Jack Dorsey is an American computer programmer and internet entrepreneur. In 2006, Dorsey co-founded Twitter with Ev Williams, Biz Stone and Noah Glass, and was CEO until 2008. He returned to the social media giant in 2015. He is also the founder and CEO of Square, a mobile payments company. Dorsey, 41, in his maiden visit to India, kept a busy schedule. He met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi and attended a townhall in Indian Institute of Technology Delhi where he talked about how his platform could drive social change.
In a wide-ranging interview with Shereen Bhan, Dorsey said there is a lot opportunity in India and Twitter would love to serve every single person of this country. Dorsey also said they are fortunate that a lot of public figures in India are using Twitter and now the company is focussing to become useful to the common man.
He also talked about the recent meeting with Prime Minister and Congress President Rahul Gandhi, Twitter's strategy to counter fake news and its approach towards the upcoming general election in India, among a raft of other topics.
Let me start by asking you about your India visit. I read your tweet where you said that you have been wanting to visit India for a long time. Is it everything that you imagined it to be?
It is and more. Since I was a kid, I always wanted to experience India. So I am really happy to be here.
You have had a meeting with the Prime Minister and he is fairly active on Twitter. What was the conversation about?
It was all about Twitter and technology. I asked him some questions around how he thinks about things like artificial intelligence (AI) and cryptocurrency, for example, and we talked a lot about Twitter.
I asked him why he uses it and how he found it and just what he has been experimenting with. He pointed me to his tweet on World Environment Day, for instance, as his big global movements that can be inspired, people can see that we are all in this together. So the discussion was awesome.
Were there any suggestions or ideas from him on what Twitter could do in India, both in terms of working with the government as well as perhaps India specific features?
There were a lot of ideas, but they were focused on looking more broadly at the world and helping us all realise that we are one planet, one humanity.
You also met with Congress president Rahul Gandhi. What was that meeting like? I believe he was quite enamored with your tattoo?
Yes, he asked about it. He asked what it was and I told him about it. It was a great conversation as well. We talked a lot about Twitter and to see the dynamics of India and I asked him some questions about the country and I told him I am doing Vipassana retreat next week and he shared about his experience as well.
You are doing the Vipassana retreat next week, for how long?
In Burma for 10 days.
Is this something that you have done before or is it the first time?
What was that experience like for you?
Best thing I have ever done.
What did it teach you at the end of that 10 day period?
Discipline to get to clarity, focus. It was just the amount of clarity I received after. It was awesome.
I will talk to you about the clarity with respect to your vision for Twitter in general but let me ask you specifically about Twitter India. There are issues that the government has not just for Twitter, but with other social media networks as well. Yesterday (on Monday) there was a statement that the government put out which basically said that they were not particularly happy with the speed at which Twitter had responded to the government’s ideas in being able to take action against offensive tweets, etc... Were you surprised with that statement and what is Twitter's response?
I think there is always an opportunity to increase the response time. We have to look at this on a case-by-case basis. So, we need to make sure that we are doing right by the people that we serve and also the partnership that we have with the local government.
We do have a global outreach that we need to work with governments all around the world and sometimes these things get a little bit over complicated. However, there is always an opportunity to improve and we need to understand where there might be friction and fix it.
Is there anything different in the Indian context of what the government is asking of Twitter – you have seen problems in the US for instance with the 2016 Russia meddling situation. However, what is the need of the Indian government, is it different from what other governments are asking?
I do not know the specifics but I do not think so. I think we have very similar patterns of what we see from governments all around the world.
Things like setting up grievance redressal mechanism here in India, or placing grievance office here, is that something Twitter is on-board with, how soon can we expect you to do that?
I know it is an active conversation within the country and something that we should have considered but we have no timeline.
What does the India business mean for Twitter, it is your second largest market outside of the US in terms of active users? The view is that perhaps you have peaked out in markets like the US and markets like India are going to give you the incremental user base? What does a country like India mean strategically to Twitter?
I do not think it is either or, I think India alone there is a lot of opportunities and I would love that Twitter serves every single person within this country. I think it has a lot of value, the public conversation being able to see what our world leaders are saying, being able to see outside of our borders that were facing some problems such as climate change is useful and valuable.
So, we benefit and are fortunate from the fact that a lot of public figures in India use us in really amazing ways and we have to understand why we might not be as immediately useful to the everyday person and what is parking them from seeing us as valuable. However, that is our work and that is what we are focused on.
I remember reading after your earnings call where you said that you are making meaningful progress to make Twitter a healthier and more valuable everyday service. In that context, what do you believe are the key changes that you have already been able to make and what more would you like to see change?
What we have to do going forward is really looking at behaviour, not the content and we have made some significant progress in recognising abusive behaviour or the probability of it happening and we have either shut it down immediately or shut it down before it is happening.
So, that has moved a lot faster. I think the biggest issue that we need to solve is our entire terms of service and help operations on reports. So it requires people to report something happening to them.
We recently enabled bystanders to report something that they might be seeing, but a reporting mechanism requires too much work. So, right now we find ourselves focused on treating problems and self-preventing problems. We like to get to a mindset and a course of action that allows us to be more preventive, that does not require a victim to do the work to report something that has happened to them, and that we can be a lot more proactive before they even have to consider reporting in the first place.
So if you are saying that the reporting mechanism is complex, and you want to focus more on preemptive action on part of the platform itself, what is it going to take to be able to ensure that is, in fact, a reality, how much of the work is already started on your part?
It is not the work but it requires a lot more machine learning and deep learning and artificial intelligence, lot more technology and we are doing the work right now.
I cannot remember where you said it, but you said that we are rethinking what made sense 12 years ago and does not make any sense today. So we have seen it go from 140 to 280 characters because you started off with this wanting to replicate an SMS kind of service because of data consumption, data usage and charges and that is not the case anymore. It is a very different world. So as you envision the future for Twitter, what continues to make sense today and what does not any longer?
That quote was around when you open up the app, what does Twitter incentivise you to do and is that right for today. For instance, we have, if you go to your profile, you see the number of followers you have and that number is big and it is bold and it is bigger than most things on the page.
I do not know if the emphasis should be, but what you do is you want it to go up and the question is should that be the focus, should the focus be on the number of followers you have?
Or on engagement?
I do not know if it is engagement or what it is. I do not know if there is a counter to it but I can point you to examples where people had close to zero followers and said something meaningful that went around the world. So does followers matter? It is just that we made them matter because we made that number bold and we made the font size big.
So how are you going to disincentivise that behaviour and how are you going to incentivise behaviour that focuses more on meaning and value?
I do not know yet. We are asking the question right now.
Is that what you hope of after the Vipassana?
No that is not the goal. To me, the goal of Vipassana is asking better questions, not arriving at answers. So we are going to ask questions, we are asking the questions what does Twitter incentivise and is that right for today, should it incentivise anything?
Should it incentivise positioning itself as a platform for activism for instance? There are people who have started using this term loosely #activism, MeToo is an example of that, we have just seen it play out in India. What is your thought on that?
We did not incentivise that but it happened and I am very proud that it happened because I think it speaks of the dynamics of the service and some of the best dynamics of the service that will be public, that will be accessible to everyone, that will be real time, that will be conversational.
So, I think those circumstances is what enabled some of the activism that we see and that we would love to see more of but it is all towards an angle of talking more of the stories that were not told, more transparency.
From day one at Twitter, it used to bring more transparency to nearly everything – government, corporations, past history, society, and culture. It has definitely increased the transparency of the world and I am very proud of that. However, at the same time, we need to make sure that people can easily be overwhelmed with transparency as well. So we need to be careful on that. We are giving people what matters, what is relevant to them in the moment, in the context what they are in and not overwhelming them with information which might force them into inaction instead of action.
Since you were talking about transparency, one of the issues that people have not just with Twitter in specific but with social media in general is this business of a manipulation of reality - you can buy accounts and get something to trend, for instance, and that gives an altered view of reality. So in your quest for transparency, how does this fit in?
I don’t see these as separate things. I think technology is going to enable a lot more of these imagined realities that looked extremely real. Videos being constructed from pure imagination that look entirely realistic could be the thing that we should be discussing. The technologies of creating that is far ahead the technologies of detecting whether it was created or not. So that is an issue. So I think we have to accept that it is going to happen. I don’t think there is a way around it. So what are the anecdotes to that? I think conversation about it, pointing it out.
I think we can try to resist it but I think that will be futile in terms of owning what it is and then figuring how to live with it. I would rather spend a time figuring out how to live with this reality than reacting to it negatively because it will not be stopped. No one, no nation will be able to stop this.
I remember reading that you said that policy fixes are only going to be able to at best a symptom but that is about what they can do and this brings me to an author I know that you follow as well - Yuval Noah Harari - and he is basically saying that there is no individual free wheel on account of large technology companies like twitter and others operating in the manner in which they do driven by data and manipulate things of data to use that loosely. So if it just going to have to cook with this new reality, what are the tools we are going to need to be able to do that?
He said that we could go down a path where we offered all the decisions to algorithms and in some cases that is extremely useful. The algorithms will be better at us, for instance, in some health manners than we might be but he also paints a picture where algorithms might determine who we marry or what we buy or what groups we join or what jobs we take or what schools we go to and his anecdote to this is building self-awareness and his practice to those self-awareness is meditation. If we build self-awareness, we understand ourselves better than the others do.
A child born today in the algorithm will probably understand that person better when he is 25 than they will on a current trajectory, that is what he paints.
So he says the only anecdote to that is to build self-awareness and one of the way of doing that is meditation.
I would hope that a lot more of us will take to that route and there will be a greater degree of self-awareness but it does put a responsibility on a platform like yours and you have spoken about this. There is a need to try that the platform doesn’t become an echo-chamber that the algorithms don’t work like that they nurture echo-chambers, what more can you do using technology to ensure that there is a certain amount of self-awareness that you drive as well?
I think the most important thing that we can do given the reality and the definite outcome is that everything will be algorithm based. The most dangerous thing right now is that most of the algorithms are not built in such a way that they can explain why they made a decision. So they won’t be able to tell you why they chose this option for you against us. That feels pretty dangerous.
What are you most worried about today?
That. So what I was saying is like we do have a responsibility to help this field of research called explainability that encourages algorithms to be able to explain how they make decisions. Because if these things are black-boxes and they are just making decisions extremely quickly on our behalf and we don’t know what is going on then you lose pretty well. You don’t know why.
So if you use the sense of why and the reasoning, that is a loss of control. So I would put pressure on anything that we build that can explain this, they can explain why it does and what it does.
You don’t look at what the markets do, how the stock performs I believe. You had a good quarter, the last quarter was also good, is that something that drives you what is happening on the business front or is that not something that is a priority? I know, in 2017, the priority was to get back to profitability, which you have but is that something that drives you at all today?
It wasn’t to get to profitability. It was to enable us to self-sustain and the business follows whether people value us as a service or not. If they don’t value us as a service, we will not have a business, we will not have the stock price. So we put the focus where it should serve people in the way that they value us more everyday in such a way that they value us as much as they want to talk about us and tell their friends, this thing is extremely valuable and here is why you need to get on it.
What is your metric to measure success if it is not monthly active users or daily active users or revenue or profit, how do you measure success for twitter?
It is whether we are providing daily value to someone. If they walk away from it saying that was valuable, I learnt something.
Coming back to the Indian context because state elections are going on and we have got the big general election in 2019 and I am sure that there has been a conversation with the government on ensuring that it is a free and fair election and the role that technology and social media platforms are likely to play there. What can we expect in terms of safety nets, checks and balances that you intend to put in place?
We have learned a lot from what we experienced with the Mexican election and the recent US mid-term election and it is likely that the same lessons apply within India as well and more globally.
We want to protect the integrity of the conversation around all elections. So we will take this opportunity to give better and better, but I think the most important thing is that we experiment, to try new things and we constantly experiment with new ways of doing things.
So the pockets of solution that we have found have worked, is adding context. So adding more context that drives credibility. For instance, in the US, the context of an election level so that people could see that this was a credible participant in an election and the other one is working at the dynamics and focusing our energy on those dynamics.
So we set up a focus for the Mexican election, for the US election. That allowed us to have one streamlined centre that we can act much faster and that we could cheer things from our partners in government that we should pay attention to or present them things that they should pay attention to.
Since we are talking about experimenting with the features, Chris Messina, the inventor of the hashtag said that he didn’t do it for twitter, he did it for the internet and he came to twitter and he was told that it was too nerdy that could never catch on but here we are, post 2009, do you think that this was the key inflection point in twitter’s journey, the introduction of the hashtag?
Yes, I don’t think I ever said that. It was a valuable concept because it gathered conversations together. So I think it has been phenomenal as has the add symbol and the retweet and the thread, those are all not invented by anyone in the company. They are invented by people using the service and I think that is what is the most beautiful things about us.
Any plans to bring Square to India and as an entrepreneur, what continues to drive you today?
Seeing people use what we built drives me. That is what I love. It feels electric. We at Square would love to get into India.
What is holding you back?
It requires a lot of local regulatory relationship and banking relationship. Getting these relationships takes around nine months and significant investment and it is one thing means we cannot do something else. So, it is just a matter of trade-offs. That is what holds us back but I am a big believer in the internet having a currency and bitcoin is to me the one that we are likely to be at.
So the criticism that we get from the likes of Jamie Dimon and Bill Gates saying that bitcoin is pretty much like a ponzi scheme, you don’t buy into that.
No, I don’t buy it at all. I buy into the concept that the internet will have a global currency. Look at what the internet has done. It has removed barriers and borders, it has allowed the world to see ourselves as one and the one thing it is missing right now is the inability to trade in one single language which is a currency. So it is going to happen and it is whether we resist ourselves. So I want to make it happen because that would allow us at Square to do something and the whole world can use it.
First Published: IST