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Death threats, misinformation, and racism in Silicon Valley: Meet the designer shaping the future of Twitter

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22.09.2021

Dantley Davis was sitting in his car in San Jose when the police officer approached, hand on gun. It wasn’t Davis’s first baseless run-in with the police, nor would it be his last.

There was a robbery in the neighborhood and Davis—whose father was Black and mother is Korean—fit the description of the thief, the officer said.

While the officer didn’t know Davis, he was almost certainly familiar with Davis’s work. At the time, Davis was a rising design star in Silicon Valley, responsible for some of the most engaged-with interfaces in the world. He had built the shopping cart for PayPal, which lets you seamlessly check out from third-party retailers. He had designed much of Netflix’s modern TV interface, which remains in use today. Davis is why you can have separate accounts for your children, and why shows autoplay as you browse (for which, yes, he’s sorry).

Keeping his hands visible on the steering wheel, Davis explained to the officer that he lived in the neighborhood. When that didn’t work, Davis turned the tables, noting that his supposed “getaway car”—a Nissan Leaf—provided a mere 40-mile range. “[The officer’s] face turned completely red,” Davis recalls with a laugh, “and they let me go.”

Though Davis can joke about the 2016 encounter now, he’s never really escaped it. Despite having worked on some of the most significant products in the Valley, he’s been repeatedly treated as an outsider—handed the wheel, but asked for his proof of ownership. His work creating interfaces with broad reach has landed him key roles at some of tech’s biggest companies. But with Black employees constituting only 3% of the workforce in design and 7% in tech, he has also found himself stymied when he’s pushed for more systemic change.

This outsider, however, is now shaping the future of one of the most influential companies on the planet. After joining Twitter in 2019, Davis became the company’s first chief design officer (as well as the first Black and first Korean American executive to report to the CEO since Twitter went public). His mandate: fix the toxicity on the platform and snap the company out of a decade-long product development slump, in part by shaking up its placid corporate culture.

While Twitter has been a driving force behind the most prominent social movements of the past decade, including #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, it’s also been the crucible for some of the worst online behaviors. It has enabled targeted harassment since the earliest days of the service. It has spread hate speech and misinformation, including anti-vax propaganda and former President Donald Trump’s reality-distorting lies.

A 2017 Amnesty International study found that an abusive tweet gets sent to female journalists and politicians every 30 seconds. Examining a decade of tweets, a 2018 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that false information spread six times faster than true information on the platform, and was 70% more likely to be retweeted.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that this kind of activity has flourished for so long. Twitter’s development culture has traditionally prioritized efficiency-obsessed product managers over experience-focused designers. (Case in point: One of Twitter’s best design features—pull to refresh, which allows users to update the feed—wasn’t even created in-house; it arrived via Twitter’s acquisition of the Tweetie app in 2010.) At most successful companies, designers solve problems. At Twitter, they mostly did what they were assigned.

Davis, however, has supercharged Twitter’s product-release schedule. In the two years since his arrival, the service has launched a striking number of features that begin to address some of its most insidious problems. He lobbied to get misinformation labels live on the feed in May 2020 (which were famously used to flag Trump’s claims of election fraud). His group has helped deactivate racist algorithms that prioritized white faces when auto-cropping photos. (Twitter now lets users post a photo in its original aspect ratio.) And he’s set up a team of 15 people to develop concepts to eliminate problems like targeted harassment. He’s also been rolling out products, including the audio-chat feature Spaces and a Tip Jar for creators, which prioritize nuanced and positive interactions on the site.

“Dantley joining this company is one of the most important inflection points I believe we’ve had,” says Kayvon Beykpour, who, as head of consumer product, works with Davis to set the development direction of Twitter.

That inflection point hasn’t been easy for Twitter. Hired to shake up a corporate culture that sometimes rewarded longevity over performance, Davis is a polarizing figure within his more than 200-person design and research department.

On the one hand, he’s baking diverse perspectives into his growing design leadership team, which at press time numbered nine employees, more than half of whom are women and people of color. Throughout his department, he’s made a point of hiring people whose perspectives have often been ignored to fix the social media company’s deepest problems. (Black employees make up 6.7% of the technical workforce at Twitter, which employs roughly 6,600 people; Latinx employees account for 6.1%, and women 29.2%.)

[Photo: Shayan Ashgarnia; Groomer: Daniel Vargas at Peoples Barber]At the same time, though, he’s been responsible for a significant exodus of veteran designers, which has had a destabilizing effect. After speaking with 20 former and current colleagues from Twitter and other companies, a portrait of Davis emerges: that of a reserved, mission-driven designer who can unnerve and even alienate employees. Davis’s critics lament him for the same reasons his loyalists love him: his surgically precise, no-nonsense critiques and emphasis on personal accountability for work.

“There was a culture of resting and vesting on this team,” Davis says unapologetically. “The expectation has shifted [so] that you are expected to make a contribution.”

Davis has support at the highest levels of Twitter. CEO Jack Dorsey praises him as “principled, creative, and uncompromising.” Twitter’s chief of human resources, Jennifer Christie, credits his “direct, performance-oriented” style with pushing the company to “be better both in terms of the kinds of products we design, but also in the kind of organization we........

© Fast Company


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