Signal gets a new CEO

How will Brian Acton lead? PLUS: The genius of Marlinspike's Web3 critique

Signal gets a new CEO
(Pavlo Gonchar / Getty Images)

Today, let’s talk about where Signal goes from here.


It was a big weekend for the encrypted messaging app. On Thursday, I wrote about the company’s push into untraceable payments, and fears that the move would risk a strong backlash against end-to-end encryption from regulators. On Friday, Signal CEO Moxie Marlinspike published an ingenious, viral blog post about Web3 and the failure of its evangelists to deliver on their promises of decentralization.

Then, on Monday, Marlinspike quit Signal after nearly 10 years. Here he is on the company’s blog:

After a decade or more, it’s difficult to overstate how important Signal is to me, but I now feel very comfortable replacing myself as CEO based on the team we have, and also believe that it is an important step for expanding on Signal’s success. I’ve been talking with candidates over the last few months, but want to open up the search with this announcement in order to help find the best person for the next decade of Signal. […]

I will continue to remain on the Signal board, committed to helping manifest Signal’s mission from that role, and I will be transitioning out as CEO over the next month in order to focus on the candidate search. Brian Acton, who is also on the Signal Foundation board, has volunteered to serve as interim CEO during the search period

On one hand, the events of the past several days do not appear to be closely related. A year ago, when I first reported on internal concerns about Signal’s embrace of social discovery mechanics and cryptocurrency payments, some employees told me they assumed Marlinspike would not hold the CEO role much longer. He spent more time in that role than in any other of his peripatetic career, which (as the New Yorker noted in a 2020 profile) had also included stints as a shipwright, mariner, and anti-capitalist activist. In one self-made video quoted in the piece, Marlinspike notes: “My greatest fear is routine.”

On the other hand, Marlinspike is not the only founder in recent months to step away from his creation after the joy of making things was gradually supplanted by difficult, tedious questions of business and policy. Jack Dorsey at Twitter; Jeff Bezos at Amazon; Mark Zuckerberg rebooting Facebook as “a metaverse company”; a new generation of Web3 founders reinventing wheels on the blockchain: the impulse to rip it up and start again is running rampant in Silicon Valley, and after two years trapped mostly inside it’s hard to begrudge anyone who wants to try.

Just because the founders have had enough, though, doesn’t mean that all those nettlesome questions can be set aside. In Signal’s case, the primary needs are twofold: one, to grow the number of people who donate to support the app’s development and make the project self-sustaining; and two, to stave off any regulatory challenges that emerge from the company’s controversial decision to combine encrypted conversations with untraceable payments.