TED 2019: Jack Dorsey Is Captain of the Twittanic

On Tuesday, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, came to TED 2019 to answer for the sins of his platform. In his signature black hoodie and jeans, unkempt facial hair, and black beanie, he sat with TED head Chris Anderson and Whitney Pennington Rodgers, who curates current affairs for the conference, for a conversation that left all three members, along with the audience, frustrated.

“We’re on this great voyage with you on the Twittanic,” Anderson told Dorsey after roughly 20 minutes of interrupted back and forth. “There are people in steerage who are saying, ‘We are worried about the iceberg ahead!’ And you say, ‘That is a good point’ and ‘Our boat hasn’t been built to handle it,’ and we’re waiting, and you are showing this extraordinary calm and we’re all worried but we’re outside saying, ‘Jack, turn the fucking wheel!’”

Dorsey stoically listened to this comparison, like the meditative yogi he often talks about aspiring to be. “It’s democracy at stake! It’s our culture at stake! It’s our world at stake!” Anderson continued. “You’re doing a brilliant role of listening, Jack, but can you actually dial up the urgency and move on this stuff? Will you do that?”

“Yeah, yeah, yes,” Dorsey replied, but then added, “We could do a bunch of superficial things to address what you’re talking about, but we need to go deep.”

It’s been more than a year since Dorsey publicly committed to “fixing” Twitter, and figuring out what a platform that encourages healthy discussions looks like. He’s been on a mea culpa tour since then, telling the world—and regulators—that he knows Twitter is broken, that it’s toxic and terrible and that he and the team are planning to radically rebuild it. He reiterated all of this on the TED stage, explaining that he wants to rethink what behavior the site incentivizes, for instance, by possibly getting rid of the like button and de-emphasizing follower counts while emphasizing topical interests instead. He repeated that he wants to focus on maximizing the health of conversations, and prioritizing people spending their time learning on the site, rather than getting outraged or harassed. He admitted Twitter was full of problems, problems he didn’t anticipate 13 years ago when the site was founded, and which he’s still trying to figure out how to solve.

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The urgency of this task couldn’t have been made clearer in the days leading up to Dorsey’s appearance. Over the weekend, Ilhan Omar—a woman of color, an immigrant, and a Muslim representing the state of Minnesota in the US House—reported an increase in death threats after President Trump tweeted out a video that intercut a speech she recently gave with footage of the 9/11 attacks. Many of the threats were made on Twitter. Then on Monday, as Notre Dame burned, people came to the platform to mourn the loss in real time, but also to spread lies and hate as quickly as the flames engulfed the cathedral’s spire. When Omar tweeted her own heartfelt condolences, people replied with more death threats. Twitter was very much itself, showcasing the power of its network as well the danger.

Dorsey didn’t address any of these incidents specifically at TED. In fact, his answers lacked specificity overall. When he was asked pointed questions, he evaded them, as he often does. Rodgers asked him how many people are working on content moderation on Twitter—a number the company has never published, and Tuesday continued the vagueness streak.

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