping out managers and board members generates a little news – not all of it good, as seen above – but in the end, it’s all about growing that user base, and Twitter is not in a position to write any demographic off.

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