Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey doesn’t have all the answers. For one, he’s not sure whether you should delete your old tweets. He’s deleted some himself — but only for copyright violations or clarity. In a wide-ranging interview with BuzzFeed News, Dorsey discussed Twitter’s unique and precarious role as a driver of political and cultural conversation. He spoke openly about his recent effort to court conservatives, despite deep criticism from the left. Dorsey also opened up about Twitter’s early errors, including its founders’ lack of diversity and whether a truly unbiased Twitter can ever exist.
On the recent trend of dredging up old tweets to score political points, and whether people should delete their tweets:
I need to think a lot more about this. I haven’t given it as much thought as it deserves. But I do want to live in a world where people can tweet something and that it persists because it’s important to see how we evolve and grow, but it is not taken as this is who this person is. That people have the freedom to clarify and that people have the freedom to grow, to improve, and you can actually see marked improvement because of the tweets of the past.
So I would not want to necessarily move to a world where everything we say is completely ephemeral, because I think the public record allows the world to understand decisions made in the past and mistakes from those decisions, or benefits from those decisions. Taking that archive away feels like it misses an opportunity to learn, but I do recognize the fact that like people are utilizing the past in order to change action in the present and I don’t know how to build more of a world or a product right now that allows more of a clarification that more of a learning mindset that people can take on.
On deleting his old tweets:
I have not. Well, unless I was told to. I tweeted once and got a copyright violation from Disney.
On whether Twitter makes politics and discourse toxic:
I think it could. And that’s where we need to look at more of the incentives. If we are to focus on conversations, then we need to make sure that’s extremely fast and fluid. A good example of this is the move from 140 characters to 280, we haven’t seen the overall organic tweet length change in regards to that move, but where I think 280 is really important is it allows for a lot more nuanced conversation in replies. People being able to reply with more characters has allowed for a lot more nuance in the discussion and a lot more room to actually think and construct a thought and articulate it.
It’s not an end point by any means, but there are things, like, that we can do to get to a much more, a discussion with a lot more contours and nuances that the product doesn’t allow for it today. I would look deeper at the incentives that we’re providing people. Like right now our incentives are mainly around posting and then comments on that versus what we think our superpower really is, which is conversation.
The product does not incentivize a conversational nature. You have to work in order for that to flow and I don’t think we can hit a goal of very rich empowering political discussion or any discussion unless we really start questioning and making moves on that.
On whether an unbiased Twitter can exist:
I think an impartial product, impartial policy, and impartial enforcement can exist. Impartial meaning that we’re not going to inject our particular bias, impartial meaning that we’re not going to do improper actions to favor one person over another and I think it can exist with the right amount of transparency, but it’ll never be perfect, right. So the only antidote I’m aware of is shining more light on it.
On what he’s currently trying to fix:
There is more than one Twitter...but our product today doesn’t allow you to see that. It’s not built to do that. Like, our product is not built around following topics and interests. It should be and that’s what we’re going to do, but it’s not today. I mean you are at the will of an account that might have multiple interests, but it’s just confirming one thing constantly or dragging you into something that might not be representative of the broader whole or your broader interest. So we’ve only given to people very coarse-grained tools with which to manage their experience. Following accounts being the number one and we need to break that.
On whether there’s a line President Trump can cross that might get him banned from Twitter:
Dorsey: I think a line to draw potentially is around private citizens. I do believe private citizens versus public figures deserve more of our protection, but it has to be done in the context of how we’re actually seeing our global leaders and we do believe it’s important that people see and can communicate around how they act, and how they think, and how they treat others.
[Twitter’s Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead Vijaya Gadde adds clarification.]
Gadde: Yeah. So I guess I think that’s right. I think that if you asked me very directly, like, “is everything the president says, part of public interest?” I would say no, but if you asked me what’s not, I think that it’s going to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis using the criteria we set forth. I agree that it is subjective and nuanced and I would like to build more framework around that so we have a more consistent way to enforce going forward.
On Twitter’s early mistakes that led to harassment:
We built something that was extremely open and as we looked to how people were using it, like using an @ symbol before names to reference each other, which the underlying intention there was to have a conversation, to reply to people. We made that a little bit easier and then that created a whole new vector for anyone to get in, anyone in the world to address you.
We should have absolutely made @-ing people and conversations easier and more accessible to everyone, but I don’t know if we necessarily considered as much as we should have the negative approaches or the harassing approaches that that enables. Another example of this is trends, we found a small company that was looking at our API, doing sentiment analysis, looking for trends. We bought the company without [inaudible] amazing. It shows us what people are thinking. We didn’t at that time think about how will people game this and artificially amplify those trends and I don’t know if we were equipped to do so.
Dorsey also addressed allegations that Twitter’s early homogenous — straight, white, and male — leadership led to its 10-year failure to address harassment:
I think we probably could have recognized the threats much faster, but I don’t know. I think the value of building diverse leadership is the perspective and hearing the community, but at the same time, we could have also been better listeners as to what was happening within the service as well. There’s probably a lot we potentially ignored or didn’t prioritize.
On the notion that Silicon Valley’s obsession with scale and fast-paced innovation no longer fits the current moment:
We’ve opined that it doesn’t fit for where we are right now because we’ve put such a priority on health and increasing it. So I think the world has shifted more and more from reach at all cost to quality generally. I mean, you see this in media, you see it in communications, and we have also as our number one priority out quality at the top, which is representative of health. So, but I don't know if that was necessarily the best way to, I don’t know if that would have worked to get here because I don’t know if we were to understand all the dynamics at play until we reached a particular level.
On whether he thinks he’s being played by conservatives who’re accusing the company of censorship and shadow banning:
Only if in our actions we allow ourselves to be played. I think it’s really important that we, and I’m coming to the conclusion that more and more especially me, I need to stay clear. Like here’s, I want to acknowledge my bias and I also want to acknowledge there’s a separation between me and our company and how we act. We need to show that in our, we need to be a lot more transparent, we need to show that in our product, we need to show that in our policy and we need to show that in our enforcement and I think in all three we have, but it bears repeating again and again and again. The reason we’re talking with more conservatives is just in the past we haven’t really done much. At least I haven’t.
On why he chose to do an interview with Sean Hannity, who has promoted conspiracy theories:
I’m not there in an interview with Sean Hannity talking to Sean Hannity, I’m talking with the people that listen to him. My dad used to listen to him. My dad is a Republican, what he had on every single day was Rush Limbaugh. I can’t stop and say, ‘oh, Sean Hannity, he said x,y, and z so I can’t talk to him.’ Because I’m not talking to him, I’m talking to who listens to him. That’s who we need to reach and that’s who we need to discuss with. That’s where our customers are. We need to meet them where they are and we may not agree with the channels that they’re listening on, but if I have an opportunity to reach them on that channel, I still get to control the conversation.