Jack Dorsey

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It’s only possible to guess from afar, but I’d wager that the diminution of neo-Nazi trolls and bots on Twitter in the post-election period isn’t largely due to tweaks made by Jack Dorsey & co., but has rather come about because those deployed to disrupt the election are no longer receiving checks from the Kremlin and god knows where else.

While the tweetstorm shitstorm has abated to a degree, we won’t know until the next election season if that rough beast is just waiting to be reborn. And things must be different next time because the tool was used like a weapon in 2016, bludgeoning democracy and decency.

The company isn’t in an easy position when it comes to the Tweeter-in-Chief, who uses the platform to slander, something that might not be as tolerated from those with lesser titles. 

When Dorsey asserts in a smart Backchannel Q&A conducted by Steven Levy that Trump’s current tweets are “consistent with his tweets back in 2011-2012,” I have to assume he’s referring to form and not content, since the pathological liar now regularly contradicts his earlier criticisms of President Obama. People have fun retweeting his old comments to point out the hypocrisy, which I suppose is useful, or at least entertaining, but we may be entertaining ourselves to death.

One thing that’s not consistent with 2011-2012 is that Trump is now President and his 140-character discharges can lead to international incidents, even wars. 

An excerpt in which Dorsey has clearly bought into the “forgotten Americans” narrative, which isn’t exactly Silicon Valley’s biggest problem:


Lately, a lot of people have been alleging that social media, including Twitter, has degraded the quality of public discourse. What do you think?

Jack Dorsey:

You can have conversation that’s distracting and you can have conversation that is focusing. I don’t think it’s a matter of the tool — it’s how people use the tool. Could we encourage better usage of Twitter through changing the product? Absolutely. We are always going to be looking for opportunities to make it easier, but also to show what matters faster. We moved from a completely time-ordered, reverse-chronological timeline to actually bubbling up what you should be seeing and what matters according to our understanding of what you’re interested in—and potentially showing the other side of what you’re interested in, as well. One of the values Twitter espouses is that it can show every side of a debate. I get the New York Times and I follow Fox, too, because I just want to challenge what I’m seeing. And that’s awesome. Whether you choose to dive into it or not is really up to you. We’re not going to force that on people.


But do you think Silicon Valley has worsened the divide?

Jack Dorsey:

It’s not just technology companies that are out of touch with a big part of the country and the world. I think it’s all of us. I think this city is out of touch with Missouri, where I’m from, and other people in areas like that. It is our responsibility to help bridge some of those gaps, because we’re building tools that people are using on a daily basis to connect with each other and to see the world. If we’re only fulfilling their bias, then we’re doing the wrong thing. We feel that burden and we want to help fix it. And the only way we can do that is by talking with people. So we go out of our way to listen and to have real conversations, not just seeing what people are saying on Twitter but actually bringing people in and interviewing them and talking about what they like and what they don’t like and what they are experiencing. The question I ask of anyone I meet who uses Twitter is: How do you use it, and why?•

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I am the whitest white boy imaginable. A really pasty fuck. My head is like a gigantic ball of cotton. When I hiccup, tiny marshmallows fall out of my mouth. And I’m male and straight and check off every other mainstream box America’s got.

That doesn’t stop Twitter Nazis from sometimes assailing me with hate speech, throwing the n-word in my direction to bait me. I block and report them, but even if they lose their account, they can instantly and anonymously start a hundred more.

Why would I want to spend time batting away evil sociopaths when I can be speaking to nice people or reading a book or exercising? And if my Caucasian, male self is on the receiving end of such nastiness, imagine how those who identify differently are pursued by these bigoted trolls.

That’s sad because I’ve also used Twitter to communicate with lots of bright folks I never would have met and to recommend really smart pieces of journalism. Still, like most non-insane people who use the social-media service, I think every day about deactivating my account. I’m sure I eventually will.

In an excellent Guardian piece, Lindy West explains she didn’t deactivate because of “trolls, robots and dictators” but due to Twitter’s negligence in countering them. It’s an oversight, the writer believes, that allowed for the “perfecting” of mass hatred. An excerpt:

I hate to disappoint anyone, but the breaking point for me wasn’t the trolls themselves (if I have learned anything from the dark side of Twitter, it is how to feel nothing when a frog calls you a cunt) – it was the global repercussions of Twitter’s refusal to stop them. The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? – and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad”, and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency. Twitter executives did nothing.

On 29 December, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted: “What’s the most important thing you want to see Twitter improve or create in 2017?” One user responded: “Comprehensive plan for getting rid of the Nazis.”

“We’ve been working on our policies and controls,” Dorsey replied. “What’s the next most critical thing?” Oh, what’s our second-highest priority after Nazis? I’d say No 2 is also Nazis. And No 3. In fact, you can just go ahead and slide “Nazis” into the top 100 spots. Get back to me when your website isn’t a roiling rat-king of Nazis. Nazis are bad, you see?

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I saw Jack Dorsey on TV once and he could barely speak or make eye contact. He seemed like the last person who would enter politics, but he has those ambitions, hoping to someday win the NYC mayoralty. Dorsey essentially wants to do the opposite of a Silicon Valley secession–he wants its numbers-crunching technocracy to fan out over urban centers. There’s something to be said for technocrats, but as we have seen with Mayor Bloomberg’s blind spot for homeless people, they too can have agendas colored if not by politics then by their personal experiences and prejudices. From D.T. Max’s recent New Yorker profile of Dorsey, a passage in which the tech titan sees the city as an interface, a Sim City come to life:

“His plans do not lack ambition. For some time now, Dorsey has been saying that he would like one day to be the mayor of New York. It’s a curious goal for someone who has lived in California for eight years, who has no experience in public life, and for whom human contact is a challenge—it’s one thing to look after a friend’s child, another to kiss a stranger’s baby. He does a creditable job on television, but never seems fully comfortable. Two years ago, Dorsey interviewed President Obama, in the White House, for an event called the Twitter Town Hall; the Los Angeles Times described Dorsey as a ‘stiff, sweaty, and serious emcee.’

Last month, at a Square recruiting session at Columbia University, the first question the engineering students asked Dorsey was about the mayoralty. He assured them that no such move was imminent; he could make more of a difference for now in the software world. He praised Bloomberg’s ability to master and improve the various systems of the city. There was no mention of his effect on individual lives. To Dorsey, the city was an engineering problem: Bloomberg had improved the interface and, thus, the experience of being a New Yorker. The audience nodded, though. Dorsey spoke their language. He told me that being mayor would come with ‘a lot of constraints, but I do well with constraints.'”

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Kirkpatrick's article details Jack Dorsey's new company, Square, which has created a way for individuals to accept credit card payments with the aid of a cell phone attachment. (Image by Joi Ito.)

An explanation for how Twitter was created, from David Kirkpatrick’s smart Vanity Fair article about Jack Dorsey, the company’s founder and deposed CEO:

“Little Jack Dorsey was obsessed with maps of cities. He papered his walls with maps from magazines, transit maps, maps from gas stations. His parents had resisted joining the emigration to the suburbs, and their shy, skinny son supported them by becoming a passionate proponent of city life. He was mesmerized by locomotives, police cars, and taxis. He would drag his younger brother Danny to nearby rail yards, where they waited just to videotape a passing train.

When their father brought home the family’s first computer that year—an IBM PC Jr.—Jack immediately took to it. He had a talent for both math and art, and began to design his own maps using a graphics program. Soon, he taught himself programming to learn how to make little dots—representing trains and buses—scoot around the maps. He spent hours listening to police and ambulance radio frequencies, then plotted the emergency vehicles as they moved toward an accident or a hospital. As he evolved into a talented teenage programmer, he came to an oddly poetic view of this precise, orderly urban grid. ‘I wanted to play with how the city worked, so I could see it,’ Dorsey recalls.

His obsession with cities—and with programming—never abated. By early 2006, having dropped out of N.Y.U. and bouncing between jobs, he found himself working for a San Francisco software start-up called Odeo, which was going nowhere. One day he proposed an idea to his boss based on a notion that Dorsey had been noodling over for years. He was fascinated by the haiku of taxicab communication—the way drivers and dispatchers succinctly convey locations by radio. Dorsey suggested that his company create a service that would allow anyone to write a line or two about himself, using a cell phone’s keypad, and then send that message to anyone who wanted to receive it. The short text alert, for him, was a way to add a missing human element to the digital picture of a pulsing, populated city.”


Jack Dorsey’s first computer, the IBM PC Jr.

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