🗣Run out the clock
Last week, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki took the stage at the Recode conference for a sit-down interview with Peter Kafka. The timing was interesting, as it was shortly after the company was in a bit of an … internet controversy.
Reading the transcript of Wojcicki and Kafka I was struck by how… familiar these interviews are becoming. In the same way that we have a template for something like a politician admitting moral wrongdoing, we’re also starting to get a templated version of the “we’re listening but this is hard!” tech CEO interview. And the pattern is revealing something troubling.
Let’s look at Wojcicki’s answers.
Step one usually starts with pointing out the scale these companies operate under:
“I want to just be clear that, again, it’s this 99 fractional 1 percent problem.”
“And so it’s really all the good, it’s the 99 percent of good, valuable content that I’m really encouraged, that keeps me motivated and passionate about what I do.”
And then, they touch on how “seriously” the company takes the issue they are being grilled about. This is often done while hinting at some technological solution that is just around the corner:
“We need to think about it in a very thoughtful way be able to speak with everyone.”
“…just to be clear … we’ve been making lots of different policy changes on YouTube. We have made about 30 changes in the last 12 months, and this past week, we made a change in how we handle hate speech.
And then how complex and messy this whole thing is:
“We’re a global company, of course.”
“That took months and months of work, and hundreds of people we had working on that. That was a very significant launch, and a really important one.”
Every. Single. Time.
Jay Rosen: An edit button would be one. I know that’s hard. I know there’s all kinds of issues, but that’s …
Jack Dorsey: It’s not that it’s hard. It’s that if you asked a hundred different people what they intend by “edit,” you’ll get a hundred different answers.
(Great, so pick one.)
Jay Rosen: “Why aren’t the values of Twitter what it takes to have a healthy public sphere?
Jack Dorsey: “I guess it depends on what you mean by value.”
(We just want consistency, man.)
Jack Dorsey: “…The organizing principles of the past are not going to serve us in the same way that we need to organize to face the challenges that are present today. Like the existential crises before us of economic inequality and the growing wealth gap, especially a racial wealth gap, the environment, and the displacement of work from artificial intelligence, those are things that an organizing principle of a nation state will not be able to solve because they’re global and they face all of us.”
(Yes there is a wealth gap, but we’re not asking you to solve poverty.)
If you were these CEOs what would you do? If you remove content from your platform, you’re picking favorites. Do nothing and you can be complicit in some terrible people doing terrible things. Change some feature and people could leave in droves. This is complicated stuff, I’m not pretending otherwise.
There’s only one real strategy here and it’s the one they are taking: run out the clock on every single controversy. Do nothing. Speak as if the platform was thing happening to you and not a thing you are in control of. And only act if the pressure becomes so undeniable. (Carlos Maza works for one of the most influential media companies on the web. What if he hadn’t?)
It is a CEO’s job to make hard choices. And they aren’t.
The “hard” choice they have made is to maintain the status quo. To say the right things and sit and smile when they get called out. As users and observers, we are clamoring for Jack Dorseys, Mark Zuckerbergs, and Susan Wojcickis to make hard choices to make the platform better on our behalf.
Ask yourself: Do YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook behave in fundamentally different ways since this issue came to the forefront in 2015 and 2016?