Who Runs Twitter ?

When Twitter employee Ashley Tyra first heard from a colleague that the company was planning to shutter Fleets, its disappearing-video feature, she was bummed. She loved Fleets.

But then Tyra got to work. As Twitter’s head of editorial and voice, her team was responsible for breaking the news to the rest of the world via Twitter’s Twitter account. A small group jumped in a virtual writer’s room and started brainstorming tweets in a shared Google doc.

The list grew to almost 60 ideas before it was narrowed down to three.

“I always tell the team, ‘Don’t write just to get something approved. Write a good tweet,’” Tyra said in an interview. “You never know, especially at Twitter, what will get approved.”

What got approved was a tweet that perfectly captured the internet’s ambivalent feelings toward Fleets.

“We’re removing Fleets on August 3, working on some new stuff,” the company posted from its @Twitter handle, which has almost 60 million followers. “We’re sorry or you’re welcome.”

It has been the @Twitter account’s most popular post from the past five months. “‘We’re Sorry or You’re Welcome’ Should be Twitter’s Motto,” Wired wrote. It was so popular Twitter ended up making “We’re sorry or you’re welcome” merch, like hoodies and candles, to give out to users.

“Some people loved it and some people hated it,” Tyra said of Fleets. “It was what it was.”

For most of its existence, the company used its formal Twitter accounts the way you’d expect a large, public-facing company to use its Twitter accounts. Tweets were long, and the language was formal.

Then in late 2018, the company adopted a more conversational approach. Twitter’s tweets got shorter and wittier. They were suddenly topical, and sometimes downright funny. Twitter took on a voice that was noticeably self-aware, as was the case with Fleets.

“Reply if there’s a better app,” @Twitter posted last May, but disabled the ability for users to reply. “The bar is low, 2021,” the account wrote on Jan. 1. When the calendar turned to September last year, after a tough and emotionally draining summer of protests, Covid-19 headlines and election news, @Twitter captured what many were already feeling: “Oh look another month.”

The secret is a small group of Twitter employees that are obsessively online, sharing funny and interesting tweets with one another in a shared DM thread they call the “social hive.” The team manages Twitter’s 200+ corporate accounts—@Twitter, and accounts like @TwitterGaming and @TwitterMusic. Tyra used to work with brands like HBO and Frito-Lay. Her boss, Alphonzo Terrell, joined Twitter in 2019 after marketing jobs at HBO and Showtime.

“We want to dispel the intern myth and the simplicity of all this,” Terrell said. “This is very much craft.”

The team keeps a running Google document with some 300 draft tweets awaiting deployment for when the timing feels right. Typically, that timing is dictated by the news of the day, like canceling Fleets. But often it’s about reading the room more broadly, and Twitter operates a global room. The @Twitter posts are seen by 10 million to 20 million people “on a normal day,” Terrell says. On a good day, it’s three times that many. “It’s like having a super power,” he says.

That means the company can use that super power for good, not just jokes. That was the case when @Twitter changed its bio to “#blacklivesmatter” after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020.

It was also the case in July 2020 when @Twitter took advantage of the fact that every tweet it sends is flooded with replies from people asking for an edit button. “You can have an edit button when everyone wears a mask,” @Twitter posted. The tweet got 2.7 million likes, one of its most popular ever, but not before the team shopped the tweet around internally to make sure their joke wasn’t going to cross a line.

“It’s not always what is tweeted, it’s what’s not tweeted,” Tyra says. “You don’t want to be the brand that ruins the fun.” —Kurt Wagner in San Francisco