Peter Kafka

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Q&A: Twitter's Jack Dorsey on Priorities, Products and Getting Punched in the Stomach

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey made news yesterday when he officially came back to his old company as a product boss.

So it would be unfair to expect him to make more news today, when he appeared at Columbia University’s journalism school for an hour-long talk.

But Dorsey’s mannered, thoughtful responses to my Dow Jones colleague Julia Angwin’s questions are still worth studying. This is the guy who had the original vision for Twitter, and this is the guy now charged with helping it navigate from a tech toy that a lot of people feel passionate about to a mainstream product that everyone uses.

Oh. And he’s going to do it while he simultaneously running a second start-up, too.

Here’s an edited excerpt of Dorsey and Angwin’s Q&A:

Julia Angwin: What’s going on with Twitter and its ecosystem of developers? Isn’t part of the problem that there’s a lack of clarity around your intentions and what your business model will be?

Jack Dorsey: We do have a business model right now, and we do have a revenue stream right now. You see [it] on the service, with promoted products, which give really, really useful introductions to content that you would not otherwise discover. They’re doing fantastically well.

I think we can be better at communicating exactly where we’re going. In terms of the ecosystem, I think it’s up to any good platform company to really guide its developers in the right way, and to inspire them to create very interesting and useful applications.

I think when someone looks at Twitter–as a developer myself, my first instinct is to build a client. And that’s why we have 100 clients out there. And they’re all doing different things in different ways, but it doesn’t necessarily provide the best user experience.

As a developer, there’s far more interesting things to build on top of Twitter than just a client. That’s been done. That’s a problem that’s been solved. So how do we inspire our developers and our ecosystem to really work on the tougher problems, and to work on more interesting companies and products?

Like what?

The best part of that is, I have no idea. You can’t build an electricity grid and say, “You should go out and invent vacuum cleaners. Or keyboards or toaster overs.” You have to give the right tools and primitives to folks, so they can build what they want, and what they want to see in the world.

The interesting products out on the Internet today are not buildling new technologies. They’re combining technologies. Instagram, for instance: Photos plus geolocation plus filters. Foursquare: restaurant reviews plus check-ins plus geo.

There’s a lot of sensors on the mobile phones that we’re all carrying with us, and there’s a lot that has not been explored, that one could use Twitter to push even faster. So that’s what would excite me as a developer: “There is this great unknown. And I don’t know what to build, but I’ll play with the data and I’ll figure it out.”

So are you saying there shouldn’t be all of these other clients out there? I love TweetDeck, and I like it better than Is your job as product director to make as good as TweetDeck?

I think the biggest challenge is to build a cohehesive user experience, and at the same time, enable and allow for multiple views on the same thing. TweetDeck is a very interesting client, because it presents a view that no other client in the world presents, which is this multicolumn, massive amounts of information in one pane. And people really, really enjoy that.

But I think that’s maybe five percent of the Twitter population. That five percent of the Twitter population are some of the most high-value publishers that we have, and they’re using the service at extreme velocity. So of course we have to pay attention to that, and I’m not saying we need to rid ourselves of interfaces like that. We have to embrace them.

But, we also need to speak to the 80 percent that will not be using an interface like that, that don’t really understand what Twitter is and that see Twitter as mainly a consumption experience. We spend a lot of time on people tweeting but a lot of the value that one gets out of Twitter is being able to follow their interests, and not necessarily tweet about it. But just consume it. So we need to put a lot more effort into the consumption experience and the consumer experience.

So is that what you’re focused on?

One of my first acts will be to really listen to what’s happening in the company and what needs to be fixed. We’ve been around for five years now and we’ve built a lot of interesting technology. I think we need better lines around the products, so it’s more approachable, so that people can get into it immediately, and it’s extremely relevant right way.

We have a lot of mainstream awareness, but mainstream relevancy is still a challenge. It’s something that people can’t immediately get their head around: “Why is Twitter valuable?”

The answer is it’s not that Twitter is valuable, it’s that you can follow what’s unfolding in Egypt right now. That’s valuable. You can follow your favorite company or organization. You can also mix that in with your family and your social network and talk about all these interests in real time. That’s the value, not the brand “Twitter.” Twitter just provides the venue for it. So we need to refocus on the value. That’s my goal in the next few months.

It seems like you could really use some filters for all this information that’s on Twitter.

I think it’s the technology challenge for the next five years. We built very easy ways to input information. But extracting that information in a relevant way, in real time, is still a big, big challenge. So we need to build technologies that immediately surface what’s most revelant and most meaningful to you.

And that’s still a very, very large challenge, and difficult. You have to follow all of these accounts, and sometimes you miss some tweets that were extremly relevant to you. We can solve that through technology,  and we will solve that, but it is going to be quite difficult to do.

You left Twitter in 2008, when you were asked to step down as CEO. You’ve said that felt like you were punched in the stomach. Now you’re back. Have those feelings changed?

I have a greater context for it. But I would not change anything. Because one amazing that happened out of that was we created this amazing company called Square. And I think it has the potential to have just as large, if not larger impact, than Twitter does.

And in that process, I’ve learned an immense amount about building products, and building something that’s approachable to consumers. And more importantly, managing teams and managing humans. And making sure that we’re focused on the right things.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work