The Future of Twitter: Q&A with Jack Dorsey
Last year, amid a cratering stock price, slowing user growth, and a spate of executive departures, Twitter Inc.'s board decided to put co-founder Jack Dorsey in as chief executive.
Ten months later, all the same problems remain. But Dorsey has a clearer message about what he wants to change and how he wants to change it. As investors speculate about who will buy Twitter and when, Dorsey has allowed himself to think years down the road. In a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, he hints at that future. Will Twitter, currently tasked with showing you what's happening right now, be able to predict for you what's going to happen next? Is it the killer app for augmented reality?
Dorsey says Twitter's role in the world still centers around bringing people together to watch live events in the place where information comes the fastest. A decade after Twitter's founding, he has faith in the crowd and its ability to bring forth a range of opinions—balancing Donald Trump's inaccuracies, for instance—but he also talks about the importance of making Twitter a safer place to speak without fear of being attacked or harassed. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
Twitter has been around for exactly 10 years. And fairly or not, there has been an impression from the outside of decline. Do you feel you've arrested that? Do you feel the changes are having an impact?
Jack Dorsey: Well, it's early, but I'm really confident in what's ahead. I think over the 10 years, we've seen Twitter be so influential in the world, and we've seen so many dramatic-use cases of the service.
Our first wave of usage was really around the tech early adopters, as you're aware. But our second wave was around journalists and writers. Over the 10 years, every wave thereafter was an entirely new-use case—a new way of people finding their voice. For people who were new to the service, it was just a very fast and easy way to figure out what's happening around whatever their interest was.
The election year has always been good to us: 2008 was a massive, massive year for us, and this is a massive year for us. People can get into it immediately and see commentary that they care about. They make a connection with someone they didn't know before or they weren't expecting to meet.
We've seen an inhibition of usage because of safety concerns, for instance, and I think we've done an amazing job at building better tools for people and also changing policy over the years.
There are some people who say, "Twitter absolutely needs to increase monthly active users," others who say, "Twitter should be happy just being the size it is and figure out the content strategy." What is your philosophy about how Twitter should grow?
I think as anything grows, you get in this mode of paying more attention to the folks you don't have instead of the folks you do have. And we have a mindset of making sure that we're building a stronger tool and a more powerful tool for the people we do have. And when you do that, when you have that focus, and when you're really listening to your customers, it tends to grow.
In the past, when people heard about Twitter, they assumed that the way to use it was you had to tweet about something. I think more and more people are seeing it as, "I can just see what's happening in the world. I can see what's happening about any event." And the faster we make it for people to realize that, we grow this amazing daily audience around any particular event around the globe.
Then our work is to connect them to people they want to follow long term, and then our work is to convince them that actually you should talk about it, you should share something. We are a conversational medium around these live events. That's the easiest way to get in.
So we're focused on strengthening that and simplifying that path.
How far out do you think about Twitter? Do you ever think about what it would look like 10 years from now?
There's a whole discussion around virtual reality and augmented reality, and Twitter has been augmenting reality for 10 years. You watch any game, you watch any live event, you watch any political debate, Twitter makes it more interesting, funnier, entertaining. I think Periscope takes that a step further by actually pulling them together on one screen. So if you were to very humbly think of Twitter as a chat room—a global chat room—it's been this room that people talk about the world and what's happening in the world nonstop.
And you see the same thing with Periscope. You've got these chat rooms on top of a live video stream. And that's created some really surprising interactions. I don't know if you saw the puddle live on Periscope. Did you see it?
Yeah. That was huge.
We had this guy who pointed his camera outside his window in England. It was a puddle, and the puddle was about this deep, and it got 10 folks, and 100 viewers, and then 1,000 viewers, and up to 20,000 viewers simultaneously, with a grand total of, like, 650,000 live viewers of this puddle. And it wasn't that we were watching a puddle. It was that we were watching a puddle together. Like, "Isn't this crazy? We're actually watching this puddle."
Were you watching the puddle?
I was watching the puddle. It wasn't even the people in the puddle or what they were doing. It was the fact that I was watching with other people, and I was connected to the audience, and I could actually talk with them, and I could say, "Isn't this ridiculous? We're watching a puddle." And then: "Oh, is that woman going to walk around it? Is she going to get wet? Like, what's going to happen?" And it was just so cool to see how this little tiny thing became an event. But that's been our history for 10 years. It's a lot of the same idea.
So in the future, I think we can continue to augment reality in a very interesting way, in that it provides a conversation around anything that's happening in the world.
But I think our No. 1 value that we bring to any live event is speed and the quickness of our delivery of information and insight and entertainment. We can even get predictive about what's going to happen. Like, you open up your weather app on your phone, and you see the present, you see what's happening now right outside. What's interesting about weather apps is they also show you a little bit of a glimpse into the future. It may or may not happen, but they show you what to prepare for your day.
Twitter can be distilled down to that simplicity of, "Here's what's going to happen in the world. Here's what's happening right now. Here's what's going to happen in the world." And the more we can identify those unique voices in real time and connect people, the more potential we have to show something really interesting that will unfold.
How important is it to capture and to keep influencers and celebrities, who seem to be migrating to these more visual platforms, such as Instagram and Snapchat?
I think independent of the visual medium, text always has a place in the world. I don't think that's ever going away. As we talk about these shifts toward visual, I think it is important to remember that the written word is always going to be something that's important and useful.
We certainly benefit a lot from our creators and influencers and what they bring to us, but what's really interesting is just finding those new voices, as well, and emerging that new talent. And we've seen that happen again and again, certainly on Twitter, a lot of it where the journalists and comedians and sports commentators and whatnot who are finding and amplifying their voice on Twitter.
But also, we saw it with Vine, and we're seeing it with Periscope, as well, emergent new talent that is a really interesting mix to the “premium,” or “celebrity,” or “head content” that I think people focus a lot of their energy on. But the audience right now is looking for new—new, new, new, new, new—and looking for differentiated and unique voices. And we often see that they start on Twitter.
You guys have this one-word descriptor now for what Twitter is and can be, and that is "live." How did you come up with that?
Looking back over the 10 years, the first real moment of feeling that this is a live medium was when we had an earthquake in San Francisco. I was at the office on a Saturday. My phone buzzed right next to me, and then I actually felt the earthquake. So the technology was actually faster than the earth in that case.
My phone buzzed, and it said "earthquake." And then it kept buzzing. What was interesting about that is I was feeling something physically, but I wasn't alone. Right? And it was happening live.
Twitter has this amazing ability to make the world feel a whole lot smaller, even though you're not physically next to someone, and you're actually experiencing the same thing, even though you're not aligned. It feels like true, true connection.
I think we've described ourselves in the past as “public” and “real time” and “conversational.” And live is just a better, friendlier way of saying "real time," because it's been consistent.
People love live media. The downside of that has always been that it can be a little bit frightening, because when things go wrong, there's less of a safety net there. And when nothing's happening. …
That's the amazing thing. Just watch the patterns over the 10 years. We excel when something is happening in the world. Like, you know, Michael Jackson just died, or there was an attack, or there's a debate.
But when there's a lull, the Internet creates something. So what color is this dress? And then that becomes a live event. Even when there's nothing happening of note, something is created. We're not just a push-live broadcast mechanism; we're a conversation.
And also making people feel that it's a safe place where they can do that. You've talked about making it a safer environment. It seems like a hard challenge.
That's the thing of making it feel a little bit smaller. So it's not that you're necessarily broadcasting to the whole world, but that you're talking about a debate, you're talking about an event that's happening in front of you, talking about an event that's happening in St. Louis, where you're from, even though you're in San Francisco.
It seems like part of your strategy for demystifying the firehose of tweets is human curation through Moments and some of the other initiatives. How do you think about editing the flow of tweets to make it easier to understand?
Twitter has always been about giving people a lot of control. You choose who you follow, and I think we've done a really good job at making sure that is, first and foremost, the experience you have. But at the same time, we've made people do a lot of work to find the right accounts to follow, and the right topics to follow, and how to source our timeline.
So Moments is a bet: Can we really unearth interestingness from domain experts within the field? Around sports, around debates, around celebrities, around particular events—pick the best of Twitter and put it in a chronological story. And then, can you source that into your timeline? The majority of our folks spend their time in the timeline. But when you exhaust that, going to Moments is a good way to see something new.
Has it met your expectations for engagement?
We think we can do better. The storytelling medium, and when people actually tweet out a moment, has been phenomenal and has exceeded our expectations. We think we can do better with the guide itself and that tab with the lightning bolt.
We want to make sure that any time someone goes there, they see something that captures their interest, captures their imagination, and they want to tap into it. We can certainly do a better job there.
So make it more personalized?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
Yeah. When Moments really sings, it's when there's a live moment. I don't know if you've ever seen one of these, but it has a little lightning bolt next to it. You follow it, and it actually pushes it into your timeline. And that's been fantastic.
So we're definitely investing a whole lot more into that. But that's why that live aspect is such a good direction for the company—a focus on the things that really bring that sense of electricity, that liveness, in every part of the product, whether that be search, or the timeline, or conversations, or, you know, replies that almost feel like really, really live.
I'd like to ask about morale at Twitter right now. There's obviously been a lot of turnover. What specifically are you doing to make sure that people find this a place they want to work and stay?
When I came back, I found a lot of heart, and a lot of purpose, and a lot of desire to win, so making sure we move all the barriers to continuing to enable more of that. And I think a lot of the barriers in the past have just been anything that slows us down from shipping something.
No. 1 is making sure we have collaboration among all our business units so we're shipping in a cadence that makes sense and feels right for people. A lot of moving Adam Messinger—consolidating him into a new role, which is engineering product and design, so that they're collaborating as one—has really been helpful. And you see it in the work over the past six to nine months.
The thing that makes anyone really happy about their work is just being able to say, "I shipped that, and my mom is using it." That just feels amazing. Or "hundreds of millions of people are seeing my work." That's what emboldens people. The company's always had a strong sense of self, of purpose, of pride, of heart and mission. And I think what's gotten in the way of that in the past is the ability to ship clearly against stable priorities.
We're not going to keep changing everything. When you have a stable ground to walk on, you understand how you're moving, and how you're growing, and how you're building off it.
Now, after the beginning of the year and setting the tone on earnings, it feels as if every week is building, building, building, building, building. And that feels great. That feels great to our engineers. It feels great to our designers. It feels great that we have clarity around where we're going and what we look like at the end of the year and how to build off that.
But you're still making big changes. You're thinking about how to shift your board, and you said recruiting is a huge priority. How do you think the leadership team could be improved?
We’re going to make a lot of additions of people who add perspective and add strength. And I think the board is certainly an area, that leadership is certainly an area. So we're going to continue to add great people who love this platform and love what we stand for in the world. We have no short supply of people wanting to come and work here and help us.
You've been running two public companies at the same time for a bunch of months. Do you feel at all worn down by it at all? What do you do to keep your mind clear?
I feel energized by it, and I feel energized by a really consistent structure. Just yesterday, we spent four to five hours as one leadership team at both companies to start the week off, and then we have 30-minute check-ins twice a week to figure out where we are and how things are going. Then I just trust people to do the right thing. The balance of my time is spent recruiting and sitting down with the product teams.
I feel we're in a mode where we can be a whole lot more proactive and really see what's going on. Then that structure, that consistent structure, allows me to really focus on where I think I add the most meaning and value, lots of conversations.
To clear my head, I wake up super-early. I exercise, and have been fascinated by the Golden State Warriors. And I learn a lot from them and their team dynamic.
I think what's really important to me right now in my own leadership is understanding how to build a great team dynamic instead of just hiring a bunch of individuals and heroes. Like, how do we actually build something—a team, and folks who add to the team? And creating a team like the Warriors, that it's not entirely dependent on one person, but this bench that they have.
It also helps to have Steph Curry.
Are you Steph?
No, I am not. That might be Adam Bain.
We're in the middle of this crazy election. Give me your review. Trump on Twitter. Hall of Fame?
I think he's always kind of been Hall of Fame on Twitter. Yeah, I mean, it's amazing that people use us as a microphone for the world and to connect with their constituency. I think we provide a very significant role in empowering dialogue around something that is truly important, for not just this country, but for the world.
People could make the argument that Trump is using it to propagate misinformation and hate. Does that bother you on some level?
Well, there's a counter of all the people who are correcting and critiquing and commenting on what he's saying, as well, so I think all of this is about balance. We have the world talking on this thing about the world. So we see every spectrum of idea and conversation. I find that for anything that's said, there's always a counterpoint, and there's always something in the middle. And it's always available to people.
I do want to know what you learned about Twitter's role in the world when you went back to Missouri during the Black Lives Matter protests.
In person? It's a feeling of electricity. You feel like you're not alone, and I was so proud of everything that the company has built, because we were amplifying those voices, you know? It was just so cool to see how people were connecting in real time around this.