Diving into TED2019, the state of social media, and internet behavior

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. Last week, TechCrunch’s Anthony Ha gave us his recap of the TED2019 conference and offered key takeaways from the most interesting talks and provocative ideas shared at the event.

Under the theme, ‘Bigger Than Us’, the conference featured talks, Q&A’s, and presentations from a wide array of high-profile speakers, including an appearance from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey which was the talk of the week. Anthony dives deeper into the questions raised in his onstage interview that kept popping up: How has social media warped our democracy? How can the big online platforms fight back against abuse and misinformation? And what is the Internet good for, anyway?

“…So I would suggest that probably five years ago, the way that we wrote about a lot of these tech companies was too positive and they weren’t as good as we made them sound. Now the pendulum has swung all the way in the other direction, where they’re probably not as bad we make them sound…

…At TED, you’d see the more traditional TED talks about, “Let’s talk about the magic of finding community in the internet.” There were several versions of that talk this year. Some of them very good, but now you have to have that conversation with the acknowledgement that there’s much that is terrible on the internet.”

Ivan Poupyrev

Image via Ryan Lash / TED

Anthony also digs into what really differentiates the TED conference from other tech events, what types of people did and should attend the event, and even how he managed to get kicked out of the theater for typing too loud.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Twitter makes ‘likes’ easier to use in its twttr prototype app. (Nobody tell Jack.)

On the one hand, you’ve got Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey lamenting the “like” button’s existence, and threatening to just kill the thing off entirely for incentivizing the wrong kind of behavior. On the other hand, you have twttr — Twitter’s prototype app where the company is testing new concepts including, most recently, a way to make liking tweets even easier than before.

Confused about Twitter’s product direction? Apparently, so is the company.

In the latest version of the twttr prototype, released on Thursday, users are now able to swipe right to left on any tweet in order to “like” it. Previously, this gesture only worked on tweets in conversation threads, where the engagement buttons had been hidden. With the change, however, the swipe works anywhere — including the Home timeline, the Notifications tab, your Profile page, or even within Twitter Search results. In other words, it becomes a more universal gesture.

This makes sense because once you got used to swiping right, it was confusing that the gesture didn’t work in some places, but did in others. Still, it’s odd to see the company doubling down on making “likes” easier to use — and even rolling out a feature that could increase user engagement with the “Like” button — given Jack Dorsey’s repeated comments about his distaste for “likes” and the conversations around the button’s removal.

Of course, twttr is not supposed to be Dorsey’s vision. Instead, it’s meant to be a new experiment in product development, where users and Twitter’s product teams work together, in the open, to develop, test, and then one day officially launch new features for Twitter.

For the time being, the app is largely focused on redesigning conversation threads. On Twitter today, these get long and unwieldy, and it’s not always clear who’s talking to who. On twttr, however, threads are nested with a thin line connecting the various posts.

The app is also rolling out other, smaller tweaks like labels on tweets within conversations that highlight the original “Author’s” replies, or if a post comes from someone you’re “following.”

And, of course, twttr introduced the “swipe to like” gesture.

While it’s one thing to want to collaborate more directly with the community, it seems strange that twttr is rolling out a feature designed to increase — not decrease — engagement with “likes” at this point in time.

Last August, for example, Dorsey said he wanted to redesign key elements of the social network, including the “like” button and the way Twitter displays follower counts.

“The most important thing that we can do is we look at the incentives that we’re building into our product,” Dorsey had said at the time. “Because they do express a point of view of what we want people to do — and I don’t think they are correct anymore.”

Soon after, at an industry event in October 2018, Dorsey again noted how the “like” button sends the wrong kind of message.

“Right now we have a big ‘like’ button with a heart on it, and we’re incentivizing people to want to drive that up,” said Dorsey. “We have a follower count that was bolded because it felt good twelve years ago, but that’s what people see us saying: that should go up. Is that the right thing?,” he wondered.

While these comments may have seemed like a little navel-gazing over Twitter’s past, a Telegraph report about the “like” button’s removal quickly caught fire. It claimed Dorsey had said the “like” button was going to go away entirely, which caused so much user backlash that Twitter comms had to respond. The company said the idea has been discussed, but it wasn’t something happening “soon.” (See above tweet).

Arguably, the “like” button is appreciated by Twitter’s user base, so it’s not surprising that a gesture that could increase its usage would become something that gets tried out in the community-led twttr prototype app. It’s worth noting, however, how remarkably different the development process is when it’s about what Twitter’s users want, not the CEO.

Hmmm.

Hey, twttr team? Maybe we can get that “edit” button now?

 

 

Jack Dorsey just met with Trump to talk about the health of Twitter’s public discourse

Twitter’s co-founder and CEO historically doesn’t have the most discerning tastes when it comes to who he decides to engage with. Fresh off the podcast circuit, today a thoroughly beardy Jack Dorsey sat down with President Trump for his most high profile tête-à-tête yet.

Unlike his recent amble onto the Joe Rogan show, Dorsey’s 30 minute meeting with Trump happened behind closed doors. Motherboard reported the meeting just before Trump tweeted about it.

Unless either of the men decides to share more about what they discussed we won’t know how things went down exactly, though it’s probably easy enough to guess. According to the Motherboard report, the initial internal Twitter email named “the health of the public conversation on Twitter” as the topic of the day.

Given that, we’d guess that Trump probably took the chance to bring up recent unfounded gripes about conservative censorship on the platform while Dorsey likely offered reassurances, active listening and other assorted gestures of noncommittal mildness.

According to the internal memo, Dorsey preemptively defended his decision to accept an invite from Trump. “Some of you will be very supportive of our meeting [with] the president, and some of you might feel we shouldn’t take this meeting at all,” Dorsey wrote in an email. “In the end, I believe it’s important to meet heads of state in order to listen, share our principles and our ideas.”

Talk media and TED2019 key takeaways with TechCrunch’s Anthony Ha

Anthony just returned from Vancouver, where he was covering the TED2019 conference — a much-parodied gathering where VCs, executives and other bigwigs gather to exchange ideas.

This year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey got the biggest headlines, but the questions raised in his onstage interview kept popping up throughout the week: How has social media warped our democracy? How can the big online platforms fight back against abuse and misinformation? And what is the Internet good for, anyway? Wednesday at 11:00 am PT, Anthony will recap the five-day event’s most interesting talks and provocative ideas with Extra Crunch members on a conference call.

Tune in to dig into what happened onstage and off and ask Anthony any and all things media.

To listen to this and all future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free.

Jack Dorsey says it’s time to rethink the fundamental dynamics of Twitter

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took the stage today at the TED conference. But instead of giving the standard talk, he answered questions from TED’s Chris Anderson and Whitney Pennington Rodgers.

For most of the interview, Dorsey outlined steps that Twitter has taken to combat abuse and misinformation, but Anderson explained why the company’s critics sometimes find those steps so insufficient and unsatisfying. He compared Twitter to the Titanic, and Dorsey to the captain, listening to passengers’ concerns about the iceberg up ahead — then going back to the bridge and showing “this extraordinary calm.”

“It’s democracy at stake, it’s our culture at stake,” Anderson said, echoing points made yesterday in a talk by journalist Carole Cadwalladr. So why isn’t Twitter addressing these issues with more urgency?

“We are working as quickly as we can, but quickness will not get the job done,” Dorsey replied. “It’s focus, it’s prioritization, it’s understanding the fundamentals of the network.”

He also argued that while Twitter could “do a bunch of superficial things to address the things you’re talking about,” that isn’t the real solution.

“We want the changes to last, and that means going really, really deep,” Dorsey said.

In his view, that means rethinking how Twitter incentivizes user behavior. He suggested that the service works best as an “interest-based network,” where you log in and see content relevant to your interests, no matter who posted it — rather than a network where everyone feels like they need to follow a bunch of other accounts, and then grow their follower numbers in turn.

Dorsey recalled that when the team was first building the service, it decided to make follower count “big and bold,” which naturally made people focus on it.

“Was that the right decision at the time? Probably not,” he said. “If I had to start the service again, I would not emphasize the follower count as much … I don’t think I would create ‘likes’ in the first place.”

Since he isn’t starting from scratch, Dorsey suggested that he’s trying to find ways to redesign Twitter to shift the “bias” away from accounts and towards interests.

More specifically, Rodgers asked about the frequent criticism that Twitter hasn’t found a way to consistently ban Nazis from the service.

“We have a situation right now where that term is used fairly loosely,” Dorsey said. “We just cannot take any one mention of that word accusing someone else as a factual indication of whether someone can be removed from the platform.”

He added that Twitter does remove users who are connected to hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, as well those who post hateful imagery or who are otherwise guilty of conduct that violates Twitter’s terms and conditions — terms that Dorsey said the company is rewriting to make them “human readable,” and to emphasize that fighting abuse and hateful content is the top priority.

“Our focus is on removing the burden of work from the victims,” Dorsey said.

He also pointed to efforts that Twitter has already announced to measure (and then improve) conversational health and to use machine learning to automatically detect abusive content. (The company said today that 38 percent of abusive content that Twitter takes action against is found proactively.)

And while Dorsey said he’s less interested in maximizing time spent on Twitter and more in maximizing “what people take away from it and what they want to learn from it,” Anderson suggested that Twitter may struggle with that goal since it’s a public company, with a business model based on advertising. Would Dorsey really be willing to see time spent on the service decrease, even if that means improving the conversation?

“More relevance means less time on the service, and that’s perfectly fine,” Dorsey said, adding that Twitter can still serve ads against relevant content.

In terms of how the company is currently measuring its success, Dorsey said it focuses primarily on daily active users, and secondly on “conversation chains — we want to incentivize healthy contributions back to the network.”

Getting back to Dorsey himself, Rodgers wondered whether serving as the CEO of two public companies (the other is Square) gives him enough time to solve these problems.

“My goal is to build a company that is not dependent upon me and outlives me,” he said. “The situation between the two companies and how my time is spent forces me immediately to create frameworks that are scalable, that are decentralized, that don’t require me being in every single detail … That is true of any organization that scales beyond the original founding moment.”

The most important developments in Crypto 2.0

Something strange is happening in the world of cryptocurrencies. To the investor, the speculator, or the casual observer, the industry is in the midst of the “crypto winter” marked by dwindling public interest and stagnant prices after last year’s massive plunges.

But to the engineer or the founder, it is an industry which has never been so feverish; a sector erupting and overflowing with new initiatives, new developments, and new technologies. What follows is a brief, oversimplified summary of what I view as the most important current initiatives.

Outsiders ask, quite reasonably: will anyone outside of a tiny minority ever really care? But “ever” is a long time, and blockchainers are still fairly flush with funding from the boom, and — more importantly — armed with two of the most potent weapons known to humankind: technical brilliance and true belief.

The ethics of internet culture: a conversation with Taylor Lorenz

Taylor Lorenz was in high demand this week. As a prolific journalist at The Atlantic and about-to-be member of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Fellowship for journalism, that’s perhaps not surprising. Nor was this the first time she’s had a bit of a moment: Lorenz has already served as an in-house expert on social media and the internet for several major companies, while having written and edited for publications as diverse as The Daily Beast, The Hill, People, The Daily Mail, and Business Insider, all while remaining hip and in touch enough to currently serve as a kind of youth zeitgeist translator, on her beat as a technology writer for The Atlantic.

Lorenz is in fact publicly busy enough that she’s one of only two people I personally know to have openly ‘quit email,’ the other being my friend Russ, an 82 year-old retired engineer and MIT alum who literally spends all day, most days, working on a plan to reinvent the bicycle.

I wonder if any of Lorenz’s previous professional experiences, however, could have matched the weight of the events she encountered these past several days, when the nightmarish massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand brought together two of her greatest areas of expertise: political extremism (which she covered for The Hill), and internet culture. As her first Atlantic piece after the shootings said, the Christchurch killer’s manifesto was “designed to troll.” Indeed, his entire heinous act was a calculated effort to manipulate our current norms of Internet communication and connection, for fanatical ends.

Taylor Lorenz

Lorenz responded with characteristic insight, focusing on the ways in which the stylized insider subcultures the Internet supports can be used to confuse, distract, and mobilize millions of people for good and for truly evil ends:

Before people can even begin to grasp the nuances of today’s internet, they can be radicalized by it. Platforms such as YouTube and Facebook can send users barreling into fringe communities where extremist views are normalized and advanced. Because these communities have so successfully adopted irony as a cloaking device for promoting extremism, outsiders are left confused as to what is a real threat and what’s just trolling. The darker corners of the internet are so fragmented that even when they spawn a mass shooting, as in New Zealand, the shooter’s words can be nearly impossible to parse, even for those who are Extremely Online.”

Such insights are among the many reasons I was so grateful to be able to speak with Taylor Lorenz for this week’s installment of my TechCrunch series interrogating the ethics of technology.

As I’ve written in my previous interviews with author and inequality critic Anand Giridharadas, and with award-winning Google exec turned award-winning tech critic James Williams, I come to tech ethics from 25 years of studying religion. My personal approach to religion, however, has essentially always been that it plays a central role in human civilization not only or even primarily because of its theistic beliefs and “faith,” but because of its culture — its traditions, literature, rituals, history, and the content of its communities.

And because I don’t mind comparing technology to religion (not saying they are one and the same, but that there is something to be learned from the comparison), I’d argue that if we really want to understand the ethics of the technologies we are creating, particularly the Internet, we need to explore, as Taylor and I did in our conversation below, “the ethics of internet culture.”

What resulted was, like Lorenz’s work in general, at times whimsical, at times cool enough to fly right over my head, but at all times fascinating and important.

Editor’s Note: we ungated the first of 11 sections of this interview. Reading time: 22 minutes / 5,500 words.

Joking with the Pope

Greg Epstein: Taylor, thanks so much for speaking with me. As you know, I’m writing for TechCrunch about religion, ethics, and technology, and I recently discovered your work when you brought all those together in an unusual way. You subtweeted the Pope, and it went viral.

Taylor Lorenz: I know. [People] were freaking out.

Greg: What was that experience like?

Taylor: The Pope tweeted some insane tweet about how Mary, Jesus’ mother, was the first influencer. He tweeted it out, and everyone was spamming that tweet to me because I write so much about influencers, and I was just laughing. There’s a meme on Instagram about Jesus being the first influencer and how he killed himself or faked his death for more followers.

Because it’s fluid, it’s a lifeline for so many kids. It’s where their social network lives. It’s where identity expression occurs.

I just tweeted it out. I think a lot of people didn’t know the joke, the meme, and I think they just thought that it was new & funny. Also [some people] were saying, “how can you joke about Jesus wanting more followers?” I’m like, the Pope literally compared Mary to a social media influencer, so calm down. My whole family is Irish Catholic.

A bunch of people were sharing my tweet. I was like, oh, god. I’m not trying to lead into some religious controversy, but I did think whether my Irish Catholic mother would laugh. She has a really good sense of humor. I thought, I think she would laugh at this joke. I think it’s fine.

Greg: I loved it because it was a real Rorschach test for me. Sitting there looking at that tweet, I was one of the people who didn’t know that particular meme. I’d like to think I love my memes but …

Taylor: I can’t claim credit.

Greg: No, no, but anyway most of the memes I know are the ones my students happen to tell me about. The point is I’ve spent 15 plus years being a professional atheist. I’ve had my share of religious debates, but I also have had all these debates with others I’ll call Professional Strident Atheists.. who are more aggressive in their anti-religion than I am. And I’m thinking, “Okay, this is clearly a tweet that Richard Dawkins would love. Do I love it? I don’t know. Wait, I think I do!”

Taylor: I treated it with the greatest respect for all faiths. I thought it was funny to drag the Pope on Twitter .

The influence of Instagram

Alexander Spatari via Getty Images

Jack Dorsey records podcast with fitness writer who claimed “vaccines do indeed cause autism”

Jack Dorsey, known for making tone-deaf statements on the platform he co-founded, is in the middle of another controversy. This time it is for plugging a podcast he recorded with fitness writer Ben Greenfield. Greenfield has espoused anti-vaccination views on Twitter and other platforms, continuing to do so despite measles outbreaks in the United States.

Dorsey retweeted Greenfield’s tweet about their podcast interview, commenting “Great conversation, and appreciate all you do to simplify the mountain of research focused on increasing one’s healthspan.”

Greenfield recently doubled down on the disproven claim that vaccines cause autism and has repeatedly included anti-vaccine propaganda on his podcast and social media pages.

TechCrunch has contacted Twitter for comment. A company spokesperson told Recode that neither Dorsey, who has done a string of podcast appearances recently, or the company was aware of Greenfield’s stance on vaccines and that the topic was not discussed during the interview.

Dorsey’s endorsement of Greenfield is especially striking considering that other tech companies, including YouTube and Facebook, are currently clamping down on anti-vaccination content. For example, YouTube recently announced it will demonetize anti-vaccination videos, while Facebook is down-ranking vaccine misinformation on its News Feed and hiding it on Instagram. Pinterest, which has prohibited anti-vaccination content in its terms for years, also recently said it will stop returning any search result related to vaccines.

Dorsey recently generated backlash for a tweet thread about his meditation retreat in Myanmar that neglected to mention the Rohingya genocide and declaring that Elon Musk is his favorite Twitter user, despite the fact that Musk’s tweets have landed him in legal trouble, including with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Twitter co-founder Ev Williams to step down from the company’s board

Ev Wiliams, a co-founder of Twitter and the social media business’s former chief executive officer, is stepping down from its board of directors effective at the end of the month, according to documents submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday, first reported by CNBC.

In a series of tweets, Williams addressed the news.

“I’m very lucky to have served on the board for 12 years (ever since there was a board),” he wrote. “It’s been overwhelmingly interesting, educational—and, at times, challenging… Thank you, and for starting this crazy company with me—and continuing to make it better and better. And to my fellow board members, new and old—some of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever known.”

Wiliams, the founder and CEO of online publishing platform Medium and co-founder and partner at Obvious Ventures, served as Twitter’s chief executive from 2008 to 2010 following Jack Dorsey’s, Twitter’s current CEO, original stint as CEO. Williams was succeeded by Dick Costolo, who after a five-year stint at the helm, relinquished the throne back to Dorsey.

Twitter’s board of directors includes Bret Taylor, president and chief product officer at Salesforce; Debra Lee, president and CEO of BET Networks; and executive chairman Omid Kordestani.

Twitter’s stock closed up 3 percent Friday, trading at nearly $32 a piece for a market cap of north of $24 billion.

Twitter considering a tweet ‘clarifying’ function

Clarification hasn’t always been Twitter’s strong suit. Fittingly, there’s a bit of confusion around the long standing succession that the service could add an “edit” button in order to save users from silly typos and, well, much much worse.

At a Goldman Sachs event this week, Jack Dorsey clarified that, rather than adding a controversial edit function, Twitter might just let people “clarify” earlier statements. The feature, it seems, is less aimed at the typo part of the equation than the whole on-going thing with people living to regret some horrible thing they said to the world years prior.

“The other thing that we’re seeing more broadly within the culture right now in this particular moment is people quote-unquote ‘being cancelled’ because of past things that they’ve said on Twitter or various other places in social media,” the executive said in quote reported by Recode. “There’s no credible way to kind of go back and clarify or even have a conversation to show the learning and the transition since.”

To clarify the clarification (which, one imagines, would get a slightly punchier name ahead of launch), the feature would essentially add a permanent addition to the original problematic tweet. The idea is to add context that would be lost in all of the retweeted screencaps that went out after the original was deleted.

Users then would only be able to retweet the clarification. Think of it like a quote retweet, albeit one that’s permanently  attached. It could be an interesting feature for news outlets, not to mention all of the now famous folk who might have tweeted something questionable back in the day. More so, certainly, than telling the world that you use the wrong “their” there.

As Dorsey notes, however, “Not saying that we are going to launch that but those are the sorts of questions we are going to ask.”

Thanks for the clarification.