"I definitely spend way more time reading tweets than writing tweets," Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2011. Back then, his company was enjoying praise for its (largely accidental) role in helping to organise the Arab Spring, with Stone describing himself as "an infrequent tweeter" and a "consumer of the information that's coursing through the system".
Much has changed since then, of course, both politically and with Stone himself, who left the company months after that interview only to announce his return in May of 2017. His usage habits on the microblogging platform, however, have remained consistent: Stone often goes the better part of a week without engaging with anyone on Twitter, sending at most four or five tweets out to his millions of followers before receding back into his vague role at the company. "My top focus will be to guide the company culture, that energy, that feeling," he said in blog post announcing his return to Twitter on Medium — the blogging platform started by Ev Williams, another Twitter alum.
His relative aloofness on the site whose soul he's supposedly stewarding makes a recent series of outbursts all the more alarming. As a "consumer of information", Stone surely knows that Twitter has long been considered a hotbed of intolerance and harassment that (even by Silicon Valley standards) has been slow to address those issues. But after a few exchanges with Mike Montiero, the head of San Fransisco interactive design firm Mule, Stone lashed out on Twitter this weekend, defending his platform's sluggish track record and calling the requests of his outraged user base a "pile on".
Y'all pile on us. You really think the issue doesn't weigh on us? And you're so dismissive of the Trust and Safety team. We're all people.
— Biz Stone (@biz) October 1, 2017
Notably, the conversation began when Montiero pointed out a tweet laced with racial epithets from a user named "WHITE POWER". "Hey @biz! Is this tweet 'newsworthy'?" Montiero asked, to which Stone replied "You know it's not. It's disgusting. I reported it, and I hope you did too." The exchange suggested that whatever role Stone occupies within Twitter, he does not have the power to remove content very clearly in violation of the site's rules.
The user's account remains active, with a swastika as its avatar. Its pinned tweet implores users to "Join the fight Help your brothers and sisters secure a future for our white children."
After weathering the kind of negative response that's all too familiar to Twitter's more active users, Stone finally gave a half-hearted apology yesterday evening.
Thanks for your Tweets today—and your tough, honest criticism. I do hope many of you have been informed (or entertained). There’s a lot of disagreement, but we are united in using Twitter together. Good night from California.
— Biz Stone (@biz) October 4, 2017
But less than 20 minutes later, Stone was sparring again.
What? You know what I’m proud of? No, but I’ll tell you, and you can tell me you’re bored if you like. I’m proud of my beautiful son and his loving mother who is my smart, amazing wife. Good night now.
— Biz Stone (@biz) October 4, 2017
"I'm people too!" Stone pointed out once more, seemingly unaware that whatever distress it caused him to have his platform criticised, it's just a fraction of what victims of targeted harassment have faced on the site.
As the internet's biggest platforms face increased scrutiny from both politicians and the public at large, a new figure has replaced the "brilliant madman" as Silicon Valley's preeminent stock character: The thin-skinned founder.
For months, Reddit users tried to get r/the_donald banned for harassment, but after the pro-Trump subreddit began consistently mocking founder Steve Huffman, he was caught editing user posts in a petty act of revenge. And after it was revealed that Mark Zuckerberg's assiduously manicured persona is maintained by an army of handlers, even Facebook's Perfect Boy briefly cracked, accusing a Bloomberg reporter of "taking away from all the time that I spent on this". Maybe from the vaunted positions they occupy, they're just not aware of how hopeless and terrible things can get for the people who actually use their products. Maybe they just don't care. In any case, Silicon Valley's elite seem to be stricken with a pervasive allergy to anything but full-throated gratitude.
In that same welcome-me-back Medium post from last year, Stone wrote:
Twitter decided to relaunch the Friday afternoon tradition of Tea Time for employees in SF. Jack invited me to join him as "special guest" at this restart of an old tradition. When I stood next to Jack addressing the crowd of employees, I felt the energy, and I was overcome with emotion. I realised in that moment that Twitter was the most important work of my life.
Soaking up praise — whether it's for the Arab Spring, doing the bare minimum to keep people safe, or merely being the richest guy in the room — has always been the true job of the tech plutocrat. Everything else is just somebody else's problem.