Startups and the Big Picture

The Daily podcast interviewed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and The New York Times published an article with highlights from the conversation. This caught my eye:

Twitter was founded without a plan, Mr. Dorsey said. “It wasn’t something we really invented, it was something we discovered. And we kept pulling the thread on it.”

The unraveling was “electric,” he said, as the small, localized platform he built for friends to share updates on their lives morphed into a global social network. In the process, though, Mr. Dorsey said he now believes that he made a critical mistake: not hiring experts to help him understand the potentially far-reaching importance of apparently small design choices.

“The disciplines that we were lacking in the company in the early days, that I wish we would have understood and hired for,” he said, were “a game theorist to just really understand the ramifications of tiny decisions that we make, such as what happens with retweet versus retweet with comment and what happens when you put a count next to a like button?”

Without this expertise, he said he thought that the company had built incentives into the app that encouraged users and media outlets to write tweets and headlines that appealed to sensationalism instead of accuracy. At the time, he noted, he struggled to envision the app’s potential social implications – and what those design decisions might mean for “how people interrelate with one another, how people converse with one another.”

This is an excellent example of what I mean by “not seeing the big picture.” But it’s unrealistic to expect small startups to think about second- and third-order effects; most are trying to survive. They’re focused on the immediate next step, and then the one after that. The “unraveling” is a stochastic process.

And yet, early decisions are hard to undo later. Structure changes more slowly than look-and-feel. So, teams must consider the structural implications of their work. It’s unrealistic to expect nascent Twitter to have hired a game theorist, but perhaps they could’ve consulted with an information architect? (But then, if they’d caught these problems early on, would they have ever become Twitter?)

On another note, I was encouraged by the mention of how Twitter’s incentive structures foster sensationalism. Alas, there’s no acknowledgment (at least in the highlights article; I haven’t heard the full interview) of the role Twitter’s business model — selling the attention of its users — plays in all this. That seems like the more challenging problem to solve.

Jack Dorsey on Twitter’s Mistakes – The New York Times