Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey talks candidly about profitability, balancing the leadership of two companies, the infamous edit button debate, a paid subscription model and why trolls will never win.
There was a sweet moment at Twitter’s international headquarters in Dublin where teenage entrepreneur and founder of the Digital Youth Council, Harry McCann – skipping out on school during his pivotal Leaving Cert year to meet his all-time tech hero – asked CEO Jack Dorsey to follow him on Twitter (@TheHarryMcC).
‘I think Twitter is a company that will endure forever. It will last because it is fundamental’
– JACK DORSEY
@Jack, as he is known on Twitter, did exactly that. Sitting among a coterie of some of Ireland’s most prolific Twitter users, Dorsey was regaled with stories of how the social media platform had changed and influenced people’s lives. The tales ran the gamut of issues from disability to creativity, isolation, diabetes, social issues and politics. But all had the same theme: Twitter bringing people together.
RTÉ 2FM DJ Rick O’Shea (@rickoshea) hit the nail on the head when he pointed to Sinéad Burke (@minniemelange) and explained how they have known each other a long time through Twitter, even though they only met in person for the first time in recent weeks.
Casually dressed in a black t-shirt, black jeans and chequered trainers, Dorsey listened carefully to each story, barely blinking and occasionally murmuring, “That’s awesome”. He seemed to be in a contemplative mood. Very centred.
The hatching of Twitter
As I drove to the meeting with Dorsey – appropriately enough greeted in the morning gloom by the chorus of birdsong – I realised that the backstory to Twitter is often as confusing as the blizzard of tweets that flit about every microsecond on the platform.
‘Profitability is a choice, right? It is a choice between investment in growth and driving profit. We believe there is a massive opportunity to grow and invest in the business’
– JACK DORSEY
One story will tell you that Twitter’s origins belong in a brainstorming session held by a young member of a San Francisco podcasting company called Odeo, where Twitter was founded in 2006 by Dorsey along with Evan Williams, Noah Glass and Biz Stone. Another story goes that Dorsey had the idea while chatting with Stone, sitting on swings in a playground in San Francisco’s South Park. An alternative tale states that around 2000, when Dorsey was living in Oakland working on his first start-up focused on dispatch routing for taxis, he sketched out the idea for Twitter.
Whatever the backstory is, it is mired in a seemingly never-ending succession of swing-and-roundabout hiring, firing and departures of CEOs that include Dorsey, Evan Williams, Dick Costolo, and now Dorsey again.
Whatever way you look at it, Twitter exists in a social media world dominated by contemporaries such as Facebook and newcomers such as Snap. And yet, no matter how many predictions of Twitter’s demise are made, it endures with its 320m loyal users.
It has a hold on the popular imagination, culture and zeitgeist that is set in concrete. The moment something tragic happens or someone famous dies, it is reported first on Twitter. It is also the scene of salacious bun fights, bluster and witty barbs that ensconce everyone from US president Donald Trump to author JK Rowling.
The company established its Dublin offices in 2011 and now employs more than 300 people in the city.
Twitter recently reported a loss of $167m for the last three months of 2016, compared with $90m a year earlier. However, revenue from ads were pretty steady at $638m, adding to the debate about profitability.
In person, Dorsey was candid about the company’s future.
“I think Twitter is a company that will endure forever. It will last because it is fundamental. We make the time and take the time necessary for the people using the product and also our advertisers, and the revenue follows.”
He said that for the time being, he is satisfied to continue as CEO of both Twitter and Square. The key, he explains, is focus.
“There’s always a number of distractions that could take you away from the work, but we are really focused on doing the right thing; and that is making sure we are building something that people want to use every single day, and that they value every single day. We have proven that with the numbers.
“Profitability is a choice, right? It is a choice between investment and driving profit. We believe there is a massive opportunity to grow and invest in the business. In terms of running the two companies, for me it is not a matter of time, it is a matter of focus, and making sure we have a good understanding of what matters most and how you prioritise it.
“You only have so many hours in the day and you could try and extend the number of hours you spend on various things, or you could just make sure that you spend an hour on the most meaningful thing, and every hour matters.
“If you are holding a really high bar to what you work on, that is a huge constraint on what you do and what you focus on, and it just naturally removes all of the distractions and all the things that aren’t meaningful towards the goal.
“Both companies have a really strong sense of what is important, what matters and what we need to work on.”
Machine learning works a tweet
On a technological level, Dorsey said the major changes to Twitter aren’t on the surface – they are under the hood. The biggest shift in 11 years has been the introduction of machine learning to the timeline.
‘Machine learning is a start, and the more we can bring that into the timeline so people can discover things faster, the more valuable it is’
– JACK DORSEY
“First and foremost, it is about where people spend the majority of their time, which is the timeline.
“For the first time ever, we applied machine learning to it and that is where the majority of growth is coming from.”
As a result, he said, people are seeing and acting on more tweets that are relevant to them, rather than being confused by a wall of sound.
“By adding more relevance to the timeline, we are saving more time for people; we are showing them tweets that they otherwise would have had to dig through and find by scrolling and scrolling. We are showing them immediately. Because they are seeing those tweets, they are tweeting more, they are retweeting more and they are replying more and they are just engaging more, and that is more valuable.
“So, it doesn’t look like we changed a lot. But we have changed everything by just changing that one feature, and that is a feature that had been the same for 11 years. So it was a big fundamental change by applying machine learning to the problem.”
The ‘Live’ element to Twitter is what really matters, said Dorsey.
“People with their phones [are] sitting in front of the TV, or on a bus, or at an event and tweeting about it. What we want to do there is bring the game to where the folks are, meet them on the bus, meet them at home, meet them at work, so they can actually watch wherever they are and see the conversation on their phone and connect to people that are interesting to them.
“Machine learning is a start, and the more we can bring that into the timeline so people can discover things faster, the more valuable it is.”
Turning to the debate about whether or not Twitter will add an edit button so people can clean up previous tweets, Dorsey said it is a divisive subject. Some want it, some don’t.
“I’ve just got a bunch of people telling me not to do it. We are always looking at what people want and what people see as Twitter’s future and listening to it.
“We have to make sure we are taking all the input and we’re making the right decisions, because people are paying us with their time and their attention and their money to make decisions.
“With edit, the biggest seed of it is people want to be able to correct spelling mistakes, so they kind of want a small window to correct those mistakes. But even with that, there is another person who says, ‘No, just tweet again that you made a mistake’.
“Everyone has a different opinion on it, and we are just weighing everything and understanding what matters most.”
A perfect perch to view history as it happens in real time
I ask Dorsey where Twitter sees its place in the world culturally and in history and, ultimately, whether it sees itself as a tech company or a media company.
‘If there is one word to represent Twitter, it is the word “open”. If it’s two words, “open” and “ fast”. That’s what I think sets us apart from everything else’
– JACK DORSEY
“You know, it’s interesting. We always try to go towards patterns of what this looks like. Amazon has the same distinction; is it a technology company or is it a book retailer, what is it? I don’t know. It is so many things. But crucially, it is something new, and I think Twitter is something new.
“I think what is new about Twitter is that I don’t know of a faster place … where you can see what is happening in the world. I don’t know of a more open place that you can join in any conversation and see any conversation live in real time. So, what we are focused on is making sure that you see what is going on faster than any other service. And, as we get better and better, Twitter should be the place where you hear about people first. We have that power and that understanding of the world.
“You should expect more of that speed, that real-time nature. But to complement that, just like in the conversation that you heard this morning, there’s a real sense of community on the platform … being able to find a topic you care about such as diabetes, and join a community that is supportive, informational and one you learn from. All of that is important.”
The key is to understanding Twitter, he said, is openness.
“If there is one word to represent Twitter, it is the word ‘open’. If [there are] two words, ‘open’ and ‘fast’. That’s what I think sets us apart from everything else.”
Jack, the troll-slayer
‘With all the bad comes the good, and there is a lot of caring and a lot of empathy’
– JACK DORSEY
In recent months, Twitter has rolled out new features to empower users to defend themselves from harassment, including permanently banning trolls from reappearing.
“We are happier. I think this is going to be a continuation. We are never going to be done, because people are going to find new ways of harassing people, as they do in the real world.
“We took a very different approach at the beginning of the year. We made it the company’s first priority. By that, we said: ‘Drop whatever else you are doing and make sure it is fixed’.
“Fixed to us means that we feel a sea change in the experience. What that meant was that we needed to ship something every single day. We needed an update every single day from the team. And the team really rose to the challenge and, in the past three months, we’ve just made a ton of meaningful progress. This includes a bunch of things that people have asked for and a bunch of things people didn’t ask for, but that took a lot of the work away [from the user].
“Again, we’ve gotten better and better at applying machine learning to our experiences and problems.
“In the past nine years, we were pretty mechanical across the board – especially around abuse. What I mean by that is, we put the burden on the victim, made them do a bunch of work to get rid of the harassment, which just isn’t fair. Now we are using technology to take some of the burden away, and now we are recognising more and more of the harassing conduct faster and hiding it. It is still accessible, but [we are] hiding it before a victim would have to see it.
“We believe if you want to see it, you should have access to it. We found that for a lot of the trolls, Twitter is kind of boring now because it’s harder for them, it’s not fun for them anymore. That’s what we wanted. We were unfairly amplifying, just by the very nature of our service, harassing voices. We recognise that. We hope that we have done the right thing, both with the product and the technologies, and also just better reporting tools for individuals. But there is still a lot more work to be done. We are not done.”
Tweet about the passion
“We haven’t ruled out anything. We want to keep an open mind and always learn. I think looking at subscriptions is interesting; I think there is some value there, especially for journalists and providing a more economic incentive. It’s just a germ of an idea, nothing serious yet, but we should always have an open mind to complement our advertising business.
“Our advertising business is amazing, it is one of the biggest at scale out there and we are really proud of it. But anything we do, we want to make sure that it complements it and that we are adding more value to our customers.”
Any changes that Twitter makes to its platform are likely to spark a furious debate among its most trenchant users, and Dorsey defends this feedback loop.
“There’s a balance. I always look for the upside and find optimism in critique. A lot of the critique of what’s wrong with Twitter actually comes through the Twitter community. People want us to do the right thing and actually fix it.
“What is underlying all of it is that people want to see us stay around and not disappear.
“There is always a lot of passion.”
Dorsey recalled the first year of Twitter, where the service was constantly crashing, bringing up the infamous Fail Whale.
“One time when we crashed, someone sent pizzas to the office at 9pm and they said: ‘I really hate that you are down, here’s pizza to keep you through the night to fix it’.
“With all the bad comes the good, and there is a lot of caring and a lot of empathy. People just want to react. Sometimes it can be seen as negative, but I see the positive in it. It’s caring, and desire for us to stay around and endure.”