Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, whose platform has become synonymous with yelling, trolling, and a less-than-stable president who uses it for incoherent rants and threats of nuclear annihilation, is in a tough spot: Many if not most of the criticisms of his site are accurate, and Dorsey’s tactic of choice when responding to them is usually sputtering out a bunch of five-dollar words about how he needs to make unspecified changes.
On Tuesday, Dorsey went through with a planned Q&A with Recode co-founder and New York Times contributor Kara Swisher.
Unfortunately, this all played out in Twitter replies—a format that is ideal for conveying quick thoughts à la carte, but very hard to track in real-time. Just as unfortunately, Dorsey’s interview strategy has not changed.
About the only thing he conceded was that he has not been handling his role as CEO well and that major issues plague the entire platform.
Swisher started out by asking Dorsey why the site can’t move faster to address criticisms—which are numerous, but the most high-profile of which are rampant harassment and accusations it, as the Week put it, “intensifies and amplifies pathological social tendencies among those who act within, report on, and write about the political world.”
Dorsey answered by saying that “in the past we were trying to do too much” and is now focused on “prioritizing by impact.” He admitted that if he had to grade his own performance, he would give himself a “C.” The reason? Twitter has tried, but it’s “been scattered and not felt enough,” and the site has “put most of the burden on the victims of abuse.”
In other words, even Dorsey admits he’s been performing at a barely-passable level, and that there has been a major failure in keeping the site from descending into invective.
Dorsey then rolled out a lot of gobbledygook about how Twitter is trying to find ways to “proactively enforce and promote health”—in other words, shifting the goalposts again into muddled conversations about conversations, rather than the impact Twitter is having right now. Also, Dorsey thinks that if Twitter achieves “proactive” “#health,” then reporting or blocking other users can become a “last resort.”
At this point, Dorsey calmly explained that Twitter sees the most abuse happening in “replies, mentions, search, and trends.” Careful observers might note that this is the whole goddamn site, aside from Moments and direct messages.
Dorsey also wrote that Twitter is “focused on understanding what conversational health means,” which is a way of saying that it does not have any idea how to define its core product (or is stalling on the subject). He also added the platform is trying to figure out “what can we do within the product and policy to lower [the] probability” of Twitter spilling over into offline physical safety concerns. Again, no concrete answers.
Dorsey also claimed that Twitter takes action against “all we can against our policies,” which is certainly curious, because accounts of the platform’s moderation team turning a blind eye to toxic behavior that actually is reported is rampant (as are accounts of the system being easily gamed by a technique called brigading, in which trolls mass-report relatively innocuous tweets in the hopes of successfully locking down someone’s account).
He also told Swisher that a reporting-based moderation “doesn’t scale,” which is a convenient excuse for why some of the site’s worst bad actors never seem to get penalized.
Of course, all this talk about how moderation does not “scale” and Twitter should focus on being “proactive” is quite a convenient way to justify inaction—It’s sort of like looking at a burning skyscraper and saying “Boy, this sure looks too big to handle! What could we have done differently?” You know, instead of putting it out.
Swisher tried to nail Dorsey down on hard examples of what Twitter is doing to end harassment, which ended up being yet another foray into the land of platitudes with a few pit stops at relatively minor tweaks that it has made (introducing a rule against misgendering, down ranking some “bad actors,” and the mute function, which was introduced… five years ago).
Dorsey also responded to accounts of people taking Twitter “breaks and purges,” writing that it “feels terrible” and he doesn’t “feel good about how Twitter tends to incentivize outrage, fast takes, short term thinking, echo chambers, and fragmented conversation and consideration.”
He said that fixing this would require him to “change more fundamentals,” but failed to elaborate.
Dorsey then reiterated that Donald Trump’s infamous account does in fact enjoy above-the-rules status due to his position as president. But he insisted, against all indications to the contrary, that said policy was motivated in any way by metrics.
Dorsey also declined to name a “historic newsworthy figure” that he would ban, which is about the softest ball one could throw.
Really? Can’t think of anyone?
The thread then just sort of petered out from there, but Dorsey did take the time to say that one of the Twitter accounts he has the most “respect” for is Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
Musk’s time on the site, of course, has had catastrophic consequences. Those include a weed joke that triggered tens of millions of fines from the Securities and Exchange Commission and his loss of the Tesla chairmanship, as well as a mostly one-sided beef with a cave diver who helped rescue a trapped Thai soccer team—who Musk publicly smeared as a pedophile. That latter incident resulted in a major defamation lawsuit. In fact, Musk has sent so many erratic tweets that news outlets have publicly discussed his sanity.
This is probably not the example you want to be trotting around! But Dorsey, who seems to have little idea of what he has unleashed but also to be convinced the right amount of word salad can rein it back in, really does not look like he has any idea what he’s doing.
Other than focusing on “conversation,” whatever that means.