Why Twitter’s Product Updates Fail: It Still Won’t Hire Black People

by Lesli-Ann Lewis on February 10th, 2016

Shortly after news spread that Twitter was looking to switch from a chronological timeline to an algorithmic one as soon as next week, #RIPTwitter began to trend worldwide. Within hours, it was the number one hashtag on the site, prompting a quick response from Twitter senior software developer Brandon Carpenter:Seriously people. We aren’t idiots. Quit speculating about how we’re going to ‘ruin Twitter’” he typed in one tweet. Later he added, apparently in shock, that people on Twitter “are mean.” 

Last month, when rumors that Twitter might eliminate its 140 character rule began to circulate, jokes about Twitter’s developers clearly not using the site were rife. As his tweets went viral, Carpenter, however unknowingly, confirmed suspicions when he sent a tweet to a follower saying: “yeah, this is the first time one of my tweets has reached directly outside my network.”

Hoping to stymy backlash, CEO Jack Dorsey made it very clear both in a series of tweets and in an interview that timeline updates would not be happening immediately. While assuring users that he’s listening, it’s also clear these changes could still, eventually, be implemented… telling us he isn’t, in fact, listening at all. Like Twitter’s moments tab, its “while you were away” bar, and exchanging of “favorite” for “like,” this is yet another feature that absolutely no one has asked for, but is somehow aimed at increasing Twitter’s now-tanking stock prices.

When Twitter initially went public, its estimated value was $20 billion. Twitter’s developers have gone on record saying they never expected Twitter to become as big as it did. Since they have taken the company public, it’s become clear that they still don’t know what it is that makes Twitter tick. Every change Twitter has proposed or rolled out has out has been met with vehement resistance and yet, the company has not changed strategy. It’s become clear to anyone watching that Twitter continues to peek over at the more-successful Facebook for hacks. But they’re ignoring a very important fact: Facebook is losing  popularity with Twitter’s most engaged users. It’s time for Twitter to start looking to its users for help.  

Currently used by 320 million people monthly, Twitter has become a cultural force largely because of the clout, reach and wit of its Black users. Black Twitter needs no introduction and certainly no more surveillance or study: what it does need is a seat at Twitter’s development meetings. With a single hashtag — #OscarsSoWhite, created by @ReignOfApril — Black Twitter has changed Oscar policy, and that’s just one of the most recent changes Black Twitter users have affected. Yet, Twitter has only 2% Black employees… less on its tech team, and 0% in its leadership. In fact, it was this lack of diversity that Leslie Miley, Twitter’s last Black engineering manager, was discussing when he left the social network, penning a scathing article upon his departure:

“Twitter’s issues with growth and engagement and the issues with internal diversity are somewhat related…” he wrote.

As an avid Twitter user, I’m arguing it absolutely is related. Is it any surprise then that a company almost entirely white in makeup, whose product is most effectively used by Black people, doesn’t know how to market or develop its product effectively?

With only five thousand followers, it’s become common for me to have tweets reach well outside my network. Like many users, I have seen my tweets being used in articles, shared on other sites, and becoming the spark of a discussion among people I have never interacted with. Many of the people that I follow have upwards of 30 thousand followers, and have far greater impact than I – and clearly greater than the people working at Twitter! But as of yet, I haven’t heard of any of them being reached out to by the site to be brought on as employees or consultants. It’s simply because a nearly all-White staff doesn’t value the input of the very people who have turned the site into a cultural force…because we are Black.

If Twitter isn’t willing to roll out an entire consulting department, it could at least look to YouTube’s Partnership program for inspiration. Recognizing its value lies with content creators, YouTube responded by creating a more dynamic platform informed by their needs. It incentivized dedicated content creators, and even brought on well-known vloggers into its new marketing campaign. But Twitter has shown itself to be… less responsive. Ignoring the tremendous amount of essays and complaints it took for Twitter to create a still sub-par reporting system, we can turn to more recent examples: When users rejected the idea of an expanded character limit, Jack Dorsey posted a too-long explanation… of why we were wrong. Carpenter’s recent tweets in response to #riptwitter didn’t just reveal his lack of product savvy, it also revealed that the patronising tone felt in earlier responses is wide-spread in Twitter’s culture.

As long as diversity isn’t taken seriously by Twitter in its hiring and developmental practices, we will continue to see a large dismissal of its most valuable asset – Black Twitter. Hiring developers who don’t know how the site is used, incorporating Facebook-like features — all while ignoring its most effective users — has already proven disastrous for Twitter. Both Brandon Carpenter and CEO, Jack Dorsey’s tweets show a mostly White and male-led team can’t respond to a user base infinitely more diverse. The cultural awareness and sensitivity simply isn’t there.

Carpenter promised to bring “our stories” to his team and Jack Dorsey tweeted emphatically they’re listening. With everyone predicting a dismal earnings report today, it’s best they begin doing far more than that.