Editorial Credit: Frederic Legrand, Shutterstock
Jack Dorsey is no stranger to being in the headlines.
There was the boat trip with Beyonce and Jay Z, the unusual diet and strict wellbeing regime, and plenty more, but for the most part coverage of the Twitter cofounder and CEO has stuck to the financial and tech press.
But this past week, his name was in the pages (if not on the front page) of most mainstream publications across the globe, something that has become more common for Dorsey since the 2016 presidential election.
A media firestorm erupted following the release of a New York Post article containing possibly hacked information about Democratic presidential nominee Vice President Joe Biden’s son. Both Facebook and Twitter decided to censor the article, with Twitter taking the more extreme stance of banning it entirely from the platform. It also locked the account of the New York Post.
In a series of tweets, Twitter said the article violated its policy on hacked materials. But that answer left many unsatisfied, including the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, who will vote on issuing subpoenas to Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg over the issue.
Although Twitter and Dorsey personally have subsequently said the decision to censor the article, especially without any explanation was wrong (Twitter has subsequently changed its hacked materials policy), the issue reflects a much larger one plaguing the tech world: How do you monitor and control misinformation, especially in the run up to an election?
From the beginning
As a teen, Dorsey was fascinated by the technological aspects of communication and coordination. At 15, he wrote dispatch software for taxi drivers that is still in use today.
Like many of his billionaire startup counterparts, Dorsey never made graduation at New York University, where he transferred from Missouri. But at NYU, his vision for a microblogging platform was born.
He moved to Oakland and immersed himself in Silicon Valley, getting a job at podcasting start-up Odeo and further developing his idea for the short form messaging app.
“I thought, what if we simply set status, archive it on the Web, use SMS to do it, and it all happens in real time?,” Dorsey said in Mastering The VC Game by Jeffrey Bussgang.
When Odea failed, Dorsey pitched the idea to colleagues Evan Williams, Noah Glass and Biz Stone. In 2006, Twitter was launched.
In March of that year, Dorsey sent the world’s first tweet: "just setting up my twttr." Dorsey was named CEO of the company, even taking out his nose ring to fit the bill.
Instant updates, instant tool
Since its launch, Twitter has been seen as a democratizing platform for public conversation, connection and debate.
It became an instant hit within the media world, and to this day is the leading social network amongst journalists at 83%.
It gained even more influence during the 2008 American election when candidates Barack Obama and John McCain used it to update followers on their schedules and plans.
In 2008, Dorsey was replaced by Williams as CEO, becoming company chairman. He returned as CEO in 2015. During that time, he founded mobile payment company Square, of which he is also CEO.
When Twitter went public in 2013, Dorsey became an instant billionaire. Although he reportedly earned only $1.40 as Twitter CEO in 2019, he holds shares worth more than $557 million and is the only co-founder still involved in running the company (now valued at more than $27 billion). As of March of this year he was worth roughly $5.1 billion.
As the platform has grown, so too have questions about its role in public discourse – the main being over the level of responsibility it holds for what users publish.
In a 2019 TED talk, Dorsey acknowledged Twitter had been responsible for a spread of abuse and misinformation, saying the team hadn’t foreseen the issues 13 years ago.
Silicon Valley has long avoided taking responsibility for user content, but since the 2016 election, rife with foreign interference and campaigns of misinformation, tech companies are reckoning with moral obligations. Dorsey has had to testify before Congress about election interference on Twitter, as well as well as an alleged anti-conservative bias on the platform – both of which he has said the company is working hard to address.
It has banned political advertising and earlier this year, Dorsey allowed for fact-check labels to be added to United States President Donald Trump’s tweets. In response, the President threatened increased regulation on social media.
Dorsey has also had to weather internal threats. This year, investor Elliott Management — led by Paul Singer — sought to replace him as CEO. An agreement was reached and Dorsey was able to stay on as CEO.
Releasing the pressure valve
To cope with stress, Dorsey has developed a very strict regime to stay mentally and physical on point.
He wakes up at 5 a.m. each day to do two hours of mediation practice, and, in pre-pandemic times, he would walk 5 miles to work.
He told Business Insider he had to look at his diet and exercise critically, “Just to stay above water.” Dorsey famously only eats one meal a day at dinner time.
Dorsey told Y Combinator: “A healthier lifestyle ultimately makes me more creative and allows me to think more cohesively.” And this lifestyle hasn’t come with fame and fortune; Dorsey got his massage license in 2002 before hitting the bigtime in the tech scene.
Dorsey is also heavily involved in philanthropy work. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he said he would pour $1 billion of his own Square equity, roughly 28% of his total wealth, into a fund to fight the disease and support the most affected communities. In August, he donated $10 million to Boston University's Center of Antiracist Research.
Prior to the pandemic, Dorsey had planned to move to Africa for six months of this year. He has said tech innovation on the continent was incredible, and there were opportunities abound for Twitter and Square. Although those plans have been stalled, Dorsey is still highly active in African affairs.
But for now, the eccentric executive will be well and truly on the ground to see Twitter through what’s likely to be its most contentious tweet storm yet on Nov. 3 – General Election Day in the U.S.
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