‘Battle for the Bird’: A Soaring Examination of Twitter’s Tumultuous Trajectory

Copies of Kurt Wagner's 2024 book "Battle for the Bird" on display at his launch party at Bloomberg Beta's offices in San Francisco, Calif. on Feb. 29, 2024. Photo credit: Ken Yeung

“What’s happening?!” However, beyond its surface, this question carries significant weight, especially for those observing this 18-year-old company. It has faced turmoil in recent years, with three different chief executives, navigating allegations of censorship, addressing political pressure, and more. While many may point fingers at Twitter itself, a closer look reveals that the accountability lies squarely with its leaders, particularly Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk. Bloomberg journalist Kurt Wagner’s new book, “Battle for the Bird,” delves into this complex narrative.

Twitter’s Jack Dorsey Era

Unlike Nick Bilton’s “Hatching Twitter” which traced the origin of Twitter, Wagner’s book largely focuses on the company’s more contemporary history, specifically its time under Dorsey’s leadership. “Battle for the Bird” examines the co-founder’s rise to power, his vision for what the company could be (hint: It wasn’t to be a public entity), and his hands-off management approach that contributed to Twitter’s woes in recent times.

At first, Dorsey’s return as CEO appeared promising, but it raised concerns. Despite being Twitter’s inaugural leader, he was dismissed. Subsequently, he served as its chairperson before making a triumphant comeback, albeit with significant baggage in tow. Dorsey goes on to co-found the fintech company Square, which is now known as Block, before being asked to return. But complicating matters, Twitter’s board of directors didn’t want a leader simultaneously helming multiple companies. Ultimately, it didn’t matter as Dorsey was the only serious candidate and won out.

Much of this 289-page book discusses Twitter’s rough ride. Its honeymoon period over, the Dorsey-led company now faces seemingly back-to-back-to-back challenges in the form of Donald Trump, attacks from conservatives, and fending off activist investor Elliott Management. But if you’re hoping for a heroic effort from Dorsey to smite down all its enemies, you’d be mistaken.

Dorsey is a central figure in “Battle for the Bird,” but not as the protagonist. His laissez-faire approach is evident when it comes to critical decisions from removing content, responding to congressional inquiries, and basically when it comes to making the tough calls when needed. While he inspires, the Twitter co-founder fumbles the ball, reveling only in the perks of being CEO, but shirking leadership responsibilities when needed.

Wagner highlights multiple instances where Dorsey played no role in the decision-making process. Instead, his lieutenants including Twitter’s head of its legal, trust and safety, and public policy teams Vijaya Gadde. When public outrage demanded a response, Dorsey issued posts that felt brief and forced — almost as if he wished not to involve himself.

What Was Twitter to Be?

Dorsey’s behavior underscores his belief that his creation — Twitter — wasn’t meant to be a company. Doing so was the “original sin,” he admitted in 2022. Instead, Twitter should have become an internet protocol, allowing anyone to build on the World Wide Web.

The Twitter bird logo on display at the company's Flight conference in 2016. Photo credit: Ken Yeung
The Twitter bird logo on display at the company’s Flight conference in 2016. Photo credit: Ken Yeung

With Twitter the protocol, he would not have to deal with pressure from investors or be responsible for making decisions about what posts should and shouldn’t remain up.

But with hindsight being 20/20, transforming Twitter from a company to a protocol is impossible, if not extremely difficult. Frustration over being unable to enact this change likely forced Dorsey’s response to many decisions his creation needed to make.

An Underachiever With an Oversized Impact

“There are so many changes between Twitter 1.0 and what’s now X,” Wagner explains in an interview with Bloomberg Executive Editor Tom Giles. The interviewer asked the “Battle for the Bird” author about his efforts to chronicle Twitter’s journey as it transitions from Dorsey to Musk.

“Its impact on the world was greater than the size of its business, right?” he continues. “I think people often associate Twitter with Facebook, even sometimes like YouTube, at least in conversation, and without even realizing these are two vastly different companies from a business standpoint. And so I tried to get that across in the book because I think that’s important if you had to explain how a single person was able to come by this company because it had always…greatly under-achieved in terms of what people thought its business could be.”

Wagner references Twitter’s ambitious three-year business plan with lofty goals that the company’s board approved. “Pretty quickly after the plan was announced and built up, it became clear that it wasn’t going to hit any of those numbers,” he says. “And it didn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the trajectory and [say] ‘user growth isn’t going to hit and revenue is probably not going to hit.’” This failure spurred the board to think that if the company wasn’t acquired, “we’re kind of setting ourselves up for a tough situation, the stock is going to be hit really hard, [and] we’re going to have to do layoffs.”

Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back, it played a major part in selling Twitter to Musk for $44 billion.

Author Kurt Wagner and Bloomberg Executive Editor Tom Giles in a fireside chat on Feb. 29, 2024 to celebrate the launch of "Battle for the Bird". Photo credit: Ken Yeung
Author Kurt Wagner and Bloomberg Executive Editor Tom Giles in a fireside chat on Feb. 29, 2024 to celebrate the launch of “Battle for the Bird”. Photo credit: Ken Yeung

Throughout its history, Twitter faced comparisons with other social media companies. Whether apt or not, investors and media stacked its performance against the likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. However, its metrics paled against these tech giants — when it sold to Musk, Twitter had almost 240 million daily active users, a fraction of Facebook’s 2.11 billion daily users today.

Yet, Twitter’s influence on society and culture overshadowed others. As Wagner highlights: “If it happened on Twitter, it typically found its way to the masses.” It’s the platform that disseminated news about the Arab Spring, catalyzed the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements, and offered a live, digital, and daily stream of consciousness to the world from a sitting U.S. president.

For all of its influence on global speech, it’s bewildering that Twitter didn’t achieve such growth. While Wagner’s book doesn’t assign blame, readers could infer that the responsibility rests on the company’s CEO.

Winners and Losers in the Battle for the Bird

“Battle for the Bird” does not paint Dorsey in flattering colors. He transforms throughout the book from the prodigal son returning home to becoming a spiritual-esque guide, before ultimately going through the motions and finding other worthwhile distractions such as Bitcoin and meditation. He falls short of people’s expectations when they need his guidance the most.

Those left in the wake of his (in)action are the protagonists in the story: Twitter’s employees. The company’s “Staff” (the CEO’s inner circle), the managers, engineers, designers, business operations personnel, and even the one-time in-house cartoonist appear mostly virtuous.

Twitter’s new owner does not have a good image in Wagner’s book either. “Battle for the Bird” unveils how Dorsey persuaded Musk to acquire the company. When employees realized his role, Dorsey’s stature diminished greatly with some workers feeling betrayed. The media has reported on Musk’s actions throughout the transaction. However, reading additional insider details reveals how dysfunctional the first few months under Musk’s rule the company became.

What about Linda Yaccarino, the inaugural CEO of the company now formerly known as Twitter? Wagner’s book doesn’t feature her because it concludes at the end of 2022, while she joins the company in June 2023.

“For me, I wanted to tell the story of Twitter, not really the story of what comes after Twitter, because that’s going to be someone else’s book,” Wagner explains. However, he notes while Yaccarino has the CEO title, it’s in name only. “Ultimately, if Twitter succeeds or fails, it’s going to be Elon. It’s not going to be Linda, no matter what happens on the business side, in my opinion.”

Big Takeaway from ‘Battle for the Bird’

Is there a big takeaway or conclusion Wagner drew from his book and reporting on social media? In response to a query from fellow Bloomberg reporter Ed Ludlow, Wagner states:

I operated under this assumption that at a certain scale and sort of size, the CEO of companies was less important. I had thought once you get to 7,000 employees, it doesn’t really matter if it’s Jack Dorsey…or Elon Musk, or whomever. And I think before this, I thought it wasn’t that big of a deal who was running the company.

Going through the reporting process and seeing how dramatically different Elon is versus Jack, and how different they are for the company, Twitter 1.0 versus X, it just reinforced how important the personalities are at the top of these companies — and not just at X, but Instagram or Facebook or Mastodon or whatever it’s going to be.

The human beings who are making these decisions are just so incredibly influential. And…it jumped out because it made me realize that the humans behind this technology are much more important than I was giving them credit for.

“Battle for the Bird” stands out for its exceptional writing and thorough reporting. Readers will gain a deeper understanding of Twitter’s turbulent history, from its myriad complex issues to its slow progress in innovation and product launches. While the book offers a glimmer of hope for the company’s future, it ultimately concludes that whatever soul remained at Twitter has been nearly extinguished. Wagner skillfully narrates the tale of this iconic social media platform. Whether the platform’s latest iteration can rise to prominence again will have to be chronicled in another author’s work.

“Battle for the Bird” is on sale now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and at your local bookstore today.

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