Twitter’s Rory Capern on how to run a Canadian branch-plant

Twitter Canada’s new managing director on Twitter’s place in the media landscape now—and why Canada is the perfect test market

Twitter Canada Managing Director Rory Capern

Twitter Canada Managing Director Rory Capern. (Portrait by Daniel Ehrenworth)

Previously the head of partnerships at Google Canada, Rory Capern assumed control of Twitter’s northern operations this February. He boasts 15 years of experience in the digital sector, working for Microsoft Canada, Lavalife and other industry heavyweights. Capern joins the social media platform at a tumultuous time; it boasted 320 million users at the end of 2015, but its share price tumbled just days before his arrival on news that the platform’s growth had stagnated. Capern himself stepped into a role vacated 17 months ago by Kirstine Stewart, who left Toronto to become Twitter’s VP of Media for North America.

You previously worked at Google, which is now competing with Apple to become the world’s most valuable company. You left that success story to join Twitter, at a time when the company was facing a stagnant user base, a falling stock price and the departure of several high-profile executives. So why make the switch?

I spent a great chapter at Google. I was there for five years and I was heavily involved in working with Canadian media. Over that time, I saw the importance of Twitter on the media landscape. I was inspired by the service and the platform that Twitter offers its users. So that was one piece. The second was where Twitter is as a business right now. I’m the 37th person here at Twitter Canada. I was the 34th employee at Google in Toronto, and now there are 300 people there. So this was a great opportunity to move back into a smaller environment with a really, really solid group of people.

What specifically do you like about the Twitter platform? What makes it unique in the crowded media environment today?

I found myself turning to Twitter when I wanted to know what was happening in the world, right now. It’s this live connection to culture and events. Hundreds of millions of people follow each other on a topic of interest. I saw the significance of Twitter in the context of the Arab Spring, and the Ferguson riots and the terrorist attacks in Paris. Some of those were very negative events. But they showed the ability to disseminate the news in a very fast, open and public way that underscored the real value of Twitter.

Obviously, there’s been some public musing about changing the functionality of Twitter. For example, Tweets are no longer displayed in chronological order. How do you make these changes to attract new users while maintaining the elements that people like best about the platform?

We have a very specific and clear mission to make sure Twitter stays Twitter-y. We want to reinforce the features that offer a live, connected dynamic for our users. At the same time, we’re sitting on a gigantic amount of data about how people are using the platform. And that information leads to things like the “while you were away” feature. It was built on the insight that people were missing a whole lot when they weren’t on the platform. So now, we’ll show them a few key things they may have missed. I think you’ll continue to see us try and improve the experience while maintaining the integrity of the core mission.

As the new head of Twitter Canada, have you been given a particular mission?

My role here is really to do two things. One is to work across all the teams that exist here in the Toronto office. The other is to maintain a connection with headquarters. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in my career managing Canadian offices for large global businesses. Keeping the needs of the Canadian user and the needs of our Canadian partners high on the radar at headquarters is really important.

What’s the secret of running an outpost?

There’s something important about Canada that makes it extremely interesting to a U.S.-based or global company—we’ve got a ripe market for innovation. We’re probably never going to be larger than our American cousins, so we’ll be faster and more innovative. And the value the Canadian office brings to the company is not only a financial contribution, but also knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. We can use Canada as a test and then ship innovation to the rest of the world. It’s a very successful strategy for a number of companies in Canada. And Twitter is definitely one of them.

Is there anything unique about the Canadian market for Twitter?

Canadians are over-indexed on their engagement with social platforms in general. We punch above our weight as a nation that way. It’s just a user phenomenon. We’re seeing a gigantic spike in the amount of video consumed over mobile devices; it’s something like 75% year-over-year growth. So there’s a tremendous commercial opportunity. And Canadians are watching five more hours a month than Americans. My hypothesis is that it’s due to the cold winters.

One challenge Twitter faces is expanding its user base. How do you get, for example, my mom interested in joining Twitter?

Twitter is turning 10 on March 21st and we still haven’t answered some foundational questions about our business: What is Twitter exactly? How do we articulate that? And how do we articulate that to different types of users? We should be speaking to our hard-core users in a different way than folks who don’t know who we are. There’s also a lot of product work focused on making Twitter much more approachable for our first-time users. When you visit Twitter for the first time, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that you have to understand. What’s a hashtag? What does this @ sign mean? So we’re focused diligently on helping people understand how Twitter works and making it easier to use as a service.

How do you do that?

There are these almost existential questions one asks when first introduced to Twitter, which are: What am I interested in? Who would I like to follow? And we need to assist people in curating their interests and getting the value of the content on the platform coming to them in a very easy way. It’s not totally intuitive to somebody who hasn’t been doing it since,  in my case, 2007.

Twitter has restricted messages to 140 characters since the beginning. But as it attempts to grow, there are rumours that the limit might disappear. Doesn’t that violate the notion of making sure Twitter stays Twitter-y?

What’s particularly interesting is what we see from real user behaviour. We see people using photographs to fully articulate thoughts beyond 140 characters. The challenge with that is it’s not searchable; it’s really hard to find that stuff. So clearly, those users need more space. At the same time, we’ve had a very loud reaction from a number of very invested users against making any changes. But one of the things that has impressed me the most about Twitter is just how much the company listens. It’s very interested in creating a feedback cycle in which people feel comfortable and able to communicate what they think and feel. This is a fundamental tech problem: Do you shape the product because you’ve got a good idea of how things could be improved? Or do you let your market tell you what to do? We’re trying to find a healthy balance.

Another big conversation about Twitter right now is about preventing the abuse of users by others. How do you keep the platform open without allowing it to be dominated by trolls?

There are five corporate priorities right now and one of them is safety. There’s a member of Jack’s [Dorsey, the CEO] staff who is responsible for driving the agenda on safety. There is a policy in place that dictates what is allowed and what is not allowed on the platform. It’s what we do when folks break the rules that becomes really important. We recently introduced a Trust and Safety Council, which I thought was a very Twitter-y way to approach the problem. Let’s go and find the foremost authorities on the issue of safety. Let’s put the experts around a table and have a deep discourse around what we should be doing, and how we should be doing it, to devise a great strategy. And now, Jack has put significant engineering and product resources into the task of actually providing a safer environment. So, while I don’t know what the specific product offerings are going to be over the course of the next 12 months, this issue is not only important to our growth, but also to our users, and to humanity. Safety is a key aspect of what we need to be able to provide. And it’s core to our mission.

How so?

If we’re going to be able to maintain this live connection to culture, we need the users who are contributing content to the platform to feel safe.