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Living in the moment

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo's decision to quit comes as a surprise but his belief in the platform remains.


TWITTER CEO Dick Costolo, who made a surprising announcement on Thursday that he would step down on July 1, 2015, likes to think of the company that he had been leading since 2010 as being the cyber equivalent of the Greek Agora or town square. Tweets posted by millions of users on the site have a level of spontaneity similar to the interactions at an ancient Agora where people used to gather to exchange news, gossip and generally learn about what was happening in the world.

"I think the Greek Agora comparison is a beautiful metaphor (because) Twitter is the best way to connect to your world," says Mr Costolo.

The spontaneity of a tweet - a tweet is defined as a short burst of random information - and the creativity that the 140-character limit imposes on users is something that appeals to the former consultant and theatre comedian because he thinks brevity results in creativity and wit.

Once the news spread the he was leaving, the town square metaphor played out on the Twitter site in a way that must have pleased Mr Costolo. Twitter employees and other well-wishers, using the hashtag #ThankYouDickC, started to tweet in an outpouring of spontaneous affection. There was a dash of humour as well.

One employee tweeted: "Thank you, @dickc, for steering our ship, for leading us with humour and humility. I've loved being on this journey with you. #ThankYouDickC." Another tweet had a bit of poetry in it: "May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. #ThankYouDickC."

In his statement announcing his decision, Mr Costolo says: "I am tremendously proud of the Twitter team and all that the team has accomplished together during my six years with the company."

Despite having a serious-looking demeanour, comedy is something close to Mr Costolo's heart and he uses it to get close to people. This may explain why, despite being disliked by Wall Street, he remains a well-liked leader among Twitter employees.

He once even considered becoming a full-time comedian. After getting his computer science degree in the mid-1980s, Mr Costolo turned down several tech jobs to join Chicago's Second City improvisational troupe. There he did what is known as improvisational comedy or "improv", which is a form of live theatre in which the plot, characters and dialogue are made up in the moment.

He even ended up having his own TV show. More on that later.

Mr Costolo likes to think of Twitter as being the very best way to connect to your world. The four characteristics that underline the platform is that it's public, it's real time, it's conversational and it's widely distributed, he says. "The things Twitter is doing to innovate on the platform are still about holding these four characteristics true because we think that's the very best way to connect to your world in new and innovative ways," he notes.

Changing media landscape

A good example of this, says Mr Costolo, is native mobile video - that is, video that is primarily produced for consumption on mobile devices. "This is vitally important to our future. I think the native mobile video landscape is going to emerge and change the media landscape quickly, dramatically and globally," he adds.

"It's already the case that many of the online video stars are creators who started on Vine, Snapchat and other online video creation platforms. We recently made an acquisition in this space of a company called Periscope which is a live video-streaming app.

"This allows you to literally do live broadcasting to your followers. You pick up your phone, launch the app and you start broadcasting your live video stream to all your Twitter followers with full audio and there is no lag on it ... and your followers can interact by sending text messages like: 'Hey, point the picture back to Dickson and ask him a question'."

However, the service has landed Twitter in the middle of some controversy with accusations of abetting piracy. This happened during the recent boxing title fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Periscope users streamed the pay-per-view broadcast of the match to those who didn't want to pay. This understandably angered broadcasters like HBO and hence emerged the allegation that Twitter was abetting piracy.

Despite this controversy, Mr Costolo feels the implications of streaming video for advertising are huge. "Video advertising on mobile is new but we think it's going to be massive. There are other companies in the market that already are making a success of it. We also have the notion of promoted tweets that work so well on 140 characters and we are planning to migrate that to promoted tweets in some of these video assets."

He adds that Vine is a very good asset for Twitter. Some of the Vine videos have 10s and 100s of million loops in a video that's only six seconds long. "The content creator community on Vine that has emerged so quickly is exactly what I mean about these native mobile online video talent and stars who are going to see mobile as their primary way of communicating. They started there, they have been successful, and they are going to be some of the next great stars."

Twitter reported a revenue of US$436 million in the first quarter of 2015 which ended on March 31. This was up 74 per cent year-over-year but slightly below the previously forecast range of US$440 million to US$450 million. First-quarter net loss, on GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) basis, was US$162 million. The company's advertising revenue totalled US$388 million during the quarter, up 72 per cent year-over-year.

Mr Costolo says Twitter is the fastest-growing of digital advertising businesses with more than one billion dollars in annual revenue. He, however, tells his team that revenue is like oxygen - it's necessary for life but it's not the purpose of life. "The purpose of what we are doing is to try and connect every person on the planet to their world. We believe the world will be a better place when everybody is on Twitter."

Unfortunately for Mr Costolo, this approach has not been liked by Wall Street and shareholder confidence has waned considerably. So much so that, five minutes after he announced his decision to leave, the stock price rose nearly US$4.

One has to agree with Mr Costolo on the potential for social good that Twitter has. If everybody is on Twitter and an emergency ensues, users can find out immediately what is happening and lives can be saved, he says.

"We've seen that people rally around causes to support each other through Twitter. We saw that in Paris in the immediate aftermath of Charlie Hebdo ... somebody tweeted a picture that just said Je Suis Charlie and a couple of days later it was a movement, a swelling march through the streets of Paris, all because of this image posted to Twitter initially. So I do think that this is the most important thing in front of the company and if we execute it well the business will follow."

Mr Costolo feels the company's biggest competitive advantage is that the platform is public, real time and conversational with back-and-forth interactions. "It's the only social media platform which is all three. So when you got a thought that you want to share on something that's happening in your world you naturally default to that."

Every year Oscars night sees a record number of tweets, with a record amount of distribution of those tweets both on Twitter and other mobile platforms.

"We have relationships with a number of the TV rating agencies like Neilsen in the US and Cantor in the UK. The advertising industry and the broadcasters themselves can understand not just what their broadcast ratings are but also what their engagement levels are on Twitter.

"What this does for us is it helps advertisers understand the importance of the platform around the show (in this case the Oscars). And directly it's more of a value for us because it helps marketers understand how to surround what they are doing on TV with Twitter."

Ebb and flow

Mr Costolo feels that the pace of change across the mobile technology landscape will not slow down any time soon; it will, in fact, increase. He notes: "What will happen is high bandwidth, on more beautiful devices, will become ubiquitous. As a result, everyone can be live broadcasting every moment of their lives."

He adds : "For us the challenge is how do we create applications and tools for people that allow them to manage and make informed decisions about how much of their lives they want to share and do so permanently online."

Like a tide, there will be an ebb and flow and it will take a little while before society decides what is ethical and so forth, he says. "When you lay this onto all those country-specific rules it really gets complicated and it's going to get more complicated."

Mr Costolo, however, observes that when one thinks about this in the context of some of the major global events, whether it's a natural disaster like the tsunami and earthquake in Fukushima, Japan or the protests in Tunisia or the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, the world will continue to grapple with the right way to leverage these digital platforms in the wake of unexpected events.

"During the Haiti earthquake, because of the deals we did with mobile operators, people with even inexpensive pre-paid feature phones were able to use Twitter to communicate where they were, whether they were in trouble and whether they needed any help."

Even though today's smartphones are powerful devices with rich media consumption and production capabilities, Mr Costolo readily acknowledges that the vast majority of Twitter users - 77 per cent of whom reside outside the US - use less-powerful feature phones. And Twitter needs to factor this into its global expansion.

Even as Twitter becomes a platform that users depend on for news and other important information, Mr Costolo does not think the 140-character limit of a tweet is a constraint.

"I think it breeds creativity and enforces discipline. I spoke to any number of comedians and most of them tell me that they write a tweet which is more than 140 characters and then when they edit it down to the character limit they think it reads a lot better. The history of poetry is that constraint breeds beautiful creativity and I think we are seeing that with Twitter."

It's to be noted that Twitter also announced, on Thursday, that it will remove the 140-character limit on direct messages sent by one user to another. This measure will come into effect from July 2015. The 140-character limit stays on tweets.

Mr Costolo's love for improvisational comedy started in his senior year at university. "I was getting my computer science degree from the University of Michigan and at that point of time the computer science department was in the Literature, Science and Arts School - it was in the early 1980s and it wasn't split out to the engineering school yet. We had to have a certain number of Arts credits. I decided that I would take a couple of acting classes as those would be easy and that would allow me to focus on my pure science work; I had a particularly hard operating systems class."

He ended up enjoying the acting classes so much that he started to do stand-up comedy at the students union on Wednesdays and Thursdays when they had open microphone nights. "I decided in my second semester senior year that I really wanted to see if I could be successful doing that," he reveals. "I remember telling my parents that I am not going to take any of my programming jobs and instead I'll be going to Chicago and try to get into a big improvisational comedy group there. I did that and ended up performing with a number of groups in Chicago and then internationally and I even had a TV show on the UK's Sky TV for a very short period of time - one season."

Mr Costolo did comedy for around four years. "I was poor and didn't have any money. I had these small jobs in order to make ends meet while I was trying to perform. I remember going to a restaurant one day and the guy in front of me ordered a soup-and-sandwich combination. And I remember vividly thinking: 'Wow, I wish I could afford both of those.' I had to choose either soup or sandwich and I did that."

He finally decided to put his degree to work and got a job in Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and worked there for a number of years till the Internet really start to take off. "At the end of 1993 when I jumped in, I knew almost immediately that I had to go, I had to leave and start my own (Internet) company."

Mr Costolo ended up starting a number of companies and selling them - the last one, FeedBurner, to Google where he worked for a number of years. He eventually left and was contemplating starting yet another company when the founders of Twitter asked him to come onboard, first as chief operating officer and then take over as CEO.

Full of ideas

Under his watch Twitter has gone great guns, including completing a successful initial public offering. When The Business Times spoke to him Mr Costolo was full of ideas on where he wanted to take the company. His rather abrupt departure is a surprise but he did give a hint of how he lives his life.

"I remember when I was in college and was interviewing for a part-time job, someone asked me where I saw myself in five years. I didn't have a good answer and so I went home with a thought: 'I wonder what the answer to that should be?'

"I finally decided that the reason I did not have a good answer was because that's not the way I live my life. I very much live my life in the way that improvisers teach you to do live performance on stage.

"Don't be planning ahead what you want to do next and don't think too much on what just happened. Just be in this moment; the only way this scene is going to be successful is to be in this moment and be right here, right now ... I very much live my life that way and I never think about where I want to be in two years' time. I just don't live that way... I live my life based on what I'm doing right now and engaging right now."

READ MORE: 45Twitter CEO to step down on July 1


Chief Executive Officer, Twitter

1963 Born in Royal Oak, Michigan, USA

1985 Graduated from University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer and Communication Sciences


Improvisational Theatre

Andersen Consulting (various roles)

Co-founder, Burning Door

Networked Media

Digital Knowledge Assets

Co-founder and CEO, Spyonit (sold to 724 Solutions in September 2000)

Co-founder and CEO, FeedBurner (acquired by Google in 2007)

Group Product Manager, Ads, Google

2009 Chief Operating Officer of Twitter

September 2010 - June 30, 2015 Chief Executive Officer of Twitter