Right now, it feels like social media is “in the bleakness of figuring out where it needs to go,” Twitter co-founder Ev Williams says. But it won’t be that way forever.
“I don’t have any answers as to how we get out of the current situation, but I think there’s a tendency to say, ‘Oh, social media is terrible,’ and forget all the great things about it, which I still believe are true,” Williams said on the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher.
Speaking with Swisher at the 2019 Collision conference in Toronto, Williams said his recent departure from the board of Twitter was a choice to focus more on his work as CEO of the blogging platform Medium — and not a Chris Hughes-style protest. He said it’s worth remembering all the goodness that social media can amplify, even though right now it feels like it’s favoring things like racism, vitriol, and Donald Trump.
“It amplifies a lot of bad aspects of humanity,” Williams said. “It’s very powerful at that and very powerful at connecting people with terrible ideas and amplifying those and making them seem like they’re good ideas. On the other hand, it does the opposite.
“I think there is a better version of social media to be invented and I don’t know if that will happen incrementally, because there’s lots of smart people trying to evolve these systems at these massive companies,” he added. “Or if it will happen with just completely new paradigms and new ideas that come along.”
You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast. On the new episode, you’ll also hear a live interview with Facebook’s former chief security officer Alex Stamos.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Ev.
Kara Swisher: We’re here with Ev, who I’ve known for forever.
Seems like it.
Seems like it, and I want to talk about a lot of things, but let’s start first of all, [this session is] called “Life After Twitter,” which, you’ve had quite a life after Twitter. You left the board this year.
Yeah, a couple of months ago. Recently.
Can you talk about, a little bit, why you did that?
Yeah, it’s not very dramatic. I’ve been on the board since there was a board, so approximately 12-13 years, and only on the board for the last 10 or so, so it’s ... Or however many, nine?
So I stayed on the board as long as I thought I could be helpful, mostly, and the company is in a really good place now compared to some of the time it’s been before and I just felt like I want to spend my time and energy on other things.
Was it overwhelming for you, like the issues you all faced there around hate, around President Trump, around ... mostly President Trump, really.
Well, I mean, being on the board is not being at the company.
And so, while this is called “Life After Twitter,” I kind of laugh because it’s kind of been life after Twitter for me for a long time.
And I’ll always be associated with the company, I’ll always be rooting for it, I’m still a shareholder of the company so there’s ... a certain part of my year is no longer spent in Twitter board meetings, but I’ve been focusing my time on other things for a long time.
All right, I want to get to the things you’re doing. But where do you think it is right now as a medium, the whole social media space? It’s obviously been under attack quite heavily. I don’t assume you’re going to write a Chris Hughes-like document for the New York Times, correct?
Calling Jack un-American or anything like that?
No. No. No.
Sorry, I didn’t hear the question.
Where do you think social media is right now?
Where do I think it is?
And what it needs to do to fix itself.
It’s in the bleakness of figuring out where it needs to go. I think the ... I don’t have any answers as to how we get out of the current situation, but I think there’s a tendency to say, “Oh, social media is terrible,” and forget all the great things about it, which I still believe are true. And I believe the terrible things are true because social media is humanity and it amplifies ... unfortunately, it amplifies a lot of bad aspects of humanity. It’s very powerful at that and very powerful at connecting people with terrible ideas and amplifying those and making them seem like they’re good ideas.
On the other hand, it does the opposite. And I think we are ... I think there is a better version of social media to be invented and I don’t know if that will happen incrementally, because there’s lots of smart people trying to evolve these systems at these massive companies. Or if it will happen with just completely new paradigms and new ideas that come along. I’m confident it will remain around but I think, also, people’s relationship and sort of the novelty and some of the excitement that brought it — brought us, too — is wearing off.
It seems lost in some way.
It’s like a sugar high and now we’re like, “Oh, do we need this in our life in the same way?”
And do you imagine ... Let’s get to new companies, because you’re an investor with Obvious Ventures. You’re not really investing in that space ...
We don’t really, no.
Why is that?
It’s not that we wouldn’t, but at Obvious Ventures we focus on what we call “world-positive investing,” which is things that we think address big systemic problems we face as a society. We haven’t seen something come along ... and we don’t do, actually, very many internet or media things. We do a little bit, but we do things more in health and wellness and sustainability.
So “world-positive,” that’s a very techie word. What does that mean?
Well, it’s just our term ...
Because I’m wary of it.
Before things like, we have a lens. We’re not an impact investor, we’re a for-profit investor that doesn’t compromise on financial returns because ... But we’re very genuinely focused on things that we think are big ideas and big solutions.
So, why don’t you want to call it “impact investing?”
Because that’s what it’s called. I mean ...
Impact investing can be great. But impact investing, historically, is a view that we will take a lesser financial return in order to have some sort of other impact. Which, there’s investments that make sense for that. Our view is that the biggest companies that scale the most are not going to have ... They’re going to have big returns.
And so rather than say, “We’re going to compromise return,” we feel like that can be a failure mode and say, “Actually it’s not that healthy of a company,” or, “It doesn’t have great product-market fit.” We’re saying, “No, it has to be great.” So, an example — well, one of our companies is Beyond Meat which is ...
Which you’ve done really well on.
Which has done phenomenal and it’s not an impact investment, it’s a phenomenally lucrative, profitable investment that addresses this massive need of lowering our carbon footprint when it comes to meat.
What’s really interesting is that Beyond Meat is doing great in the stock market and Uber is tanking, and Lyft is tanking, also.
I wouldn’t have predicted that necessarily.
I would not have predicted that.
A few years ago.
So talk about how you got into this, the Beyond Meat, because there’s also Impossible Foods. There’s a lot of food-tech investing, I guess, if you want ...
Beyond Meat was one of the first investments we did, we actually rolled into Obvious Ventures. Biz [Stone] and I, my longtime partner Biz, was a vegan for a long time. Kleiner Perkins did the Series A in Beyond Meat, I think, because they knew he was a vegan and they were like, “Hey, are you interested in this company?” And so he brought it to us and we are very excited about it, we love the products. I’ve been vegan and pescatarian for a long time and ...
Wait, which one are you?
I was vegan, now I’m pescatarian. So ...
But, I haven’t eaten a land animal for a very long time, so I enjoyed the products. Biz enjoyed the products. We’re ...
You just draw the line at fish?
I draw the line at fish.
All right. Okay.
Yeah. And Ethan Brown, the CEO and founder of Beyond Meat, is just an incredible human, and so we backed him fairly early on.
At the time you did it, there wasn’t a lot of people interested in that sector. And there was investments, but it was more on the research side, a lot of the research stuff, and this is a small market. What did you hope — I’ll get to the stock thing — why did you go public with it and what did you hope for? That it would be in every supermarket? Or you’re aiming at people who eat meat?
Yeah, the goal with it, and the company’s been around for a few years, and the goal with it was always to penetrate the meat market. And, I mean, not in the actual ... in the grocery store sense, this massive trillion dollar market that we thought there’s a better alternative to. So we didn’t have the plan for that. Ethan and his team had the plan, but it’s going well so far.
So where do you imagine ... there’s a world positive. How much pushback have you had from meat companies? I know they don’t want you to call it “meat.” Because just the way the milk distributors don’t want oat milk to be called oat milk or cashew milk or ...
I think some of them see it as an opportunity and some of them see it as a threat, I would imagine.
Because Tyson is in it? Right?
Tyson was actually a big investor and shareholder and they got out just before the IPO.
Because they’re making their own version.
Yeah. I would assume any meat company ... The response to the Beyond Meat IPO, which has been so gratifying, is that people are paying attention to this plant protein company that most people wouldn’t have predicted would make such a big blip. And I think it’s a lot of people seeing the potential.
And in terms of when you think about these world-positive things, talk about what your theories are of venture investing because that’s changed a lot. You know, you have the advent of giant investors like SoftBank, which of course has gotten a bath in the Uber investment. How do you look at investing, then, as a venture? How do you distinguish yourself?
So we kind of play a different game, I think, than most Silicon Valley investors. And first of all, it’s our lens, of filtering out a lot of things that could be great investments, but if we don’t think really are going to address some need for society we’ll say, “That’s okay, there’s lots of others we’ll focus on.” Which eliminates most of enterprise software.
And then also the message that entrepreneurs really appreciate is that we are mission-aligned and we will support an entrepreneur who is mission-focused. People come to us because they really like hearing that, because as an entrepreneur you can be — and I’ve been in this position — where you’re aligned with your investors in terms of wanting to build something really big, but you can get misaligned in terms of really the purpose of that thing.
So what does that bring you to? What areas are you excited about, in that regard?
So we do a lot of stuff in sustainability from solar and solar software. We’re investors in Proterra, the electric bus company. There’s some other ... Another exit we just had was Olly, which was a supplement company. And so we tend to do things that are outside of the traditional Silicon Valley world that I know. Which, of course, Silicon Valley’s expanding greatly in terms of what they invest in, but it’s not a lot of software or media.
All right. When you — I’m going to get to Medium in a second — but when you think about venture, I just interviewed Mark Cuban and Steve Case, and they were talking about the efforts they’re making to get all around the world, to try to get more talent from elsewhere. Right now, 80 percent of venture capital goes to three states.
I didn’t know that.
And most of it to California, and most of it to Silicon Valley, continues to be all white, all male, not very geographically diverse, not very globally diverse. Why does that continue, from your perspective?
I think it’s habit. It’s definitely not the lack of viable investments that are outside the geography or demographics of that traditional set and so we aren’t internationally focused. And one thing is that so much of the money is in Silicon Valley and the firms are there because they come out of, you know, it’s historic. And it is hard to invest in other places where you’re not ... There’s just a time in the day problem.
We have a couple investments in Europe, but not a lot. And we have some in New York and throughout the country, but part of that ... I certainly celebrate expanding the ethos and the formula of Silicon Valley to other places, but it’s pretty massive and there’s this perpetuating cycle. People come out of companies, and they go back in, and they invest in their friends ...
I get that, but why doesn’t it happen? You’re a very well-meaning person, you have a broad attitude toward diversity, but most people just talk about it and nothing happens in that regard. It seems like you’re, 1) missing the boat, meaning there’s lots of investments you’re missing, and 2) perpetuating something like this is not an excuse for doing that.
Yeah, I agree. I don’t see any excuse for doing it. We try very hard to invest ... I don’t have the data off the top of my head about our portfolio.
I know it is something that comes up in every partner meeting and every conversation I’m in about how we both hire in the firm — both women and people from underrepresented backgrounds and how we get that into our portfolio. And we work on it daily, and my partner is very focused on that. But I don’t have an excuse ...
Do you think Silicon Valley has changed in attitude, given this sort of techlash that’s happening?
I think it has, dramatically. I mean, in my 20 years of building companies in Silicon Valley, the intensity of focus on diversity and inclusion in the last five years is dramatically higher. It’s an order of magnitude higher. And it’s changing how ... Definitely how we invest, how we run companies, how we hire. It’s changed all those things, in my experience. And we have a long way to go.
Yeah, and the numbers still don’t bear it out. It’s really ...
I totally agree.
It’s the strangest thing. So when you think about where the biggest, most interesting innovations are happening, where do you tend towards right now? You’re obviously in food tech. There’s a lot of mobility stuff going on — and that’s not mobile phones. Where do you think that the hottest place to look at is? And where do you think the hype, the worst place right now is?
Well, I don’t spend that much time looking at investments, to tell you the truth. I spend more of my time on Medium, which maybe we should talk about that!
Yes, I’m going to talk about that. I’m going to get to that right now.
But, I mean, I think obviously AI is infiltrating everything we do and there’s very interesting things we’re ... actually there’s an overlap of AI and material and molecule discovery, which, I’ll probably butcher this if I try to even explain it. One of our companies is Zymergen, which is based on ... which is just doing mind-blowing things in inventing new ... discovering new materials and new chemicals through AI.
And so that’s a field that I barely understand, and I think every time I learn more about it, it’s doing incredible things. And there’s a number of companies like that.
All right. Medium.
What’s happening with Medium now? When last we talked, you were ... You’ve changed it about 63 times. Like, in the way you’re looking about it. How do you look at it right now? What do you think of it as?
I would argue I have not changed it 63 times, although ...
I do defend my need to change my mind.
I don’t mind it. I don’t care if you change it.
We haven’t changed that many things about Medium. Medium’s been around for about seven years.
The entire time, it’s been an open publishing platform that has grown that entire time. So, more people write, more people read. Two years ago, we started building a subscription business on top of that. That’s been going very well.
And so in the last two years, the main thing we’ve done is built this premium consumer subscription business on top of the open publishing platform. So it’s really a mesh of those two things that allows anyone to publish, have a voice, potentially get paid. We pay thousands of writers from all over the world, every week, and that’s a growing amount. And then we have a professional editorial team and then we also work with third-party publishers. So we do all that ...
Would it be right to say that you’ve pushed off of the professional stuff more and tended more towards different writers? Has that not worked as well? Or what part has worked the best?
Everything’s growing. The bulk of Medium is still self-published authors and we have our partner program where we pay them through. Most people writing on Medium don’t opt in to get paid, they’re looking to find audience. We also have a growing editorial team that is publishing ... The latest thing we’ve been doing is starting these little publications or mini magazines around a variety of topics. We’ve been doing that both in-house and through partners like Mark Bittman and Roxanne Gay. We just launched something a couple weeks ago.
And so all that is working and it’s really the combination of things that are working, because it’s very clear to me that advertising isn’t working, peer advertising for publishing, for quality information. People still want good things to read and to inform their view of the world, and so every publisher that, as you know, is putting up paywalls and subscriptions, and it seems very clear that people aren’t going to subscribe to dozens of sites.
Just like they don’t subscribe to every TV show they watch or every musician. They’re going to look for a lot of value under one subscription that’s personalized, that’s high quality, that’s, I think, ad-free is tremendously different.
Well, they’re doing that with podcasts. They’re trying to bring together podcasts ...
They are. And we’re much farther along than anyone doing that in podcasts.
Do you consider yourself a network then? And how would you describe yourself as a media company?
We’re ... You could call it a network, and Medium’s always been a network, it’s really a platform and the subscription part is a bundle. It’s a bundle of thousands of writers, of dozens of publications, for one price. Some of that is licensed, by the way, from third-party publishers. So we include New York Times, Financial Times, Bloomberg. A lot of these, part of ... Just a few stories from them are in there. And so really our goal is to build the best content subscription product that there is.
Do you think, yourself, of buying big media companies? All the others ... A lot of ... Laurene Powell Jobs, Marc Benioff, obviously Jeff Bezos, and others with some money have been purchasing things. There was a rumor you were looking at New York magazine? Is that true?
It’s true, there was a rumor about that. And…
You got me there.
I love New York magazine, I think they do a great job. And look, I think it is something I’ve thought about.
Because I think there’s a lot of those organizations that do great work and they need a new model, frankly. And a lot of them I think will be fine, but a lot of them are going through more difficult times. The difference between myself and most of the people you mentioned is, if we were to do that it would plug into the business and building.
So what do you imagine — finishing up — the modern media company looks like? What’s been the thing that you’ve done and you’ve thought, “Ah, that’s not the way it should go”? What do you think a modern media company looks like? Because you could go and buy old media companies ...
And try to ...
Yeah. I don’t think that’s ... I think a modern media company ... I think the idea of being open to some degree is important, and this is where we’re really trying to capture the best of what you get from the internet and from social media in many ways, which is giving a lot of people the chance to be heard. But it’s not guaranteeing ... It’s not just let the machines and algorithms and people fight it out for attention, it’s really blending openness ...
So not Twitter, right?
Not Twitter, but it’s ... We just serve a very different purpose. So the modern media company, if you’re building a publisher today, given the internet, I think it’d be crazy to limit yourself to the people in the building or the people who you know. And so we have the good fortune of getting tens of thousands of people every single day saying, “Here’s my story. Here’s my idea. Here’s my perspective.” And we curate that and sometimes we edit it and we put it in front of more people, and then we also get the benefit of working with people who are well-established.
And so a modern media company, I think, taps the world’s brains and really builds the best ... And a big part of what we do and our philosophy is blending humans and machines. So we’ve seen the pure, open platform, what that gives us in terms of content. And we’ve seen the traditional world and how that can be limited in terms of scale and efficiency. And so I think the next version’s going to blend those things and that’s what we’re trying to do.
And are you positive about media? Because it’s still in its long death swoon. Which, they still haven’t killed off media. It’s been more ... Reading is more popular. Television’s more popular. Are you worried about media?
In general, do you think the changes that are being made are ...
I’m very optimistic. It’s interesting that the written word and publishing, which we’re currently focused on though not limited to, is kind of the last to be ... There’s a time when it was going to be the death of the music industry and there was a time ... It was never, as I recall, the death of the TV industry, but there’s a time when reality TV dominated and that’s what we kind of thought the future was. And both of those are tremendously better, both as businesses and as consumer products. And I think the same thing, for the same reason, can happen with the information we read, and nonfiction educational content as well.
So you imagine that there will be great media brands, not ... Like, you have Game of Thrones, for example, which just finished, which we’re not sure what we’re going to do after that. But you, still, are positive that media can morph into this in this noisy, angry...
Absolutely. The reason it sucks is because of advertising. Full stop. That is the game that we’ve been playing for 20 years, and it wasn’t so bad at first, and now? Attention wins. Period. The cheapest way you can generate attention, which is the same reason that reality TV dominated, change the business model, you change the content.
To me, people talk about saving publishing or saving news. How about we create something way better? And I think we can do that, in the same way other industries do, by changing the incentive structure.
So that would make, kind of, Twitter and Facebook reality television in a weird way? Because that’s where a lot of people get their news.
The reality TV version of the internet will exist for a long time, just as a reality TV version. I think Facebook and Twitter are distribution systems for content more than they are content themselves and social media is a whole ‘nother thing. But I’m talking about publishing, and even when people are talking about where they get their news and information, most things people read are on other sites that are commercially published and driven by advertising.
All right. Last question. Do you think you’ll go public with Medium?
It’s too soon to say, but if we do I would like to go on the Long-Term Stock Exchange, another Obvious investment.
All right. All right. We’ll talk about that later. Thank you, Ev.
Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.