Did @jack Ruin Twitter?

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S1: When the news broke this week, the Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey was stepping down. There was only one person I wanted to talk to. How long have you been writing about Twitter?

S2: Oh wow, you really. You’re really going to start this off with the existential question of how I’ve wasted 16 years of my life writing about social networks.

S1: That’s journalist Nick Bilton Nick writes for Vanity Fair now. But back in 2006, he was working at the New York Times in a division of the company that researched how new technologies might affect journalism.

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S2: And I had heard about Twitter in 2006 and reached out to the guys who had started it at the time. There was no one using it, and the people who responded were Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone, and we had a brief call. And then soon after that, I became a reporter and started covering the company.

S1: Nick would go on to write a book called Hatching Twitter, and from the very beginning, his reporting was full of insider tidbits about what was happening at the company. Often, that meant drama centered on Jack. Dorsey Jack Dorsey is co-founder and CEO, then overthrown as CEO, then CEO again and now out again.

S2: This is someone who was pushed out of the company numerous times and has spent six years trying to ensure that he could be at the helm of it.

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S1: Most recently, that meant pushing back on activist investors who wanted him gone. A battle that he seemed to win in 2020.

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S2: He really has spent his entire adult life fighting for control of that company, and he’s destroyed numerous friendships along the way and harmed a lot of people financially and and so on in order to kind of remain in control.

S1: So what happened? Today on the show, Jack Dorsey seems to be out for real this time. Does that mean Twitter can finally change for the better? I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next? TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick around. You have written that, you know, an important thing in Silicon Valley, really a key thing and Silicon Valley is, is your creation myth, right? So what’s Jack’s

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S2: Jack creation myth is probably one of the best creation myths of all time. It’s better than anyone’s better than jobs in the early days. Better than Adam Neumann, Elizabeth Holmes, Travis Kalanick, all. Just all of them. The way he got the job on Twitter. I think this is kind of honest, one of the most telling aspects of who he is. You know, and when you go to visit Alcatraz in San Francisco and you have to like, buy a ticket on the ticketing machines and you put your money in. So he his job was to fix those ticketing machines when the when they needed to be rebooted. And the only reason he got the job was he was small enough to fit in the back of the little ticketing booth so he could go in there with a little computer and like and write code. So he was doing that. He was obviously miserable. He was he was living by himself in a little studio. He was. He’s very obsessive. He gets like ideas in his head and back then his obsession was the color white. So he had everything in the in. His studio is white. He had a white bed, white couch, white clothes, a white cat named Zoe.

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S1: One day, Dorsey saw Odio, founder of Williams, in a coffee shop and decided to send him a resume. Williams hired him as an engineer, working on the product that would eventually become Twitter. In 2006, Jack sent the first tweet Just setting up my Twitter. Twitter was T.W. TTR. Dorsey, star of the company, rows and rows until he got the top job and then was pushed out in 2008.

S2: Fast forward to a few years later when Twitter is growing and he’s, you know, he’s just been kicked out of the company because he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he creates this creation myth that he had come up with Twitter on his own when he was seven years old, and he and he knew exactly what it was going to look like. And this is the thing that he created. That’s all complete B.S.. Part of the initial idea was Jack, but it was Noah Glass who came up, who was Jack’s best friend at the time, who Jack literally had fired secretly had him fired. Noah came up with the name. Noah came up with the streaming concept. There was only one little idea that there was Jack’s butt, but today you look at it. And even in his resignation letter, he is the quote unquote inventor and like. It’s a phenomenal job of creating this myth that he was the sole inventor and creator of Twitter when in reality, he was just one little part of it.

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S3: Jack Dorsey is one of the biggest and most ambitious innovators of our time. His name doesn’t resonate like

S1: you’re making me. Think of this 60 Minutes piece from, I think, 2013.

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S2: Oh yeah, I remember that piece

S1: where they talk about, like his fascination with trains and maps and police scanners and little little messages.

S3: Most kids won’t have pictures of football players and girls on their walls or their favorite bands, and you’ve got maps out of maps and trains.

S2: Yeah, one of the greatest quotes I ever heard about him was someone said the greatest product the Jack Dorsey ever made was Jack Dorsey.

S1: So if the product that he made is Jack Dorsey, but the product that’s associated with him is Twitter, how would you describe it now? Because I think, as I mentioned, I spend a lot of time on it, and I could probably overstate its importance.

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S2: I think it’s its importance is overstated by everyone. I think if you look at the company, it’s it’s a sure it’s a social platform. As of their last quarter, they have 211 million active users that they serve ads to compare that to Facebook, which is almost at three billion Instagram as well over a billion active ticktalk over a billion Twitter. While it has this massive outsized influence, is the smallest of the big five social networks. If Jack would have been fired the first time he was fired in 2008, if he would have been actually kicked off the board and was unable to come back to Twitter and if they’d have hired a Mark Zuckerberg or an Eric Schmidt or something like that, I think Twitter would be a two billion person platform today. And I think that it was Jack that that has hurt the company more than he’s helped it, really. Oh, without without a doubt. Think about it. You’ve how long have you been on Twitter?

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S1: Oh, God, since 2009.

S2: Has the platform changed since then other than going from 240 characters? I mean, 140 characters to 280 and being able to embed a photo.

S1: It’s the same thing. It’s the same thing. It’s it’s it’s meaner, but it’s the same thing.

S2: It’s meaner and faster, and it doesn’t crash, but it’s the same thing. Think about Facebook, think about YouTube. Think about all these other platforms. They are, they are. There’s channels and marketplaces. And I mean, there’s just a million different business models. Facebook bought Oculus and Instagram and Twitter both Vine and then shut it down. Like, I think it has been an incredibly mismanaged company from the day it was founded.

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S1: When we come back, did Jack Dorsey quit or was he fired? It’s not like Jack Dorsey won’t be busy after leaving Twitter. He’s still CEO of the payment processing company Square, which just changed its name to block. So what happens to Twitter now? I mean, the the transition that Jack announced online is awfully fast, especially in the corporate world. I mean, as a reporter, that’s the kind of thing that makes me go. Wait, what?

S2: I spoke to a lot of people at the company and close to the company and close to the board and so on and and the theory that everyone has is that what happened was the summer last summer. Sorry, Elliott management this this activist investment firm came in. They had around a billion dollars of of Twitter stock. So a pretty huge, decent size of the company. And they were fed up. Jack at the time was the only CEO on the Fortune 500 that was running two public companies. He was also always talking about bitcoin. He just was kind of a checked out CEO. He was bragging about how he worked from home two days a week, and he walked to work backwards and took 17. So on as a day in barely one meal a week, you know, just all this nonsense. And these investors were just fed up. And so they came in and they said, Hey, we want you to either quit square or quit. Twitter and Jack was able to kind of he had a lot of friends on the board, and they were all too scared to kind of make Jack do anything. And I think that they came to an agreement where Jack would stick around and he would try to reach these goals. He reached some of them, but he didn’t reach all of them. And I think that the reality was he did stave off this ousting. But I think he knew and the board knew that the numbers are back down again. The user numbers they only added five million new years is in the last quarter, revenues slowing down, so on and so forth. He knew that it was going to happen again and the next time he wouldn’t be able to to to stop being forced out. And I think that this was his moment to grab the parachute and get out on his own terms before before he was done, he was forced to do so in a very embarrassing way.

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S1: In the note announcing his departure, Dorsey praised his successor, Parag Agarwal, who’s been the company’s chief technology officer. Agarwal took over immediately, which is pretty unusual for such a big transition.

S2: People like him, he’s very smart, incredibly technically adept. Everyone I reached out to said he’s he’s really liked by a lot of people. And I think he’s, you know, he’s been involved in a lot of like little acquisitions and and hires and so on. They’ve done. He’s, you know, he’s had a seat at the table for quite a while, and I think he’s very trusted by by employees there. And there probably would have been maybe one or two people that they could have gone outside to get. But I think what was great about him is that he he’s an insider. And that I think is really important for the company, especially for the morale of the company. So hopefully with the new leadership team, the board being rearranged, the new CEO, they will actually be able to make some changes. And if that happens and they’re big and they’re sweeping in there and you know, and he takes a chance and they push these things out, it could change the company and it could become a much bigger version of itself. But I think it all depends on how much Jack Dorsey stays involved.

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S1: According to Twitter’s proxy statement, this fall, he still owns about two percent of the company. What is what does he do now? Does does he sort of stay in that shadow existence? Does he focus on Square?

S2: So back in 2016, when he returned to the company for a third time, I had gone down to up, sorry to San Francisco to meet with the board and interviewed everyone and leaders there, VCs and so on and so forth. And I said, I said to the board I was like, What? What happens if it doesn’t work out with Jack? I said, What’s Plan B? And they said there is no Plan B. This is its Jack or nothing. And clearly, the Plan B happened this week, but I don’t think under any circumstance that Jack is going to ever be able to come back a CEO. This is it. I think that this is the definitive moment when he has to leave the company. If he comes back for a fourth time, it’s going to be like an SNL sketch. And so that being said, you know, he’s incredibly interested in bitcoin. He’s now worth $12 billion. I don’t think there’s a world where he settles down and gets married and has kids and lives happily ever after. I think that he’s probably going to try to do some other things, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s in the crypto space.

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S1: Do people inside the company view his exit with relief?

S2: There are certain people who I’m sure do, and there are certain people who idolize him. They hear the stories and they think he’s the second coming of Steve Jobs. And what’s so frustrating to me is that so many of these people, I’ve covered all of them for 15 years. I’ve spent time with all of them. I’ve been to birthday parties with Zuck and dinner at Bezos, his house and so on and so forth. Not all of them are geniuses. Some of them are geniuses. Some of them are evil geniuses. Some of them are nice geniuses, but not all of them are geniuses. A lot of the stuff is just is is right. Place right time luck. And I think with Jack, people have this. Perception that he’s come up with all these brilliant ideas, and the reality is he didn’t. There’s this idolization that happens, you know, in Silicon Valley that I think for 90 percent of the founders, it was just luck. It was right place, right time or or they had the guts enough to to backstab their friends to be the ones that got to be on the front of the magazine cover. It’s just a story, and a lot of people choose to believe it.

S1: Nick Bilton, thank you very much.

S2: Thank you for having me.

S1: Nick Bilton is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, and that is it for the show today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks were edited by Tori Bosch and Alison Benedict. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate Podcasts. TBD is part of the larger What Next family? And it’s also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I want to recommend you take a moment and listen to Wednesday’s episode of What Next? Where Mary talked with epidemiologist Caitlyn Jenner about the al-Muqrin variant of COVID. It answered So many of my questions. What next will be back next week and Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.