Two of Our Wildest Ideas are Shipping

These things take time

I think the conventional wisdom around politics and tech companies is “they don’t care, and will only do what brings them more power.” I have a different view. To me it’s more like this: the people in these places care deeply, and are working in a very complex system with a lot of competing viewpoints. No one ever gets everything they want, but there is progress being made over time. But each new step forward, whether it’s legislation or a new feature, is greeted with “this is the worst idea ever” or “too little, too late” or “why don’t they just _______?” Then the original outcry dies down and it’s taken for granted and seen as obvious in hindsight.

There are a ton of examples to choose from. iPod was dismissed for being too small. Instagram was too dumbed-down. iPhone was too expensive. Facebook was boring. GMail couldn’t possibly store an entire gig of space. Blogging was for megalomaniacs sharing what they had for lunch. Twitter was the same idea but in 140 characters. Podcasts were a lame attempt to bring back radio. Medium had no reason for existing.

The examples nearest to my heart have to do with Twitter’s handling of abuse. I was on that team so I got to see how it worked up close. It was fascinating, and today I realised that two of our craziest ideas from 2016 are now shipping as actual features. Which is exciting to see!

No one trusts tech companies. This is not lost on the tech companies. One idea we had batted around was the ability to take certain controversial decisions, turn them into case studies, and post them publicly. Then, for added credibility, we could have external boards making the final decision and a leadership who promised to abide with their recommendations.

People would still complain, of course. Pro-Trump people will always argue he shouldn’t have been banned and anti-Trump people will always argue it should have happened years earlier. But over several years, you’d start building precedent. You’d be able to cite previous cases as a way to reason why certain decisions were done in a certain way. It wouldn’t solve every problem, but it would help make things a bit less of a black box.

Twitter has had a Trust and Safety Council for many years, but Facebook has taken it a step further. They’re taking this exact model and soon this board will decide if Trump can come back to Facebook.

I’ve been beating this drum for five years, and people had worked on this concept well before that. Imagine if you could sort by “funny” on Twitter. Or say “don’t show any political content.” Or “deprioritise clickbait.” It could fundamentally alter the entire information economy.

Today, people know they can get clicks with clickbait. But imagine a world where clickbait is easily identified, downvoted, and neutralised, and as a result, stops becoming profitable? What about a world where tags like “useful” and “well researched” become super lucrative? That’s a world I want to live in. I wrote all about it here, and even started a non-profit to pursue this vision!

Well, today Twitter announced Birdwatch. It’s a step in the direction of this vision, because it allows users to flag things. And that data can help the system get smarter and better. It also motivates a new kind of Twitter user. One who doesn’t have anything to post themselves, but would love to help Twitter improve. Sort of like people who edit Wikipedia.

Twitter was very different ten years ago, five years ago, and even two years ago. And that’s true for most of the products you use, from your smartphone to Netflix, and even the federal government. And every one of these changes takes large groups of people years to dream up, ideate, test, and release.

But I can tell you, as someone who’s gotten to see some of this stuff up close, that most people do care. And that they’re working as hard and fast as they can. And some of their biggest and best ideas transition from “that’s impossible” to “that’s stupid” and then “of course that’s the way it works.”

But none of this stuff is destined. It just takes hard work and patience. And the ability to step back sometimes and see that things are improving. And then step back into the fray to improve the next thing that needs doing.

I love building things.

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