"I don't know what a Twitter CEO should look like, but you don't look like what a CEO of Twitter should look like."

This was how Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, greeted Jack Dorsey at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday. Barton had a point: Dorsey--in an open-necked shirt with an unusual tall collar, a long poet's beard and a nose ring--didn't resemble your typical corporate executive. 

Nor did he sound like one, especially when contrasted with Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, who sat beside him during an earlier hearing held by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Pressed, polished, well-rehearsed--Sandberg stuck closely to her talking points, just as her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, did during his trips to Capitol Hill and the European Parliament. Discussing foreign influence operations on social media, she expertly skated the line between appearing to take serious matters seriously and admitting blame for anything in particular. She came out of it without creating any new headaches for Facebook, a crucial achievement given her new assignment of reputation management.

Dorsey, on the other hand, was refreshingly unpredictable. He gave the impression of answering questions candidly, not cagily, and revealed a surprising degree of soul-searching within Twitter. Asked about how Twitter determines which accounts to verify as authentic, he said, "To be very frank, our verification program right now is not where we'd like to be. It's in serious need of a reboot and a reworking." Asked about the system for reporting harassment or abuse, he was the first to criticize it, saying, "We don't think it's fair victims of abuse have to do the work to report it." 

Dorsey's self-examination reached all the way down to the basics of how Twitter works. "We are rethinking the incentives our service is giving to people," he said.

Since its inception, he explained, Twitter has prominently shown logged-in users how many followers they have. "Just that decision alone has incentivized people to want to grow that number," he said. "The question we're now asking is, is that necessarily the right incentive? Is the number of followers you have really a proxy for how much you contribute to Twitter and this digital public square?" 

Rather than reward users for seeking attention and/or notoriety, he said, Twitter would like to engage them in "healthy public conversation." Several times, he said promoting such conversations is now the company's "singular priority," with the first goal being to figure out how to quantify something as abstract as conversational health. (Dorsey tossed out a few possible indicators but admitted it's early days, still.) 

It was impossible not to contrast Dorsey's everything's-on-the-table looseness with Sandberg's lawyerly constructions--and, of course, with Google's failure even to send a senior leader to the Senate hearing. (To shame Google, the committee left an open seat next to Dorsey and Sandberg.) 

At the same time, he fell a little short of what might have felt like a full reckoning with the nature of the problem. After all, it's not just Twitter's users who operate within an incentive structure that influences their behavior. Twitter itself does, too. Just as people like Donald Trump and Elon Musk seek to grow their follower counts, consciously or unconsciously, by being outrageous, Twitter strives to boost its daily active users, its advertising revenue, and its share price. 

To achieve its "singular goal," Dorsey said, he's willing to forego those things--for a while. "We see increasing health of public conversation for us as a growth factor for us. It's not a short-term growth factor, it's a long-term factor. ... Otherwise, no one's going to use [Twitter] in the first place." Zuckerberg has said similar things about his commitment to making Facebook a place for "meaningful interactions"; a one-day, $120 billion plunge in its stock put some meat on that promise. 

Dorsey and Zuckerberg think there's a win-win to be had. But while they talk about it as a given, it's just a hypothesis. Making Facebook and Twitter nicer, safer places for their users may indeed be a better long-term growth strategy. Unless they change the incentives that made them what they are in the first place, though, it won't matter much.

Is there anyone--anywhere--who can figure out how to harmonize a public tech company's insistent growth imperative with a global utility's responsibility to the individuals and societies it serves?

We'd all like to know what that CEO looks like.

Published on: Sep 6, 2018