It's among the most recognized brands on the Internet and a bona fide cultural phenomenon, with as many as 400 million monthly users and a brand-new $800 million funding deal. It's also been the scene of recent high-level comings and goings and enough gossip to fuel a soap opera. And when it comes to users, estimated revenue and general buzz, Facebook is eating its lunch.
So whither Twitter, the high-flying social media network whose legions of die-hard fans are nearly equaled by its skeptics? Can the microblogging site become a big business -- or does the turmoil at the top in the past few months bespeak a company in trouble?
"Ever since we started Twitter, there's been chatter, and from the beginning it's been negative," said Biz Stone, one of its three co-founders -- and one of two who've left the startup since the spring. "I believe that when people are talking about your product or company, it signals that they care."
He and other top Twitter officials insist the corporate musical chairs -- Jack Dorsey's 2008 ouster as CEO, Evan Williams' replacement in the top job last fall, Dorsey's March return as executive chairman, accompanied by Williams' departure, and finally Stone's own exit to join Williams at a new venture -- is little more than the natural
shuffling of personnel as the company evolves.
They also say focus on the movements of the three founders overlooks the bench of executive talent new CEO Dick Costolo has recruited from the likes of Google (GOOG), Pixar, eBay (EBAY) and Palm.
Still, the company's leaders face weighty challenges: How to better monetize the service's voluminous and fast-growing user traffic; how to banish for good the notorious "fail whale" icon that appears when the site is overloaded; and how to help users better navigate the 200 million daily "tweets" that make up Twitter's so-called firehose.
Bill Reichert, a venture capitalist at Garage Technology Ventures, is among those who doubt they can pull it off.
"It's hard to find any other company that has been so successful by some measures be so incredibly lacking in innovation for so long," he said. "Twitter is no longer cool or exciting. It's just there, like texting. Only I pay for texting."
But while Reichert believes the company should sell itself to someone who can better leverage the data stream into new products and services, Costolo and the board have doubled down, largely out of faith that Dorsey -- who conceived of and first developed Twitter -- can be the one to lead it to glory.
Costolo, a former stand up comic and Google veteran who joined Twitter in fall 2009 and a year later supplanted Williams as chief executive, recently outlined his and Dorsey's shared vision of Twitter as "the world in your pocket." At a technorati-laden conference in Aspen, Colo., he talked of billions of tweets being delivered via computer, smart phones and even TV, with improved search features enabling users to troll the stream for information -- and enabling advertisers to reach those users in a seamless and unobtrusive way.
Costolo added that he wooed Dorsey to return in March in part to help settle internal debates over what the product should aspire to be: "It's helpful to have the inventor of the product in the room."
Dorsey has likened being ousted by Williams in 2008 to "getting punched in the stomach," but Stone and other insiders say there's no personal animosity among the founders -- just differing tactical visions for how the company should fulfill its destiny.
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