It's not what you think

I started a “Lessons learned at Twitter” post, but I think there’s just one big one: It’s Not What You Think.

We all know Hanlon’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Here’s my preferred extension:

Never attribute to stupidity that which is adequately explained by complexity.

To work somewhere like Twitter is to face perpetual speculation. A hundred bug reports from a hundred friends; press flattery in hope of a careless divulgence; the odd phishing attempt; daft exegesis of blog posts.

And, y’know, that’s fine. A minor downside of notability, compensated by big upsides. You adapt. You shred your sketches, turn on two-factor, and lean on your Comms colleagues: the company knows speculation assumes its own trajectory, and you don’t want to fuel more nonsense.

In my three years at Twitter, I found perhaps 95% of the speculation about the company’s motives was wrong. Laughably so, at times.

These theories always assumed commercial motives: Here’s Twitter’s Masterplan To Dominate Whatever in Proxima Nova Bold 36px. Some conspiracies originated from cui-bono sources that depict Twitter’s business model as evil for the benefit of alternative business models.

When the profit interpretation didn’t fit so well, the fallback was simple incompetence. If only they’d do whatever, they’d make billions. Why does no one in that idiot company stand up for users?

The truth was sometimes mundane, sometimes highly faceted, and frequently hidden in a blindspot only known to someone who’s worked at that scale. The hair-tearingly obvious option would harm another set of users. Or it would be too expensive: a simple lookup that becomes extortionate when run 10,000,000 times. Or it would open up nasty new spam vectors. Or it would suppress emergent user behaviour the team wanted to explore. Or it had already shipped as a small experiment, just not the one the press had seized upon.

Even the few commercially-oriented decisions were greyer from the inside than out. Twitter employs a few thousand intelligent people who excel at robust, eloquent, mostly civil debate. No opinionated employee will agree with every exec-level decision – the choice is then whether to fight to the death, or acquiesce and progress. This usually isn’t a tough evaluation: no point thrashing around once wheels are turning.

We shouldn’t give large companies a free ride. It’s no secret that Twitter has some problems, and it’s right they’re in the spotlight. But let’s also recognise that it’s furiously difficult to make products of global significance, particularly in juvenile companies. The corpuscles of even the most faceless megacorp are people: people who are talented, who are listening, who agonise over their work more than you’d believe, and are desperate to do the right thing. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t.

Our readiness to assume conspiracy by default is one of the 21st century’s saddest trends: perhaps it’s time to venture good faith.

[Disclosure: I still hold a small amount of Twitter stock. I proffer no advice on whether you should invest in the company yourself.]

Cennydd Bowles