Dantley Davis was sitting in his car in San Jose when the police officer approached, hand on gun. It wasn’t Davis’s first baseless run-in with the police, nor would it be his last.
There was a robbery in the neighborhood and Davis—whose father was Black and mother is Korean—fit the description of the thief, the officer said.
While the officer didn’t know Davis, he was almost certainly familiar with Davis’s work. At the time, Davis was a rising design star in Silicon Valley, responsible for some of the most engaged-with interfaces in the world. He had built the shopping cart for PayPal, which lets you seamlessly check out from third-party retailers. He had designed much of Netflix’s modern TV interface, which remains in use today. Davis is why you can have separate accounts for your children, and why shows autoplay as you browse (for which, yes, he’s sorry).
Keeping his hands visible on the steering wheel, Davis explained to the officer that he lived in the neighborhood. When that didn’t work, Davis turned the tables, noting that his supposed “getaway car”—a Nissan Leaf—provided a mere 40-mile range. “[The officer’s] face turned completely red,” Davis recalls with a laugh, “and they let me go.”
Though Davis can joke about the 2016 encounter now, he’s never really escaped it. Despite having worked on some of the most significant products in the Valley, he’s been repeatedly treated as an outsider—handed the wheel, but asked for his proof of ownership. His work creating interfaces with broad reach has landed him key roles at some of tech’s biggest companies. But with Black employees constituting only 3% of the workforce in design and 7% in tech, he has also found himself stymied when he’s pushed for more systemic change.
This outsider, however, is now shaping the future of one of the most influential companies on the planet. After joining Twitter in 2019, Davis became the company’s first chief design officer (as well as the first Black executive to report to the CEO since Twitter went public). His mandate: fix the toxicity on the platform and snap the company out of a decade-long product development slump, in part by shaking up its placid corporate culture.
While Twitter has been a driving force behind the most prominent social movements of the past decade, including #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, it’s also been the crucible for some of the worst online behaviors. It has enabled targeted harassment since the earliest days of the service. It has spread hate speech and misinformation, including anti-vax propaganda and former President Donald Trump’s reality-distorting lies.
A 2017 Amnesty International study found that an abusive tweet gets sent to female journalists and politicians every 30 seconds. Examining a decade of tweets, a 2018 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that false information spread six times faster than true information on the platform, and was 70% more likely to be retweeted.
In retrospect, it’s not surprising that this kind of activity has flourished for so long. Twitter’s development culture has traditionally prioritized efficiency-obsessed product managers over experience-focused designers. (Case in point: One of Twitter’s best design features—pull to refresh, which allows users to update the feed—wasn’t even created in-house; it arrived via Twitter’s acquisition of the Tweetie app in 2010.) At most successful companies, designers solve problems. At Twitter, they mostly did what they were assigned.
Davis, however, has supercharged Twitter’s product-release schedule. In the two years since his arrival, the service has launched a striking number of features that begin to address some of its most insidious problems. He lobbied to get misinformation labels live on the feed in May 2020 (which were famously used to flag Trump’s claims of election fraud). His group has helped deactivate racist algorithms that prioritized white faces when auto-cropping photos. (Twitter now lets users post a photo in its original aspect ratio.) And he’s set up a team of 15 people to develop concepts to eliminate problems like targeted harassment. He’s also been rolling out products, including the audio-chat feature Spaces and a Tip Jar for creators, which prioritize nuanced and positive interactions on the site.
“Dantley joining this company is one of the most important inflection points I believe we’ve had,” says Kayvon Beykpour, who, as head of consumer product, works with Davis to set the development direction of Twitter.
That inflection point hasn’t been easy for Twitter. Hired to shake up a corporate culture that sometimes rewarded longevity over performance, Davis is a polarizing figure within his more than 200-person design and research department.
On the one hand, he’s baking diverse perspectives into his growing design leadership team, which at press time numbered nine employees, more than half of whom are women and people of color. Throughout his department, he’s made a point of hiring people whose perspectives have often been ignored to fix the social media company’s deepest problems. (Black employees make up 6.7% of the technical workforce at Twitter, which employs roughly 6,600 people; Latinx employees account for 6.1%, and women 29.2%.)
At the same time, though, he’s been responsible for a significant exodus of veteran designers, which has had a destabilizing effect. After speaking with 20 former and current colleagues from Twitter and other companies, a portrait of Davis emerges: that of a reserved, mission-driven designer who can unnerve and even alienate employees. Davis’s critics lament him for the same reasons his loyalists love him: his surgically precise, no-nonsense critiques and emphasis on personal accountability for work.
“There was a culture of resting and vesting on this team,” Davis says unapologetically. “The expectation has shifted [so] that you are expected to make a contribution.”
Davis has support at the highest levels of Twitter. CEO Jack Dorsey praises him as “principled, creative, and uncompromising.” Twitter’s chief of human resources, Jennifer Christie, credits his “direct, performance-oriented” style with pushing the company to “be better both in terms of the kinds of products we design, but also in the kind of organization we build.”
Davis’s relentless focus on results, however, is a double-edged sword for Twitter, and one that the company is wielding at a critical moment. At few companies are the stakes of design as high as they are at Twitter. To fix Twitter is to transform social media as we know it—a task as daunting as it is necessary.
Davis and I ride in a van to the middle of nowhere. We’re off to fly model airplanes. He’s fitted a cavernous Mercedes Sprinter van with child seats for his two kids, and behind them, a matrix of PVC shelving to hold a few of his vehicles, which reach up to 13 feet in wingspan.
As we head out, passing the fruit stands of rural California, Davis does what he’s done many times to make a point with Twitter’s executive leadership team. He tells his story.
Davis was born in Seoul in 1976, and spent his first 16 years living on military bases. His father was in the Air Force, and after two tours of Vietnam, he’d become a crew chief for F-15s and other fighter jets. Davis’s mom is Korean, and she taught her son her native tongue as his first language. When his parents moved to Florida when Davis was 3, his mom took the advice of a friend and stopped speaking Korean to ensure he’d have a more “typical” American accent.
Davis found that growing up on military bases offered a particular kind of freedom. “I was surrounded by people of all walks of life. It’s one of the truest versions of a melting pot in America,” he says. “I didn’t have any notion of what my race was, really.” He became an obsessive builder of things; he learned to craft models and taught himself to code. By early adolescence, when Davis’s family moved to a base in Southern California (his parents divorced when he was 8), he was practicing these hobbies nonstop. “I was a complete nerd,” he says.
He’d buy games at the mall and unpack their files to break copy protection. (He was banned from Software Etc. when the store realized he was reselling pirated games on floppies for $5 a pop.) He began recoding games for his own amusement, teaching himself Photoshop to redraw their textures. Later, he reverse engineered how to code his own missions when he became bored of his adversaries.
Then the Air Force base closed. His dad retired. And his friends left the area. “All of a sudden, I realized identity for the first time,” he says. “The Black kids didn’t want to be my friend because I wasn’t Black enough. White kids didn’t want to be my friend because I was Black.”
By senior year, he was building websites for auto-tuning companies, trading his digital work for parts to supercharge his Honda Civic. His tech teacher pulled him aside one day after class to ask if he’d considered a career in graphic design. “I had no idea what that was,” Davis says.
In 1997, at 19 and with $100 in his pocket, he moved to the Bay Area, where rapidly expanding companies were snapping up technically proficient designers. He worked full time while studying at the Academy of Art University and later the University of San Francisco. After graduating, he took a job at PayPal, in 2002, during the earliest days of the company.
Despite his budding career, Davis felt isolated. “When I got [to San Francisco], I had this feeling like I’ve met my people, because there’s all these nerds,” he says. But after the dotcom bubble burst, things turned corporate. “I felt like I had to present a persona of myself to fit in, to not be threatening.”
On weekends, Davis would drive to Riverside, California, to visit his girlfriend (who’d soon become his wife), a reservist at March Air Reserve Base. “I would go to her unit and see the camaraderie,” he says. “I missed that. I craved it.”
That yearning became so pronounced in the aftermath of September 11 that Davis took a leave from PayPal to attend ROTC training. His plan was to use military benefits to fund studies as a civil rights attorney. He was driven by a sense of purpose, but a drill sergeant overseeing Davis’s basic training persuaded him that he had already found his mission. “You could make the world that you’re in better by staying there,” Davis recalls the sergeant saying.
He left ROTC and returned to PayPal.
As we approach a dirt path on the side of the road, Davis needles the Sprinter through a rusted gate and toward the tarmac. It’s time to fly.
Before Davis’s wife, a nurse, was shipped off to Iraq in 2006, she had given him an RC model airplane. “It kept me focused on not being so paralyzed from concern for her,” he says. It also introduced him to a community of hobbyists, many of whom were veterans. They offered Davis an enclave of support that he lacked in his professional life, which was full of people who viewed his military associations warily.
Davis is a virtuoso with his RC. He rockets the plane into the sky, climbs toward the clouds, stalls, and drops before hitting the throttle in a smooth arc. Then he buzzes over fences, cruising with just inches of clearance between freedom and a nasty crash.
Davis is naturally empathetic toward people who, in design theory, are often labeled as “on the margins.” While at PayPal, he observed his mother’s difficulty setting up a complicated online payment system as a clothing-store owner, a hurdle facing many other small-business owners in her Korean community. At the time, PayPal had a buy button that could be used in all sorts of contexts online, but lacked a turnkey application. That inspired him to build a shopping-cart experience that today allows any retailer to offer easy online checkout.
When Davis joined Netflix in 2009, he developed a concept for the company’s burgeoning TV interface. “Some of his early work was bringing a more cinematic feel to Netflix,” says Chris Smith, now Netflix’s design director. “Many people on our team contributed to this. But it was really Dantley’s early designs that shaped it.” Davis’s core vision—pushing beyond the thumbnails of video box art to embrace full-motion video—defines the Netflix interface today.
Feathering the Nest: A Look at the New Features That Davis Has Helped Roll Out to Address Some of Twitter’s Long-Standing Issues
That work led to him overseeing Netflix’s mobile app, which in 2012 was still nascent. At Davis’s insistence, Netflix engineers built more telemetry into the app, allowing the company to understand how people were using it. To their surprise, they found that in some pockets of the U.S., people were watching full movies—adventure films and shoot-’em-ups—on mobile devices.
Davis requested extra data to prove out his hypothesis: that these users were from Black and Hispanic zip codes, places where people’s primary computers were often not laptops or desktops, but smartphones. He was correct. These early findings led Netflix to optimize streaming for mobile phones, and eventually helped it penetrate markets such as India by allowing content to be downloaded ahead of time.
Davis relished the work—and enjoyed regular one-on-one meetings with CEO Reed Hastings—but still felt alone. “I was looking around, and I didn’t see anyone who looked like me,” he says. “For the longest time, I just dealt with it. It bothered me, but it was something I’d just put in the back of my mind.”
A cop pulled him over, this time near the Netflix campus, certain that Davis’s BMW M3 had to have been stolen. Davis shared the story with Hastings, and unsuccessfully pleaded with him to make Black representation a more overt part of Netflix’s mission. (Netflix declined to comment.)
When Philando Castile was shot and killed by police officers in Minneapolis in 2016—the immediate aftermath of which was livestreamed on Facebook—something inside Davis snapped. He attended a quarterly Netflix meeting, where the company was celebrating its rebounding stock price. Davis had inherited a strong sense of social justice from his father, who died in 2010. The dissonance between the real world and this Silicon Valley bubble was too much.
“He was like, ‘Dude, we can’t accept this. We need to get Black employees together,'” recalls Sabry Tozin, the former director of studio engineering at Netflix. About a dozen Black employees from the product team met up at a steak house for dinner. They talked until the restaurant closed, and continued in the parking lot. That group would grow and solidify officially as Black Employees at Netflix. “When [Davis] cares about stuff, when it’s meaningful to him, he doesn’t do anything halfway,” Tozin says.
Castile’s death also prompted Davis to take a call from Facebook, which was looking for someone to help lead the video experience and build out the app around the camera. “I thought that could be an opportunity to [do] work that was positive for society and design and technology, all in one company,” Davis says. He now realizes that was naive.
At Facebook, he again turned to demographic research to quantify how people of color were using the service. But while Facebook green-lighted the research, dubbed Project Vibe, getting the company to make any meaningful updates based on the findings felt futile. “I was worn down from constantly having to point out these issues, raise the flag, get everyone in the room, try to convince people there was a problem, get them to leverage resources to address the problem . . . and rinse, wash, and repeat,” Davis says. (A Facebook spokesperson refutes Davis’s claims, insisting his research led to better enforcement of hate-speech policies and more funding and programs for Black and Latinx users.) When Twitter reached out, Davis was fairly certain that he was done with social media forever. But because the interview would be with founder Dorsey himself, he took it.
At their meeting, Davis told Dorsey that his interest in the job came down to just one question: Did the Twitter CEO believe that groups that condone hate and extremism belong on the platform? “If he felt like they did, I didn’t need to go to Twitter, because I [was] already dealing with that at Facebook,” Davis says. “[Instead] we spent the next 45 minutes or so of our conversation brainstorming solutions. At Facebook, I spent most of my energy trying to convince people there were even problems. Jack acknowledged there were problems. That’s all I needed.”
Davis’s tenure at Twitter has been rocky, and in many ways that’s by design. When he arrived, he found a company structured in a way that had designers acting in something of a work-for-hire role, answering requests from product managers. According to a former Twitter design team member familiar with the situation, designers often had their hands tied, and many left in frustration. Recruiting new talent became even more difficult as Twitter’s stock suffered in the mid-2010s. (It hasn’t helped that Dorsey, who took over as CEO in 2015, has at times seemed distracted by Square, where he also serves as CEO, and his cryptocurrency investing.)
Davis wanted to reinvigorate the team—even if that meant rattling them. According to one source, Davis came to his first meeting with design managers armed with Netflix’s culture handbook, which promotes radical candor and no-nonsense performance evaluations. Davis basically said, the source recalls, “I’m going to be brutally honest with you all: Jack said the design team is fucked up, and he wants me to come in and fix this.” Then he asked the managers to go around the room and offer critical feedback of one another. Today, all but two of them have left the company.
“There was a lot of tension,” Davis says of those early days. He didn’t pull punches in his design critiques, especially with senior employees. One former team member describes “a culture of fear” around design reviews. Davis expected attrition, and he got it.
With the rest of his design team, he tried to take a more measured approach. He proved to be an accessible member of the C-suite, offering weekly feedback sessions and holding regular office hours. One current designer calls Davis “caring and kind” but also “quiet, stoic, and direct,” which was initially intimidating. “When you’re nervous and looking for positive affirmation, he doesn’t always provide that.”
After receiving feedback from human resources earlier this year that his leadership style was alienating some staffers, Davis had been working to soften his approach. But a story by The New York Times in August detailing complaints about Davis, and company surveys in which design team members reported feeling “psychologically unsafe,” threw these efforts—and his team—into disarray.
Davis admits that he likely “contributed to [people] not feeling psychologically safe, because it was the first time they got candid feedback.” He’s since met with members of his team to acknowledge their concerns and his missteps, but maintains that he’s not lowering his standards.
“We are still learning how to strike the right balance of empathy and respect with direct and honest feedback, and Dantley has been working on calibrating his approach to achieve that,” says Christie, the head of human resources. But even designers who didn’t feel uneasy about the state of the team a few months ago now say they are acutely aware of the tension on staff.
Davis’s bold approach has served him better elsewhere: He has managed to break down silos between designers and product managers, engineers, and researchers, and give design more sway in product development. Instead of having product managers present product concepts to leadership in the form of wordy corporate documents—Twitter’s previous process—the design team now mocks up new features, giving them a sense of clarity and urgency. “Dantley demanded people not just care but also do the work,” says Theresa Mershon, a senior designer who oversees design systems at Twitter. “There were a lot of [people saying], ‘There be dragons, don’t go there!’ He was like, ‘Get in there with those dragons. Figure it out. Feeling bad about it isn’t enough.'”
Under Davis, Twitter has debuted dozens of features. Some are part of the company’s push to develop new revenue streams (for the company and creators), such as Twitter Blue, a subscription service that lets you edit tweets, and Tip Jar, which supports independent artists. Others are focused on allowing users to engage in ways that shift the balance away from toxicity, including Spaces, which lets you have audio chats with groups, and the forthcoming Twitter Communities, which will let you join groups around your interests.
These efforts appear to be working. Twitter has boosted “average monetizable users” by 11% over the past year, according to its second-quarter earnings, and 41% of users have started following not just people but organized topics, which lowers the barrier for entry on the esoteric service and increases engagement. Twitter’s total revenue grew 74% year over year in the second quarter.
Davis has also addressed Twitter’s sometimes glaring lack of diversity. When the design team took a group photo in 2019 and posted it on Twitter, Davis was one of just a few Black people among the roughly 100 employees in it. “We immediately started getting dragged by designers of color,” he says. “Take that picture today, and there are all the shades and people from all walks of life, regardless of skin tone.” Davis says he’s already seeing benefits. “There’s a shorthand around various concepts that pertain to culture, where there isn’t a need to explain why we should do something. The team just knows.”
The company had designed misinformation flags for false content before Davis’s arrival, but they were simply sitting on a shelf. “I don’t want to say I was responsible for [the feature going live], but I was definitely poking, questioning, spinning the problem around at different angles to leadership. And I kept bringing it up. And eventually we started to use it,” Davis says. Those flags, a more sophisticated version of which is being piloted, are just the start. Birdwatch, a crowdsourced way to call out false tweets, recently entered beta, and Twitter is currently developing the option to “unmention” yourself in a conversation, an essential way to disengage with toxicity.
To keep themselves honest—and include even more voices in the development process—the design team is working with unprecedented transparency. The @TwitterDesign handle now shares mock-ups for new features right on the platform, connecting the design team directly to Twitter users. “We want to codesign products with our customers,” says Anita Butler, who oversees the misinformation-label effort as Twitter’s health design director. “No matter how diverse our team is, we can’t match the diversity of our customers.”
Much of this sounds promising. Camille François of the research firm Graphika, which studies how disinformation spreads on social media, doubts Twitter’s misinformation labels have had a meaningful impact. But she does praise Twitter’s decision around the 2020 election to slow viral takes by forcing users to add a comment to a retweet, rather than just retweet it. “Twitter forced a stronger design angle in how Silicon Valley tackles online harm, which was long overdue,” she says. “Tackling online harm on social media isn’t just a matter of which rules you have, and how good you are at implementing them. How your platform is designed has a critical impact.”
Twitter, meanwhile, appears to be making more of an effort to study the problem of toxicity. After years of reneging on third-party research agreements, the company recently activated one of these studies, opening up its platform to Rebekah Tromble, who directs the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics at George Washington University. “Twitter seems to be making this big sea change in their approach,” she says. “[When Twitter brought] in new blood, that’s when we saw the turnaround in our project.” But anyone who uses Twitter in a more than casual way knows just how far the company has to go to truly address its issues.
Davis understands this on a deeply personal level. Even as he’s helped Twitter ban hate speech, he himself has been doxed and targeted with racist attacks on his own platform. Davis has received death threats—detailing harm to him and family members—which led Twitter to post security around his house. (The suspect is currently under investigation by law enforcement.)
Davis has shared these experiences with the Twitter leadership team, serving as a vocal reminder that the company’s work is far from done. Reflecting on the experience now, he says that the strain he was under may have contributed to the issues with his team. “To fix the harassment I was feeling so intimately,” he says, “all I could focus on was what was wrong. My team was making small daily wins, but where I was emotionally, I could not see that.”
Back on the airstrip, Davis is ready to bring the plane around for a landing. It’s windy, and the air is jostling the featherlight craft as it approaches the strip. I brace for a crash, but Davis lands it with a soft bounce of the wheels, quickly steering it in a little twirl to slow it without flipping.
He’s avoided an accident, but he does something I don’t expect. Instead of packing up the plane, Davis puts it back into the air, circles the strip, and comes in for a landing again. The touchdown is successful, but still not as silky smooth as he wants. So he launches and lands again—and again. He won’t stop until he gets it right.
Update: Based on information supplied by Twitter, an earlier version of this story identified Dantley Davis as the first Korean American executive to report to the CEO since Twitter went public. He is not.