The world knows a lot about Twitter’s outgoing CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey. He’s a crypto-enthusiast; the co-founder and CEO of mobile payments platform Square; a fan of intermittent fasting, meditation, and free speech—so much so, when it comes to that last value, that critics have frequently argued over the years that he’s been negligent in addressing harassment, hate speech, and misinformation on the social media platform.
Far less is known about the personality and priorities of Twitter’s newly announced CEO, Parag Agrawal. The company’s chief technology officer since 2017, Agrawal is best known for overseeing the ongoing development of Twitter’s decentralized Bluesky platform. He’s also served in the company’s rank and file, having joined Twitter as a software engineer back in 2011, after stints in research at AT&T, Microsoft, and Yahoo. The 37-year-old Agrawal got his bachelor’s in computer science and engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and his PhD in computer science at Stanford University.
While it’s tough to predict what Agrawal will be like as Twitter’s top executive, it’s easy to see the challenges he’ll face as he assumes responsibility for one of the world’s largest social-media platforms, with more than 5,500 employees and a market cap of $36.6 billion on the day of his promotion to CEO.
Dorsey has a famously hands-off approach to management at both Twitter and Square, but he still occupies an important symbolic role at Twitter as the company’s co-founder. When activist investor Elliott Management attempted to oust Dorsey in the early months of 2020, claiming that the CEO’s attention was divided between the two companies, a good number of employees expressed their support for the leader, sharing the hashtag #WeBackJack. (Dorsey ultimately kept his role as CEO, though the agreement that allowed him to do so included the creation of a committee of board members charged with evaluating the company’s leadership structure.)
Dorsey wrote in an email to Twitter staff that he is now leaving the company to ensure it “can break away from its founding and founders.” Now Agrawal will have the difficult task of proving to employees that he has the vision to take Twitter into its next stage.
That may not be easy. News of Dorsey’s departure reportedly sent shockwaves through Twitter’s staff, and a poll on the anonymous app Blind found that three-quarters of roughly 150 Twitter employees had their doubts about Agrawal.
On the other hand, if Agrawal can gain the confidence of Twitter employees, he may act as a stabilizing force at a company that’s been through its share of leadership tumult. Dorsey had been fired from the company in 2008, “in part for leaving work early to go to yoga classes,” per the Wall Street Journal, before returning in 2015.
Twitter exerts an outsize influence thanks to the high-profile politicians, celebrities, and members of the media who use the platform to share their unfiltered thoughts with the public. But it has a much smaller user base than competitors like Facebook, with 211 million daily active users compared to Facebook’s 1.9 billion. Following the Elliott Management deal in 2020, Twitter announced the ambitious new targets of growing its user base by 20% annually through 2023 and doubling its yearly revenue to $7.5 billion.
Now the company is betting on new products and features to entice new users and get others more engaged. Dorsey said earlier this year that he wanted to “double the number of features per employee that directly drive” growth in users or revenue. To that end, the company has been rolling out features this year that give users greater control over their privacy, and introduced a new paid product, Twitter Blue, that gives people the ability to customize the app to their liking, as well as the highly desirable power to undo a Tweet. (The feature allows users to delay publishing a tweet for a few moments, giving them time to claw it back rather than publishing and then hastily deleting it.)
This represents a notable pickup in pace for Twitter, which historically has been slow to roll out new products. It will be up to Agrawal to keep building on that momentum.
Under Dorsey, Twitter frequently came under criticism for misinformation and hate speech that has flourished on the platform. The company introduced new features in recent months aimed at helping to curb at least some of those issues. Automated pop-ups now nudge users to first read stories before sharing links to them, while warning labels alert users to tweets containing misinformation about elections or covid-19, and in August, the company began testing a feature that allows users to report misinformation.
Speaking with MIT Technology Review last year in his capacity as CTO, Agrawal said that Twitter’s responsibility did not lie in trying to distinguish between truth and falsehoods, and that removing content shouldn’t be a first resort. “It’s an increasingly nuanced approach with a range of interventions, where we think about whether or not certain content should be amplified without context,” he said.
But Agrawal also has acknowledged that relying on automation to flag misinformation means the company can be slow to react to the spread of fake news. “It takes us a while to develop a process to scale, to have automation to enforce the policy,” he said at a VentureBeat conference in July 2020. “I’m not proud that we missed a large amount of misinformation even where we have a policy because we haven’t been able to build these automated systems.”