I’d like to give a shout out to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for owning up to the social media platform’s problems this week. Or, do I?
In a series of tweets published yesterday Dorsey said he’s tried to combat Twitter’s issues, but acknowledged that its primarily reactive efforts aren’t enough. He “didn’t anticipate the amount of abuse and misinformation its service would help facilitate…We didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences.
“We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers…We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough.”
Not bad, right? But those “look! an honest leader” vibes grow dull when you consider that his latest mea culpa is not only a reboot of sentiments he’s made over the years, it’s kinda late, no? Twitter has been the unwitting delivery system for foolishness since day one. So, while I want to thoroughly appreciate his candor as a leader, and applaud his willingness to take his rotten tomatoes on the public stage, I can’t quite get there.
In his defense, Dorsey would have needed a crystal ball to see what the future held when he, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams launched the platform in 2006. It’s not like he had a business model to reference. He was responding to and creating a completely new branch of the media.
In this latest public “it’s not you, it’s me,” he made no excuses for Twitter’s shortcomings, which should go a long way in the court of public opinion. And we know it’s gonna be a journey as the platform tries to pull itself away from those facets of social media darkness that he named and into the light. But Dorsey’s smart enough to know that it’s infinitely more credible to own up to a mess before beginning the cleanup.
He didn’t shy away from the grime that sticks to Twitter. “We‘ve been accused of apathy, censorship, political bias, and optimizing for our business and share price instead of the concerns of society,” he wrote. “This is not who we are, or who we ever want to be.”
And so many things these days are carefully spun, craftily airbrushed and curated to within an inch of life, people like it when you call a spade. It’s refreshing. A willingness to put a line in the sand suggests strength, integrity, even when that sand might be shifting with the tide.
But while this isn’t Dorsey’s first mea culpa – I blogged about one in November 2017, and another in July 2016 – this is the first time I recall reading anything about Twitter seeking out an actionable solution, though this isn’t so much a solution as it is a way to, say, fight fire with foam. Variety reported that the social media giant will seek out ways to promote healthy conversations rather than solely fighting unhealthy ones. “Twitter is looking to partner with outside experts to figure out how to even measure the health of public conversations. The company put out a public request for proposals from scientists and research organizations, and vows to fund work to help it measure public health.”
“What we know is we must commit to a rigorous and independently vetted set of metrics to measure the health of public conversation on Twitter,” Dorsey said. “We must commit to sharing our results publicly to benefit all who serve the public conversation.”
This is a big, crazy complex problem to solve, and data is a logical place to start breaking it into something approaching manageable. But the Dorsey’s of the world know that the underbelly of human nature doesn’t really want the bad parts of social media to go away.
The folks who occupy that underbelly enjoy trolling and spewing hate and promoting negativity, violence and all the rest. So, I can’t help but wonder if this new stream of tweets isn’t just a fairly programmed response to the changing zeitgeist. An acknowledgement, for instance, that women are increasingly powerful and vocal about their intolerance for objectification, abuse and all the rest of it?
Granted, if this was an easy fix, somebody would have come up with it already, and made a worthwhile fortune from its implementation. But it’s worth noting that Dorsey’s commentary comes after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s talk of “putting a bigger emphasis on building community.” The aforementioned Variety piece said Facebook has already begun to publish information on Facebook usage’s effect on mental health.
No matter how open you are as a leader, timing can be everything. Suzy and Joe Public probably aren’t going to break apart his commentary to look for all the angles and sniff out which pieces might be starting to stink like a journalist or blogger would. But it doesn’t take much for a whiff of opportunism to foul even a genuine message, and there are many who doubt Dorsey’s sincerity.
I doubt it. Even if you mean it, there are only so many times you can say sorry before it stops registering as meaningful. I’ve managed one blog per year since 2016 with a theme or sub-theme around a Dorsey issued “I’m sorry.”
To flip briefly to the angel on my other shoulder, that damned if you do and damned if you don’t tightrope when it comes to an apology for a chronic issue is makes leadership interesting in the Internet age. Especially when you’re talking about a startup blowing up and helping to create an entirely new segment of the marketplace.
Regardless of industry or market position, in general I think it’s a good thing when a leader isn’t afraid to admit he made a mistake, or that he doesn’t have a solution to a problem that’s plaguing a significant portion of the general public. It shows courage as well as savvy, and Dorsey openly said that making Twitter a healthier platform is going to be a job for the age.
“Definitely don’t believe this will be easy,” he tweeted. “That’s why we must be more open.” He also suggested that transparency might provide some sort of aid.
In the end, whether you believe his comments are completely genuine or well-crafted self-preservation, you can’t deny there’s power in a public plea for help. The proof in this particular pudding will be evident down the line when we see what changes – if any – the platform makes once it has help in hand.