Recently, Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey was a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast and he had a wide-ranging conversation with Alex Kennedy. They discussed the early days of Twitter, what changes we may see in the future, his love of the Golden State Warriors and much more. You can listen to the episode here. But if you prefer to read the conversation, a condensed and edited transcript of the episode is below.
I want to discuss the early days of Twitter. You co-founded Twitter in 2006. How did you come up with the idea and, early on, what were your expectations for what the platform would become?
Jack Dorsey: It really came from an early passion of wanting to understand cities and see how they work. I was fascinated by the city of St. Louis, where I grew up, and just how it functioned. I taught myself how to program at an early age, so I could eventually draw a map with ambulances, police cars, taxicabs and whatnot moving around. I would get that data from a police scanner that my parents had and eventually got into the field of dispatch. I realized at some point that I was basically building this system that allowed these taxis or ambulances or emergency vehicles to constantly report where they are, where they’re going and what they’re doing. Sometime in 2001, I had the idea to extend that to everyone. What if anyone could – just using a phone – share where they’re going, what they’re doing or where they were… All I had was an email pager at the time. Technology was wrong at that point and I didn’t really have a team that was interested in it, so it was the wrong time. But in 2006, SMS got really big in this country and that provided the right technology. Also, I was working at a company with Evan Williams and Biz Stone, who created Blogger – this very simple one-button publishing system. I brought up the idea, used SMS and we gave ourselves two weeks to build it. Within two weeks, we built something where you could share, with a text message, what was happening and anyone could follow those updates or unfollow them. And that was it. We just continued to push and learn what it wanted to be by watching how people were using it.
It didn’t take long for Twitter to become massively successful. What was it like watching your creation blow up and become this enormously influential platform that people use on a daily basis?
JD: It was pretty amazing to see where people wanted to take it. One of the most special things about Twitter was that a lot of it wasn’t really invented by us as a company. We saw people using the at symbol (@) to refer to each other, and what they were trying to do was put an @ before a name so they could actually have a conversation. Just by watching that, and after making it a little bit easier and accessible to everyone, we enabled conversation on the service. Then, we saw people use a hashtag to categorize a topic, which allowed people to break out of the following graph and actually talk about any topic of interest to them like #NBATwitter. And then we saw people do stuff like retweets and threads, so a lot of what we’ve done has been, I think, a pretty brilliant pairing of watching how people want to use this and what it wants to become. Then, we just make it more accessible to everyone.
Can you walk me through a typical day in the life of Jack Dorsey. You have two massively successful companies in Twitter and Square, so you’re extremely busy. How does a typical day go for you?
JD: I wake up pretty early; I start with meditation. I don’t really check my phone until around 7:00 or 7:20 am. I love to walk to work every morning, but my walk is five miles. It usually takes me about an hour and a half. During that time, I listen to podcasts or audio books, so I’m learning something. Then, I get to the office, get some coffee and begin my day at Twitter. Then, in the afternoon, I walk across the street and go to Square. After [working at Square], I get some dinner. That’s a typical day, but there’s no day that’s really typical.
I’m sure we have a lot of young entrepreneurs listening right now, and I’m sorry if you get this question a lot, but what advice would you give to young entrepreneurs and people who want to work in tech?
JD: I think the biggest thing is having a strong sense of what your purpose is and what you want to do in the world. And when you have that, you can work backwards. You can understand what skills you need to teach yourself or learn, where you might need help, if you need any particular mentors, but basically what you need to learn. My purpose in the early days and my drive was really just to understand how cities worked. I never wanted to become an engineer or an entrepreneur or even run a business, but I knew in order to really understand how those cities worked, I needed to teach myself how to program. Then I needed to learn how to self-sustain through building a business, and also be able to hire people and become a leader of an organization as well. I think the most important thing is really clarifying your objective and then working backwards from it.
Because of your success and how much you’re worth, do you constantly get 30-second elevator pitches from people who want you to invest in their company? And what’s the strangest pitch you’ve ever heard?
JD: (Laughs) Nothing is really coming to mind. Look, I think Twitter was a really strange idea! When we first met investors, the first thing they said was, “Nobody needs this, why do you think this will be big?” What we said in reply was, “Look, we’re building this for ourselves. We love it. We love using it.” We met investor after investor after investor and still got that message of, “Nobody needs this,” or, “You invented something nobody needs.” But then we met someone who actually used the service and the first thing he said is, “I love Twitter. How do I help and how do I participate?” So even if you think your idea is crazy, it might be crazy to someone but it won’t be crazy to everyone. It will resonate with someone – it’s just taking that bet that it’s going to resonate with more people [than not].
Was there a specific moment when you realized just how important and big-time Twitter had become?
JD: There were two big moments for me. The first moment was during the Green Revolution in Iran [in 2009] when we saw Twitter being used by people to talk about what was happening on the streets during the protest. That, to me, just made the world feel very small. It was an active conversation. I had no context for Iran or the people in Iran and didn’t hear directly from them, but to hear directly from them and to see what was happening through their own eyes was pretty phenomenal.
The second one for me, personally – I’m from St. Louis, Missouri – [was the protests in Ferguson]. We had seen a lot of global usage of Twitter. We’d seen it with the Arab Spring, we’d seen a number of activists around the world use it and we saw it used within natural disasters. But Ferguson was the moment that it really got close to home. The protests were 10 minutes from my parents’ home in St. Louis. We never saw that sort of activity in mass before and certainly not on Twitter, so I immediately went home and joined the protest. It was amazing to see how people were using it on the ground, and how important it was in order to get the real message out there. The streets were full of cameramen and camerawomen from places like CNN and they would only focus on some of the worst aspects, and Twitter provided a way to show the real heart in the protest and the real people – and not so much the crisis but the purpose of why we were protesting in the first place. The ability to get through the clutter and get through the noise and hear directly from people on the ground was pretty phenomenal to experience.
I think everyone was glued to Twitter during those protests and it’s times like that when we remember this platform’s importance and value. Now, let’s get into some basketball talk because, after all, this is an NBA podcast. I read that you’re a huge fan of the Golden State Warriors and that they’ve even impacted how you run your businesses.
JD: Growing up in St. Louis, we lost our team pretty early – two decades before I was born. But I always appreciated the game of basketball and also the game of soccer because it doesn’t require much to play. It’s very accessible. With both sports, all you need is yourself and a ball. You don’t need any other equipment. You can play with yourself or with one other person, but it’s also a very dynamic team sport as well. So I love the accessibility of the sport, I love the pace of the sport and, as I learned more and more about the league, I loved what the league stands for as well. It felt like a league with a lot of heart, a very strong point of view and, most importantly, a lot of care for its players and their desires and beliefs and also their fans.
I moved to the Bay Area in 1999. I had been following basketball, but not as deeply as I do now. I really latched onto the Warriors about five years ago. One of the things that has always been impressive is not the focus on the individual players but the team dynamic. I think Steve Kerr is a phenomenal coach in his understanding of what makes a great team dynamic. That’s the interconnection between the players and how no one person carries the load; it’s really the dynamic that pushes it forward. I appreciate that so much and learned [from it] because I was reminded how important a team dynamic is. We often tend to focus on individual superstars, even within companies. We try to find the best one individual person, but that takes away from [focusing on] who’s actually going to contribute to a positive team dynamic, a stronger team dynamic. Who’s going to be supportive of their teammates versus just looking out for themselves? It’s been a constant good reminder and to see it with the pace of basketball – and to see it with the excitement and all the ups and downs in this short, little narrow bit of time – really inspired me to think about ways to expend it to our work and to our team and what we have to do.
#NBATwitter has become a really cool sub-community. It seems like you’re a part of that community too, since that’s how we connected. I’ve seen Twitter Sports promote #NBATwitter quite a bit – online as well as at live events like the NBA Draft and NBA Awards Show. Do you have anything special planned for #NBATwitter going forward, and what do you think separates it from other sub-communities?
JD: I think the first reason it’s become so strong is the league’s acceptance of it. And not just acceptance, but usage of it. There’s a very open mindset to technologies like Twitter and that’s helped immensely. I also think the pace of Twitter matches the pace of the NBA and basketball in general. We [focused on] very brief moments and it’s fast paced and there’s a lot going on, and you find a lot of the same dynamics within basketball and an appreciation for those things within the fan base. We were fortunate to get a lot of the players on the service and also the commentators – a lot of the smart commentators.
But it isn’t just the commentators, players and teams. That’s the surface level and that’s who a lot of people follow, but we have some of the most amazing fans on #NBATwitter too. And some of the fans have direct connections to the NBA. My favorite account – and one that I think makes #NBATwitter so special – is Draymond Green’s mother, @BabersGreen. She has found all the other NBA moms on Twitter and she trash-talks them during games! She also trash-talks her own son during games! Watching a game with her tweeting about what’s going on with Draymond or with other moms is just entertaining. The basketball game is amazing in itself, but to see her comment on it just makes it funny. I think it’s a good companion to the event and to what you’re watching. It also, again, has that feeling of making the world smaller. We’re all watching this game at once; we all saw the same thing and here’s how we all feel about it – whether we’re outraged or we’re excited – it is that we’re of the crowd in many cases.
We’ve seen Twitter broadcast NFL games in the past. Do you plan to do something similar in the future, either once again with the NFL or with other sports leagues? And does Twitter have any plans to pump out original content like Facebook, Amazon and other companies have done?
JD: We’re always open to opportunities that enrich the conversation. We think that our superpower as a service is really focused on providing a public conversation around events, around the news, around what’s happening. If we find an opportunity like streaming a show or a game that enriches the conversation, then we’ll do it.
Would you like to own an NBA team?
JD: (Laughs) I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know what value I would add. I guess I’m open to it, but I’m pretty focused on what I’m doing right now.
Now, let’s get to some topics submitted by listeners. First of all, will we ever get an edit button on Twitter? I’m thinking something where there’s a small window for editing – maybe in the 30 seconds after a tweet is sent – just to fix typos.
JD: We’re always looking at what that would mean. When people say edit, I think they mean a few different things, so we need to clarify exactly what that means and how it would impact the service. We’re definitely open [to it]. As I said earlier, I think we’ve had a really good pattern of recognizing what people are trying to do on the service and making that easier and it definitely falls into that initiative. We also have pretty limited resources, so we always need to prioritize what’s going to have the impact first.
You recently made news for suspending Alex Jones and Infowars, and it’s clear you guys are making an effort to remove hate speech, harassment and misinformation from the platform. What’s the best way to do that and how much progress are you making on that?
JD: We certainly have a lot more work to do. We wanted to make sure that we can actually measure our progress, so the way we’re framing this is around conversational health. We’ve all been in conversations that feel a little bit toxic. You can imagine a conversation that you’ve had that might’ve felt pretty demeaning or toxic and something that you wanted to walk away from. You’ve also had conversations that you wanted to stay in that were so engaging and so inspiring or so focused on teaching you something new that you just want to have more and more and more of it. If we can feel that, we believe that we can measure that; if we can measure that, we can really understand our progress when we deploy new solutions or new models to help people have healthier public conversations. We also realize that not everyone is going to choose to have a healthy conversation, but we want to guide more people toward it because you can participate in a broader, global conversation if you do. That’s how we’re thinking about it. We want to make sure that we’re able to measure our progress and that’s the work right now.
Twitter has become so influential in politics, which I’m sure you never anticipated early on. I’m sure that’s something you never anticipated early on. Democrats and Republicans are angry right now and want the opposition silenced, which puts you in a tough spot because there’s no way to please everyone. What’s that been like? How are you dealing with being in the middle of that?
JD: First and foremost, we have to realize we’re not just a U.S. service; we’re a global service and it’s really important to see a global perspective and make sure we ensure more of that. We also need to make sure that our models, our rules, our enforcement and the way we act internally and also externally are not focused on any political ideology or viewpoint. I think we have done a good job at that. We don’t always do the best job at explaining why decisions are being made or how systems work and that’s on us. But I don’t really see myself being in the middle of these two – at least in the U.S.– warring factions, but rather how do we make sure that all perspectives are available for people so they can have a healthy discussion. We have a lot more work to do on that, but we are making some progress. The thing that I’m most worried about now is how do we contribute or incentivize echo chambers – people only listening to people they want to hear from or who confirm their own particular bias. How do we introduce different viewpoints so that people can have a really healthy debate and make up their own minds?
Where do you think Twitter will be 10 years from now? If you had to project, where do you think Twitter will be in a decade?
JD: Our superpower, as I said earlier, is conversation – public conversation. We want to be the first consideration whenever someone wants to have a conversation out in the open. We’ve been compared in the past to a public square and I think that’s a pretty good descriptor as to what you might find on Twitter. You have a lot of people who are gathering and having conversations about all sorts of topics – some people talking about the game last night, some people talking about politics, some people just having small talk. We want to make sure that we’re the best place for public conversation.
Also, when people come to Twitter, we want to make sure they don’t see it as, “I don’t have anything to say to the world.” Right now, people assume that if they go to Twitter and tweet, that they have to say something the whole world is going to find relevant. We need to make the world feel a lot smaller. If you’re interested in basketball, we should get you directly into #NBATwitter. If you’re interested in the Warriors, we should get you right into Warriors Twitter so you can have a conversation that feels a lot smaller. The whole world can still see it, but you can talk about what you’re passionate about or interested in or ask questions or share that you’re at the game or whatnot and here’s what you think. That’s our work: how do we get people into more and more public conversation? We do believe it has benefits. It can help the world learn a lot faster, it can help us identify and solve common problems that we’re all facing and ultimately help us realize we’re all in this together.
What are some changes we may see to Twitter in the near future?
JD: We’ve been biasing more and more the service toward following topics and interests. Today we’ve only given people a pretty crude way to get information on Twitter, which is number one following an account. You can search, you can go to explore tab and you can get into conversations, but we need to bias a lot more of the service toward being able to follow a topic like #NBATwitter. We think that will allow people to have a much richer conversation and get to their interests much faster. We don’t see ourselves as a social network, per se. We don’t get value from who’s in your address book or your old classmates or your current coworkers. We get value and we provide value based on what you’re interested in and you wanting to have a conversation about that interest and what that means. The faster we can get people to what they’re actually interested in, showing them what’s happening within those interests and ideally helping them have a conversation about it, those are the biggest changes we’ll be making over the next little while.
Who are some people you look up to or who have influenced you?
JD: Steve Kerr and the whole Warriors team is definitely a group of individuals that have inspired me. I learn every time I watch them. I approach everything with a mindset of, “I have something to learn from every person I come across.” But, consistently, they have taught me every time I watch them in action. That has been the most recent and, relevant to this conversation, in terms of far-off mentorship. I don’t talk with them directly, but observing them has taught me a lot.
The HoopsHype Podcast is sponsored by the BIG3. Ice Cube’s three-on-three league just concluded its second season, with Corey Maggette and Coach Nancy Lieberman leading Power to the championship. As season three approaches, keep an eye out for new player announcements and next year’s schedule so you can get tickets at BIG3.com/tickets.