Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took the stage today at the TED conference. But instead of giving the standard talk, he answered questions from TED’s Chris Anderson and Whitney Pennington Rodgers.
For most of the interview, Dorsey outlined steps that Twitter has taken to combat abuse and misinformation, but Anderson explained why the company’s critics sometimes find those steps so insufficient and unsatisfying. He compared Twitter to the Titanic, and Dorsey to the captain, listening to passengers’ concerns about the iceberg up ahead — then going back to the bridge and showing “this extraordinary calm.”
“It’s democracy at stake, it’s our culture at stake,” Anderson said, echoing points made yesterday in a talk by journalist Carole Cadwalladr. So why isn’t Twitter addressing these issues with more urgency?
“We are working as quickly as we can, but quickness will not get the job done,” Dorsey replied. “It’s focus, it’s prioritization, it’s understanding the fundamentals of the network.”
He also argued that while Twitter could “do a bunch of superficial things to address the things you’re talking about,” that isn’t the real solution.
“We want the changes to last, and that means going really, really deep,” Dorsey said.
In his view, that means rethinking how Twitter incentivizes user behavior. He suggested that the service works best as an “interest-based network,” where you log in and see content relevant to your interests, no matter who posted it — rather than a network where everyone feels like they need to follow a bunch of other accounts, and then grow their follower numbers in turn.
Dorsey recalled that when the team was first building the service, it decided to make follower count “big and bold,” which naturally made people focus on it.
“Was that the right decision at the time? Probably not,” he said. “If I had to start the service again, I would not emphasize the follower count as much … I don’t think I would create ‘likes’ in the first place.”
Since he isn’t starting from scratch, Dorsey suggested that he’s trying to find ways to redesign Twitter to shift the “bias” away from accounts and toward interests.
More specifically, Rodgers asked about the frequent criticism that Twitter hasn’t found a way to consistently ban Nazis from the service.
“We have a situation right now where that term is used fairly loosely,” Dorsey said. “We just cannot take any one mention of that word accusing someone else as a factual indication of whether someone can be removed from the platform.”
He added that Twitter does remove users who are connected to hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, as well those who post hateful imagery or who are otherwise guilty of conduct that violates Twitter’s terms and conditions — terms that Dorsey said the company is rewriting to make them “human readable,” and to emphasize that fighting abuse and hateful content is the top priority.
“Our focus is on removing the burden of work from the victims,” Dorsey said.
He also pointed to efforts that Twitter has already announced to measure (and then improve) conversational health and to use machine learning to automatically detect abusive content. (The company said today that 38 percent of abusive content that Twitter takes action against is found proactively.)
And while Dorsey said he’s less interested in maximizing time spent on Twitter and more in maximizing “what people take away from it and what they want to learn from it,” Anderson suggested that Twitter may struggle with that goal since it’s a public company, with a business model based on advertising. Would Dorsey really be willing to see time spent on the service decrease, even if that means improving the conversation?
“More relevance means less time on the service, and that’s perfectly fine,” Dorsey said, adding that Twitter can still serve ads against relevant content.
In terms of how the company is currently measuring its success, Dorsey said it focuses primarily on daily active users, and secondly on “conversation chains — we want to incentivize healthy contributions back to the network.”
Getting back to Dorsey himself, Rodgers wondered whether serving as the CEO of two public companies (the other is Square) gives him enough time to solve these problems.
“My goal is to build a company that is not dependent upon me and outlives me,” he said. “The situation between the two companies and how my time is spent forces me immediately to create frameworks that are scalable, that are decentralized, that don’t require me being in every single detail … That is true of any organization that scales beyond the original founding moment.”