It’s all happening a little too fast. “We’ve certainly resonated with a lot of people,” says Dorsey. “But does that mean that we’ve arrived and can never go down? Absolutely not.”
“All right, I’m ready to Tweet!”
It’s the president of the United States, clapping his hands and walking down a hallway in the White House. A group of Twitter staffers receive him in the green room outside the West Wing, where he’s about to star in the first-ever Twitter Town Hall. He will answer questions from people who tweet. They give Obama a T-shirt; he thanks them and marches out to a podium with a laptop on it, a wan George Washington looking on from an oil portrait behind him.
“I’m going to make history here as the first president to live tweet,” Obama pronounces. He straightens up and types while a bank of cameras clicks. Obama hits return, and the presidential tweet, in which he asks for suggestions on how to reduce the deficit, is posted. When it appears on a screen behind him, Obama looks, smiles, and says, “How about that?” And so it is: The leader of the free world in an infomercial for a San Francisco technology company. As pure theater, it feels like an exhibit from the 1939 World’s Fair.THE TALKING MACHINE OF TOMORROW! As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post tweeted that day, “Our next question comes from @twitter: ‘Isn’t Twitter awesome? Is this your favorite Townhall ever?’ ”
This event was the apex of a campaign that began the year before, when Twitter hired Adam Sharp, a former aide to Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, to promote Twitter among the political class, helping to “authenticate” the Twitter feeds of government officials against impostors and parodies, giving them a blue “check” next to their Twitter handle, and “onboarding” as many new officials as possible. The wooing of the president began with a series of Twitter Q&A’s with Robert Gibbs, the former White House press spokesman, after which Sharp began negotiations.
When it first exploded in the popular culture, Twitter was used by celebrities and sports figures like Ashton Kutcher and Shaquille O’Neal, as well as the early adopters and techno-utopians who gave it a kind of world-changing halo. And quickly, Twitter did seem to help change the world, first in Iran and then in the chain of rebellions of the Arab Spring. Just how significant Twitter’s role was in catalyzing these events is still the subject of heated debate. But it certainly helped to catalyze the media’s coverage while simultaneously providing an irresistible metastory: American technology is changing the world for the better.
And just as Google capitalized on its “Don’t be evil” slogan, advancing human freedom became part of Twitter’s business model. The company and its founders were lauded on the covers of Time and BusinessWeek and celebrated by the U.S. government as merchants of goodwill. In 2009, Dorsey was invited on a State Department–sponsored tour of Baghdad, part of a delegation of high-tech executives. An early investor, venture capitalist and former Google executive Chris Sacca, held court at an exclusive New Age retreat in California last summer to talk about “The Yoga of Twitter.” “We decided we needed to be an affirmative force for good,” he explained. “Our fifteenth hire was a corporate-social-responsibility person. In fact, as an investor, it used to drive me crazy. We’ve got stuff to build! We’re too busy helping people!”
But at the core of all this world-historic buzz, there was an emptiness. Early this year, reports began surfacing that Twitter’s growth was flatlining. Twitter now says it has 100 million “active” users, though only half are people who log in to see their timeline with any regularity.
To attract and hold the audience, and to attract the talent, Twitter needs the media as its accomplice. In 2008, Twitter hired Chloe Sladden, a former executive at Al Gore’s TV network, Current, to work with news agencies and cable networks. An attractive and animated speed-talker with bright, flashing eyes, Sladden was tasked with convincing old media that Twitter was the handmaiden to their future.
“We’re in this together,” she recounts telling reporters in New York newsrooms, offering herself as “psychological support” to the new-media people who needed hand-holding or faced skeptical management. On Election Night in 2008, Sladden says, she acted as a standby consultant to the New York Times and CNN. “We spent from 8 to 11 with the Times and then CNN from 11 to 3 a.m.,” she recounts. “We tried very hard to be with our partners when it mattered most.”
She also acted as talent scout. After meeting the Times media columnist David Carr at the Austin technology conference South by Southwest, Sladden gave him a spot on the company’s sign-up page among its suggested users, pumping his follower numbers up into the hundreds of thousands. Carr, playing to his enormous audience, tweeted obsessively, day and night, about everything from his vacations to his dinner, and he wrote about Twitter in his column too, opining on its “practical magic.”