Twitter's bad news is a bad business

People who use Twitter, a service which posts short updates to the Web and cell phones, love nothing more than to Twitter about themselves, and the medium they've so enthusiastically adopted. If you go by the Twitterers' collective reporting, every event, from an earthquake in Los Angeles to terrorist bombings in Mumbai, is more notable for the fact that people are writing about it on Twitter than for its inherent interest as news. The dominant narrative of Twitter is the rise of Twitter, the latest force to displace the mainstream media and roil the world's information economy. Too bad the real story of the company is one of top-to-bottom incompetence.

'Twas always thus. Twitter was never really a company; it was a feature invented at another forgotten startup, spun off into its own venture. The programmer who came up with the idea for Twitter, Jack Dorsey, was named CEO, while Twitter's better-known backer, Ev Williams, a Webhead who struck it rich by selling Blogger to Google five years ago, dithered about how much he wanted to be involved.

Despite Williams' seeming indifference, Twitter took off — so much so that a crush of new users strained its servers, to the point that the service became famous for its technical incompetence. (The "fail whale," a cheery cetacean icon displayed when Twitter's website was unavailable, now appears on T-shirts in San Francisco and Brooklyn.)

In its business affairs, too, Twitter is proving incompetent. Most Web 2.0 startups run cheaply, but Twitter faces large bills from cell-phone companies which charge it for forwarding text messages to cell phones; the more it grows, the more it pays. And it has yet to announce publicly a way to make money.

That's not to say it doesn't have a scheme. The latest one we've heard floated: Twitter would charge companies to have verified Twitter feeds, so users would know that a message from, say, ExxonMobil really came from the oil company. (It's not as hypothetical as it sounds; a Twitter user inexplicably impersonated ExxonMobil this summer.) Verified accounts might then pay Twitter for every message they send, and also get prominent listing in a Twitter directory.

If that sounds like utter nonsense, the fever-dream imaginings of a desperate business-development executive high on whiteboard-marker fumes, that's because it is.

With no real hope of making money on its own, Twitter's best hope is a buyout. But its executives have handled that poorly, too. Dorsey botched talks with Yahoo and then Facebook; he didn't even tell his own board of directors he was talking to Facebook about a proposed $500 million acquisition. After that, he was fired as CEO and replaced by Williams, but stayed on as chairman, a nominal job which doesn't require his presence at the Twitter office. One prominent Silicon Valley investor is fuming that Dorsey is still on the payroll at all.

This Mickey Mouse operation is the future of news? That's not the most frightening prospect. Even if Twitter were competently run and profitable, the end result is an unreadable jumble. Look closely at the coverage, if you can call it that, of the Mumbai attacks on Twitter. Sitting at their desks in the U.S., most people had nothing to add except to observe that Mumbai used to be called Bombay — the kind of message that makes you wish Twitter's length limit was zero characters, not 140.

As more users join, the Twitter feed becomes filled with more and more noise; repetitive retweetings, back-scratching praise, and self-congratulation. A set of amateurs celebrating each other not for the quality or insight of their reporting, but its brevity, swiftness, and modish form of delivery. You read it here on first. Unless you heard about it on Twitter.