In one important way, Jack Dorsey is a lot like the guy in charge of the Hair Club for Men: He isn’t just Twitter’s chief executive; he’s also a user. Unlike the head of just about any other consumer-facing company, he has a public, accessible presence on the product his customers complain about. You can’t walk up a few aisles during a flight and complain to the airline’s CEO, but on Twitter, @jack is always there. This means that for any user with beef, he’s always just an @ sign and an easy-to-remember four letters—of course he has a coveted first-name-only handle—away.
Lately, Twitter users are invoking @jack a lot. They want to know why Dorsey hasn’t banned conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, why he instead seems to have banned various people they do like, why he went on Sean Hannity’s radio show, what actually constitutes hate speech on Twitter, when he’s going to resign from the company, and so on. So they tag him, early and often.
MySpace’s Tom automatically became every MySpace user’s first friend back in the MySpace era. Mark Zuckerberg littered early Facebook with lots of personal touches but stopped short of giving every user a direct line to him. Facebook has been in the news a lot this year thanks to privacy scandals that have even inspired some user exoduses, but the platform, with its closed circles of friends, has largely continued to look like its normal self, a stream of pictures of pets and kids from familiar users. The debate about Twitter’s moderation of its network, though, is perpetually playing out on Twitter itself, a place that has traditionally operated as more open and public than other social media. On Twitter, users are able to transition seamlessly from being harassed or having some other unpleasant experience that goes against the company’s terms of service to CCing the company’s CEO about said interaction.
Already an assertive bunch, Twitter users on the whole have never hesitated to tag companies with gripes. The extended rant directed to a cable company or airline is a well-established genre of tweet (or tweetstorm). Sometimes the goal is to expedite a response from customer service via the threat of negative PR, but tagging can also function as a public callout, more symbolic than anything else. That’s why you sometimes see New Yorkers tagging Mayor Bill de Blasio about problems with their morning subway commutes. Something similar is going on when people tag Dorsey. It’s unlikely they’re looking for an individual response; what they really want to do is help direct a broader outcry in his direction so that the company is eventually spurred to action.
Twitter users with complaints could tag the official Twitter account or the support-specific account, and it’s true that they often do. But tagging Dorsey escalates the complaint by going straight to the source. If it seems petty, it only emphasizes the petty problems that have been born of Twitter’s ineffective policies while repositioning the company’s CEO as both the deity hovering above this corrupted Eden as well as the world’s most harried volunteer message board moderator. Tagging @jack conflates Dorsey with the company itself; the two become interchangeable, and that makes each @jack appeal more urgent. For all the talk about how companies aren’t people, when consumers or users are angry at a company, they sure appreciate having a specific person to direct their rage toward. Imprecise as it may be—a whole bureaucracy interprets and updates a set of rules in order to determine what is and is not appropriate on Twitter—you can’t deny the rhetorical usefulness of simply @-ing Jack. He’s a Twitter user too, and while his own user experience shouldn’t be his top priority, there’s also the indisputable fact that his replies right now must be a mess. Anytime he’s tempted to say, “RIP my mentions,” he has to know that the company he runs is largely to blame.