In a tech industry full of executives prone to loudly proclaiming their intention to transform the world in multiple ways all at once, Twitter cofounder and CEO Jack Dorsey stands out for his understated approach, which involves picking a few things that matter and then obsessing over them. Our October cover story chronicles the focus that he’s chosen for Twitter: making it the best place to follow live news and events, including even NFL games and other sports playing right inside the app. That’s how the company hopes to defy its skeptics–who, more than ever, are legion–and get the world thinking of it as something other than a social network that will never catch up with Facebook in terms of sheer scale.
Herewith, an edited transcript of my interview with Dorsey, which I conducted in late July at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco.
Fast Company: It’s pretty obvious you’ve been really busy. Almost every day, there’s at least one and sometimes several announcements of new features, partnerships, and developments. But can we start by talking about the high-level picture of where Twitter is going?
Jack Dorsey: We’re seeing a whole lot more momentum, and showing that as well, which has been fantastic to witness, and really energizing for the team. It all comes back to the role we serve in the world, and what people use us for. The clearest use case that is really strong for Twitter is around real-time use. And we’ve described that as “live.”
It’s something we’ve seen around the platform for close to 10 years. People see an event unfold in the world, and we ask a simple question: “What’s happening?” And they comment on it. It’s not just being able to deliver that news in real time and to do it with speed, faster than anyone else out there. But also to provide this really interesting social commentary around it, so that anyone can comment on what’s happening and give their own opinion. And sometimes conversations emerge from that.
Those are the two strengths we’re really focused on. I meant to find the tweet from this reporter that I thought was really interesting. He captured it really well, and I’ll find it for you. He tweeted, “When something is happening in the world, Twitter saves me time. And when nothing is happening, Twitter wastes my time.”
We’re really good at delivering news faster than anyone else, and doing it with an individual voice. And that’s where a lot of our focus has been. Everything you see around what we’re doing with the product, to all of the livestream deals that we’re making, is really consistent with who we’ve been for two years. We notice that people are tweeting about football games, people are tweeting about the Democratic National Convention (DNC), people are tweeting about the Republican National Convention (RNC). What if we could actually bring that into one experience, so you didn’t have to find a television, you didn’t have to find where the stream was, but actually you could just open up Twitter, you could watch it right there, and then you could comment on it?
That opens the potential for some really cool experiences that we’re excited to bring to people. News that really shapes culture. And to do so in a very personalized way that enables anyone to be a newsmaker or provide commentary or report on what’s happening.
Was the need for video an epiphany, or was it something that gradually became clear to you?
I think it’s just that the technology can now support it. We now have cameras everywhere. We have more bandwidth to enable livestreaming. We invested in some technology that removes the barrier around the type of device and the network it’s on. This Magic Pony acquisition we made, where the livestream can actually be digitally re-created in real time, takes the constraint of device or network away completely. So we can actually increase the audience that could watch the DNC, for instance, or the RNC. And you can do it while you’re traveling home on the train, where you might have a spotty network, you can still see something with a look and feel that’s HD-like.
I think the technology available today has made video more possible. But it really doesn’t matter what medium people use. What matters to us is our speed. How simple, how quick, can we make the interaction. How quick can we show people what’s happening, in every medium. And video is a big expectation that people have around how they consume things today.
How will that impact the product in terms of the user experience? I watched the political conventions and saw video and tweets in one place, and I got the potential.
That experience is great. We’re doing the thing that people have been doing for close to 10 years, which is they watch a screen, and they tweet about it. We’re bringing that into the same screen, and most importantly, we’re making that mobile, so you can watch it anywhere.
You can dive even deeper into the video and that experience, especially with all of these technologies we’re building around deep learning and computer vision, which this acquisition was a big part of. It’s about making the video smarter and more interactive, and there’s certainly a lot to explore there. But what we’re focused on right now is making sure that we provide the most live and the highest-quality watching experience for these events, and that the tweets you see are relevant. They continue to make the event more interesting, or more entertaining. Or in the case of the conventions, more focused on fact checking, and just showing people a different point of view based on what you’re seeing on the screen.
There’s definitely a lot there. And then, also, how do we integrate things like Periscope, to provide a more inidividual perspective on the same event? We’re simulcasting CBS’s feed for the conventions, but there are people in the audience Periscoping. And having their own Q&As and going around the scenes of the conventions, maybe to the protests outside, for instance. That’s interesting, and that could be integrated within that experience. These are all the things we’re curious about and we’re looking at.
How far down the road are you of doing the deals, creating the technology, and so forth?
Every day we announce more and more. It’s super early. We started with Wimbledon and went straight to the RNC and learned a lot with both of those, and are applying those learnings to the DNC, for instance. People really appreciate the quality of the stream. Where we can be better is making it easier to find and to share. But that’s next. Right now is making sure that we get the quality right. So when you’re actually there and when people get that experience, they see something that’s really meaningful and valuable. Next is really broadening the audience, utilizing everything we have to bear as a network. We are completely open, so that anywhere a tweet can be seen, that stream can be watched. Which is awesome to see.
You’ve already signed a bunch of streaming deals, especially for sports. Will you continue to fill in other holes?
We’re focused on news, sports, and entertainment. There’s a lot there. Bloomberg was a big one. Anything that can bring to bear a bigger audience, because the audience is moving to mobile, and watching more of these sorts of events and content on their phones, when they’re traveling or commuting.
We think we have a really great experience, because we can bring tweets to it. We can bring the commentary on top of it. We’ll be doing a lot more with sports, we’ll be doing a lot more with news and politics. And a lot more with entertainment as well.
Can you talk about the work of your Cortex team? Artificial intelligence, in the past, was not something people generally associated with Twitter.
Where I’m really focused and fascinated is around deep learning. It’s a new field, really manifested in a tangible way in 2010. It’s pretty early. But it enables a lot of different experiences, and Cortex is a strength we’ve been building internally for a bit.
One of the areas they’re working on right now is the Highlights feature of Periscope. We realize that not everyone is going to be able to catch something live. I get notifications that someone’s gone live on Periscope all the time, all day. But I’m in a meeting or doing whatever, and I just can’t watch it. With this technology, we can actually determine what matters most within that broadcast, in real time, and show people the highlights of what happened. That fits perfectly with what Twitter is, because Twitter has short-form content bursts of information and entertainment, where you can quickly digest what’s happening.
With text, that’s really easy, because you can quickly read the 140 characters. With video, it’s a little harder, because you have to watch everything. And with what Cortex has done with Highlights, you don’t. You can just see where the action was, and what matters. And then you get to make the choice: “I want to watch the whole thing.”
But more importantly, from those Highlights, you can have a conversation about them on Twitter, provide some commentary about it. So it continues to create new conversation pieces for people. And that’s really the goal of the team. But in the past, we haven’t had a lot of this discipline within the company. And now we do, and we’re really building upon it. Hence the acquisition of Magic Pony. And we’ll continue to find and hire great teams to strengthen this, because it’s a technology we can leverage everywhere.
The AI in features like Highlights is pretty transparent to the user. Do you expect there to be any things down the road that blow people away?
We have machine learning and deep learning folks all over the company. Where we have probably the most strength right now is within the timeline team. We’ve been enhancing the timeline this year and making sure that when people come back to Twitter, they see what matters most and what’s important, and they can quickly get back to recency in everything, and live. What will blow people away is, I’ll be able to open up Twitter in the morning and see exactly what I need to see. And it’s not just what I like, it’s what’s important. I think that’s our role. It’s really showing what’s important in the world. What’s important around the topics you care about. And what’s happening around you, locally.
That’s really hard to do. In the release of enhancing the timeline, we’ve seen every sort of activity on Twitter go up. Retweets, which you’d expect. But even people tweeting has improved, since we’ve really worked and focused on making the timeline better and showing more of the important things. Because when people see a tweet they want to talk about it. They want to get into the conversation, they want to provide their own commentary.
Watch the timeline. We have an opportunity to be–and I’ve said this before–as easy to use as looking out the window and figuring out what’s happening. It should feel like that. Right now, it doesn’t. Right now, it feels like a lot of work, and you have to do a lot of work up front to build a great timeline. And then you have to do a lot of work to dig through it, to find the most meaningful stuff.
We think we can help there. And that’s consistent with what Highlights does. You don’t have to do any work to scrub, or to fast-forward, or rewind. It just does it for you.
Your new ads try to explain Twitter to someone who maybe doesn’t understand it all that well. As you aim for growth, is that a tricky thing, going beyond the people who already love it?
Over the last 10 years, we’ve had hundreds of use cases on Twitter. And we need to really make sure we have a point of view on where we have a lot of strength. And that’s around what’s happening. It’s around news. It’s around social commentary. The goal of that campaign–and this is just a start–is to clearly define Twitter. You may have come in here assuming you’re going to see baby pictures from your friends. What you’re going to see is what’s happening in sports and politics and the world around you.
You might find baby pictures from your friends on it, but that’s not the overwhelming majority use case. We’re not a social network as people think about it. I do think we are a news network, and we’re a unique one, because we aggregate all the news media brands into one place, all of the individual voices into one place. And we allow anyone to comment on it in real time. And that’s fundamentally new, and something the world really hasn’t seen before.
That really enables us to show importance, the people that are shaping culture, and how some of the most important dialogues, conversations, and events in the world are on us. And for folks to discover it on us, faster than anywhere else.
That was the goal, but as a start. It’s step one, and there’s many steps to come in telling that story. But we just need to get a lot better about . . . Twitter has been used for hundreds of things that are all extremely different, but we are going to focus on one to speak about. And to really put our strength behind that, as a way to get in, to understand what it might be for, and why I might use it personally.
Twitter as an agent for social change, such as with Black Lives Matter, has been important to you for a long time. As you move to this new era beyond 140 characters, do you see it being even more powerful?
Definitely. We’ve definitely seen our usage steer toward a lot of activism, a lot of people raising their voices to power, to question what needs to change and how things need to evolve. And technologies like Periscope bring that even farther into the fold.
It’s an entirely new manifestation of what I believe Twitter is really good at: just showing the world. When you can see what’s actually happening on the ground in Iran, with real people, unmediated, raw, unfiltered, you get a better sense of empathy for what they’re going through, but also the world feels a whole lot smaller. And that’s really important.
I think that continues to be something that shines on our platform. It continues to strengthen what we stand for as a company to the people who use us.
Safety issues on Twitter are on people’s minds. You’ve always been careful to say you’re not where you need to be. Can you talk about what you’ve been doing, and if you can someday get to the point where you can say, “We’re handling this perfectly”?
We’ll never handle this perfectly–just to set the expectation–because the world is messy. And there’s always going to be a new consideration.
It goes back to what we stand for. We stand for freedom of expression. We stand for speaking truth to power. We stand for empowering dialogue. And it’s not any one of those alone. Sometimes people only focus on one, instead of all three together. And I think all three together are really important.
You can only express yourself if you feel safe to do so. In order to do that, you need a sense of dialogue and conversation that’s empowering, not diminishing. Recently, we’ve seen a trend–not just on Twitter, but on the internet, more broadly, and in the world–of really targeted harassment and abuse.
Our hope is that we can be a platform that encourages more civil discourse. Even though people may have views that are at different ends of the spectrum, that they can have a conversation to figure out what the ends of that spectrum are, and if there’s a balancing point.
From society’s standpoint, that’s what’s really important about our technology. It all goes back to the openness of our network. This is always a fine balance, but we want to make sure that people do feel safe to express themselves freely, and for us that means that we’re providing really crisp and clear tools so that people can report, and people can mute, and people can block. But at the same time, if people want to, they can see everything. And they can see what people really think and what they’re saying without the filter.
I think that’s important, to find the balance. You need to be able to see the extreme stuff to find what’s in the middle.
We’re not there yet, and we’ve certainly made a lot of mistakes along the way. But what I can commit to is that we’ll be transparent about what those mistakes are, and that we’ll learn from them and that we’ll share those learnings. It’s hard to do in time, but I think it’s important for us to do to continue to build trust around utilizing our platform.
To what degree can technological solutions help you moderate?
Technology can help show, first and foremost, where there are things that might impede on your ability to feel safe and really speak your mind, and for you to, in the moment, just turn that off when you want that openness, and to turn it on when you want to see everything. It’s just bringing more awareness to what’s out there.
The only reason we make technologies is to save people time. The role of technology in safety is to make sure that if there’s an action you want to take, you can take it faster. And you have to do less work in order to do that.
There’s a really fine balance between control of the experience and moderation. We’d rather be on the side of more controls. But as you provide more controls, you’re also making people do more work. Technology can take some of that work away, as we give people the option of tuning those dials and providing more control.
The most important thing on that spectrum, though, is that we’re super transparent about what people are and aren’t going to see. And that we’re not changing the rules underneath them, midstream. We need to make sure that we’re seeing really clear expectations of how the thing’s going to work, and that we actually meet those expectations. And we’ve certainly learned a lot over our 10 years about how to do that right and how to do that poorly.
We did a story after the Nice truck attack about ISIS propaganda on Twitter, and referenced some experts who said you did a great job of quashing it quickly. Have you been taking a new approach to dealing with that sort of stuff, or are you just getting better at it as time goes on?
A bit of both. It’s amazing, also, what you do when you simply say something is a priority. Safety is one of our priorities for this year. When you say that to the company, they really dig in on, “Okay, what does this mean? What does safety mean, what does it look like, what does it feel like from an experience standpoint, and what are we doing differently?” Just by putting emphasis on that as important to us, people do the right things.
We’ve benefitted from that focus. We have five areas that we’re focused on this year. One is really refining what we have around real-time news and live video and integrating that into everything that we do. Creators, safety, and developers. And because we’ve said those were important, the company has made them important, and really considered what that means.
We know our approaches in the past have been not as cohesive in terms of our thinking. You can’t take it in isolation, it has to be cohesive throughout the product. What does a product experience actually feel like end-to-end when you want to feel safe when you express yourself? I think we’re making a lot of the right decisions.
You’ve talked about the Golden State Warriors as a model for your team. Is that still true?
The thing that’s most inspiring to me about the Warriors is that it’s not just one individual, it’s about the team dynamic. And you saw it throughout this past season, where there were significantly talented players out for weeks, yet the team still rose to win. That’s number one.
Number two is the humility expressed on the team, as expressed and manifested through the passing game. It’s not just about, “Take the ball and let me go make a basket. It’s, “I’m going to pass it to my teammate, and he’s going to make the basket.” That’s not something in the past that a lot of companies in our industry have valued a lot. We have a hero mentality rather than a team mentality, so we look for the single individual rather than how the team works together.
We’re certainly not perfect. But we’re making stronger strides. And I would extend that out even deeper than our internal team to the people on our platform. I think a big part of my role, and our role, is to help people find their voice and empower their voice without tools. It’s more important what they’re saying than what we’re saying.
We’ve seen that throughout our history. The @ symbol, the hashtag, the retweet–those were all invented by the people using our platform, not by us. We made it easier. We brought technology so that they would have to do less work when they did that. But we had nothing in terms of the voice around it.
That is the biggest lesson: It’s not about us, it’s about who we’re serving. And we’re putting them first. You even see that expressed in the Warriors. The humility they have around the role of the fans is unlike anything I’ve seen on any other team. And what the fans have for them is emboldening. There’s this interesting relationship between the two that we can learn from in how we develop and how we treat our customers and how our customers treat us.
As you’ve built your team, is it possible to know if they have the instinct to be part of a team in the way you’ve been talking about?
The first question I ask is, “Why Twitter?” And if they don’t have a passion for what our purpose is, that’s a definite indicator that they shouldn’t be with us. And if they do, you really get into what they’re bringing to the team dynamic and how they’re adding or distracting from it, and clarifying it or defocusing it.
You get that in conversation, but what matters to me most when we talk with new people about coming into the company is, “Why would you want to work here?” And if I hear passion for the purpose, that’s awesome, because everything else can be taught. Everything else you can learn, and you can build upon, and you can strengthen. But if you don’t have passion and there’s no match, we’re wasting each other’s time.
How do you manage your own mental bandwidth and time–and I’m thinking specifically of your Twitter time? Do you have particular philosophies about how you contribute?
I like having a lot of repetition in my schedule, because it allows us to see how we’re actually growing, rather than randomness, which hides that.
We kick off the week every Monday with a leadership meeting, to talk about what we’re committing to this week and what we learned last week. And we have check-ins on Wednesdays and Fridays for 30 minutes, to unblock during the week and the week’s work. And then I just trust people to do the right things based on the information they have.
If I have to make a lot of decisions, it points to an area we can improve in the organization. Something’s not working if time and time again I have to make every single decision because–for whatever reason–we don’t have the right framework, or the right team dynamic, or the right people to make a decision themselves. Who are actually much, much closer to the customer than me.
My role is threefold. One, making sure that we have a great team dynamic, and we have the right people who are additive to the team. Number two is that we’re making decisions in the context of the customer and where the technology is going, and what new technologies exists, and the trends and what our competitors and peers are doing. And then three is that we’re raising the bar on what we’re doing. That we’re being better every time, and we’re doing something that we didn’t think was possible six months ago.
That’s what I’m focused on. And that’s just a function of the people and the company, and that they’re really strong and aligned with what we’re trying to get done. It’s taken some work to get there, but I think the clarity we have around what’s important and what role we want to serve in the world and what sets us apart from everyone else has never been stronger. I feel really great about that, and it’s showing not only in a faster shipping cadence, but also the quality of our work is improving as well.
You have a reputation for being really smart about the small details of a product. Do you want to be involved in the fit and finish of the Twitter app?
I’m really good at QA [quality assurance testing]. I’m usually the first one to find any bugs, ones that other people aren’t seeing. And that’s a big part of the details that matters a lot.
I really like getting down to the essence of something. Do we actually need this entire paragraph to describe what we could probably do in one sentence? I really appreciate the words we use and don’t use, because it sets a tone for how we make decisions as well.
It all comes back to how we feel when we use this thing. Does it feel empowering or diminishing? Really simple. I want to build tools that empower people. And if we make people do a lot of work, we’re actually taking time away instead of making time for them. We’re then doing the wrong things, and we’re disempowering them. That to me is what I should be giving feedback on.
Do you expect this cadence you’re on to continue indefinitely? Or will you reach a point where it’s not quite so important to be quite so busy, because you’ve gotten some of the major things solved?
I don’t think we’ll ever have all the major things solved. [Laughs] I want to continue to build on that cadence. What really matters now is the depth and the quality of our experiences. We could be a whole lot more cohesive in what Twitter feels like. At times it feels very random to people who come in. It shouldn’t feel like that. It should feel like, I open it up and I see what matters. And then, I want to engage in this, I want to comment on this, and you can just do it, immediately. And when I’m done with that, and I don’t have anything else in front of me, what else has happened in the world? And that should be easy.
And when I’m out of the app, it should be that little bird that told me, “Hey, something’s happening that you would care about.” And when I open that notification, it’s meaningful and right. “Yeah, I do care about this. I care what was just said at the DNC. I care that there’s a protest down on Market Street. Or there’s a new finding within deep learning that is monumental.” And once I get that notification, I don’t just see one thing, but I actually see why it’s relevant. The context.
How much time do you spend thinking about the future, beyond the actual to-do list you have, and what Twitter might be like if the world is quite different someday?
The present is so much more interesting. There are certain desires we have for how to make the present moment a lot less work to get to. And that’s what we’re focused on. Really, what’s happening now and how do I get caught up and how do we show the richness.
You seem really focused, as opposed to companies that are building drones, or whatever.
What companies are building drones? [Laughs]
It feels good. When you focus on something you can see it grow and strengthen. That’s why I like that repetition. And if you’re focused on too many things, it’s hard to keep track of it. What’s growing, what’s not growing, what’s improving, what’s not improving.
We have multiple things going on, of course. Focusing on why people think we matter and what they use us for has really been emboldening. Because you can now see it: It’s here, and now it’s here, and now it’s here. And it’s getting better and better every single day.
It’s kind of like working out. You can go to a gym and do 12 different exercises every day. And then you don’t really get a sense of, am I going deeper into this or not? I do the same exercise every single day. And I know when I’ve hit my boundary, and more importantly, when I go beyond it.
I think that matters a lot. And most importantly, it scales. The whole company can see it.
One of the things I’ve always found interesting on Twitter is watching you use it. The little things you do but also when it’s news, like with Leslie Jones. Do you think of yourself as just being a Twitter user, the way you like to use it, versus it being a responsibility as CEO of the company?
This one is a hard line to walk. I’m finding it challenging, certainly. But I want to be someone who shows a lot of the best use case uses of Twitter. I think I am on the consumption side. I can show more of that on the tweeting side.
I want to make sure that we’re building a platform where anyone feels free to have a conversation with me, or with anyone else. That in real time, we can actually respond, and we can enter into it. There’s a lot that I want to continue to fix around the experience to make that even better and more comfortable for everyone involved, including me.
I love reading both the positive and the negative around how people think about our service. Most of that, even when there’s something negative about us, they’re saying it on Twitter. And that shows me a lot of passion, and the importance of why we exist and continue to thrive.
That’s not new. In our first year, when we were going down, we had people sending us pizzas to work all night to get it back up. And they were angry at us–but they fed us. [Laughs] I just take it with that mind-set. Even though it’s negative, the intent behind it is that this really matters to people. It’s really important for it to be there for them. And keep that in mind when you’re reading something negative, and when you’re engaging people as well. It manifests as negativity, but behind that, what matters most is they care.
As you use Twitter, are you still able to just follow the things you’re interested in, in the way every Twitter user does, as opposed to the people you feel you should be following?
Oh, yeah. I follow a lot–over 2,000. I have notifications turned on for probably 30 or 40 people, and they’re always pretty good.
I love music, and we have some amazing musicians that use Twitter in really creative ways. My favorite artist right now is Kendrick Lamar. I think he has such a unique and powerful voice, and one that’s really balanced. He’s always going out there wearing a red and blue bandana, to really unite his hometown of Compton.
I spend a lot of time checking trends as well. I think what trends in the world is really interesting to watch. Just the trend lines of how things are moving.
One of the the things I do when I wake up is, I open Twitter, and I open our trends page. It’s kind of like a weather report. Beyoncé’s number one. Why? She just released an album. Guess what? I’ll be talking about Beyoncé today. My coworkers are going to bring it up. My family’s probably going to bring it up. Someone’s going to be talking with me about Beyoncé. And Twitter enabled me to be informed about why they’re bringing it up. And that to me is like looking out the window and saying, “Yup, it’s going to rain. I need an umbrella. Beyonce just released something, here’s what it sounds like.” It’s empowering. Our ability to keep people informed about what’s happening in the world and give them fodder for discussion is really important.