July 25-27, 2018 / Vancouver, BC

An Interview With Anil Dash

June 15, 2016

Steve Fisher and Anil Dash talk about disciplines like content strategy and design, having become so important to the industry and so core to strategy and having such influential roles in the way products, apps, and websites are created. More than almost anyone else, the people practicing these disciplines have responsibility to ensure that what we build is taking care of the people who are most vulnerable, who are least tech literate, and maybe least in the loop.

Often times, if you’re the person in charge of voice, in charge of tone, in charge of content, in charge of the words we see on the screen, you’re the person that is determining whether that is a space that is welcoming or not. And that’s a lot of power and it’s also an exciting opportunity.

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Video Transcript

Steve: Well, hi. We’re back for another interview for the Designing Content Conference. And this time, I’m really excited to say we’re talking with Anil Dash. Anil, why don’t you introduce yourself to everyone and the design content community and tell us a little bit about yourself.

Anil: Sure, yup. I’m Anil Dash. I’m coming to you from New York City where I live. I am also coming to you from the Ancient Internet. I've been on the internet since before the web. And on social media and social networking, since before those phrases were things. So that’s really a lot of my background was getting to -- sort of having a front row seat to the people that invented a lot of the early social media and social networking tools.

And then these days, my work really focuses on thinking about, now that the geeks have won and we’ve sort of taken over society after running things all over the world and everywhere from politics to media and to everything else. What are our obligations about that? So how do we make sure that what we’re doing is good for everybody and takes care of the people who are most vulnerable and has an overall positive impact on society like we keep promising that it will?

Steve: Yeah, excellent. Well, I think it was — I don’t know if it was last year, but I was listening to a Podcast where they’re talking about how you retweeted only women for a year and —

Anil: I actually now have been doing it for roughly four or five years for a while. Yeah, I wrote about it after the first year because somebody had asked me.

Steve: Well, tell us a little bit about what you’re going to be talking about at the conference when we come out this July?

Anil: Sure. Back in the day, I used to make content management systems. I helped build these early tools called Movable Type and Type Pad which were some of the first sort of blogging tools and really learned about all of the various content disciplines through that lens also as being a writer myself and creating stuff. That’s always been really important to me. And when I think now about -- what’s amazing about disciplines like content strategy, having become so important to the industry and so core the strategy and having such influential roles in the way products and apps are created, I think more than almost anyone else, the people practicing these disciplines have responsibility to ensure that what we build is taking care of the people who are most vulnerable or who are least tech literate or sort of least in the loop.

Because what happens a lot of times is we have to design systems that are empathetic and really thinking about what are the needs of everybody in the target audience, maybe not just the people in the room that are building it.

And, often times, if you’re the person in charge of voice, in charge of tone, in charge of content, in charge of the words we see on the screen, you’re the person that is determining whether that is a space that is welcoming or not. And that’s a lot of power and it’s also an exciting opportunity. You can be the one that changes something from being really narrowly targeted to be really broadly useful.

Steve: Right. We actually had a great talk kind of on that topic last year and I think you actually have written the foreword for Sara Wachter-Beottcher's and Eric Meyer’s new book, yeah. Sara blew away the audience just by sharing about very real moments, things that a lot of people experience that a lot of people don’t think of ahead of time unfortunately.

Anil: Yeah you know, Sara and Eric’s book is incredible and it opens up with an anecdote about Think Up which is the app that I was the CEO of the company that built and we just recently shutdown. And I’m very proud of the app and it was very -- it was attempting to be sort of thoughtful way of analyzing your social media activity but really with a lot of voice and a lot of heart and it was just to have a lot of sort of purpose to it. It wasn’t just like here’s a chart and some raw numbers. It’s supposed to really be offering some specific guidance about what you’re doing.

But in having an opinionated app and making choices about like almost editorially about what we’re going to tell our users, we inadvertently -- made some really hurtful choices especially for Eric who’s one of our users and had gone through a terrible loss in his family. And we were — even though we spent so much time thinking ahead — we didn’t anticipate every way that the applicant interpreted data and ended up being really hurtful to somebody that is a friend, that I’ve known for a long time. I mean it’s very, very personal and he was incredibly gracious about it and we of course tried to fix the bug as soon as we could, as you do.

But at the same time, I was — and I honestly and knowing how important the book that Sara and Eric wrote was and being asked to write the foreword for it — I was a little sort of trepidatious because literally the first thing you read after the forward that I wrote is how I screwed up and hurt my friend.

And that’s a real — it’s very humbling and I’m not humble man. So it was sort of like how do you reckon with that? And it was another one of — I've had a lot of moments like that over my career where you really think, I guess why am I doing this and what am I trying to do this for and who am I doing it for and? Interestingly, we have a lot of rhetoric in the industry and I’ve been in tech for 20 years where we talked about — Silicon Valley, the HBO show does this great job of parodying "we want to change the world" kind of thing. Though people do say that and I think people do believe it, so the question is: in what way? What’s the end goal? What does it look if you succeed?

I think it’s one of the hardest questions to ask is not -- like we’re so like understandably worried about failure. I don’t want my company go under. I don’t want my product to be broken. I don’t want to -- all these different issues. So what if this succeeds? If this takes over and everybody in the world is using it, was does the world look like and is it better for people and does it — if people who didn’t have an opportunity, give a shot at doing something that they didn’t have before? Or does it make things worse?

And I think that’s one of these things that is really hard question but the people that I’d be talking to in Vancouver in a few weeks are the kind of people who can make a change and a difference as to whether that helps people or not.

Steve: Yeah, that’s a good perspective and really interesting point about thinking about like the — what if it did take over, really puts in front and center. Yeah and we are, we do care so much about that with this conference and bringing people together. But in a very — like Sara’s talk was a great fit last year because we really want this to be about the people that were there and the people that should be there too. Those of us that are building things but those are that don’t really have a comfortable way to express their voice or an easy way to express our voice, which of course an easy thing for me to say as a straight white male, but it’s also a big responsibility in our community here.

Something that we really appreciate about you Anil and one of the reasons that we’re excited that you’re coming is just how straightforward you are about a lot of things. Well no, seriously —

Anil: That’s a generous way of phrasing it.

Steve: I think it was yesterday. Of course we’ve gone through — we’re experiencing this horrible tragedy in our world — well, lots of them all over but in particular, in Florida. I saw you tweet something and then a couple minutes later, just saying, you know what? That was actually kind of insensitive. The point maybe was right and that is something that we really appreciate about you as a person. And think that it’s a good fit for our audience is that you’re willing to say, “I was wrong here. Maybe I was well-intentioned, but I was wrong and I’m publicly willing to be out there for that.”

Anil: I think this ties to the point about who I amplify or who I retreat or whatever. I’m very fortunate. I have a large platform. I have however many 100s of 1000s of followers on Twitter and similar large networks on Facebook or whatever else. And it’s a platform. I’m very lucky. I get to be heard. I mean I have no portfolio. I have a recently failed startup and not my first one. And I didn’t go to college and I don’t come from some famous family.

I’m sort of just a guy who was in the right place at the right time and mostly because I was friends with some early people at Twitter, got on the suggested user list and got a platform. I’m also good at Twitter like I think I write good tweets. But like lots of people write good tweets and don't have as many followers as me. Like people who know me know I love Prince and like he’s one of the greatest artists of all time before his passing and he didn’t have as many Twitter powers as me.

So obviously, that number is not measuring something meaningful. But yet here I am with these followers and with this audiences and with this voice. I think about this a lot of like a football stadium or something can hold 70,000 people. And if I have eight football fields worth of people theoretically that I can reach on a given day. If you had that chance, what would you do?

And the biggest thing I feel is like to do justice to the platform that I’ve been given and it does come across — I mean one of the things I’m very mindful of is like, I have this voice and then it’s not something that I earned and so what do I do just sort of being useful with it? And it’s hard to not fall in to honestly for me, being strident and preachy and you — there are lots of forces that lead you to think that you have earned a certain place or certain platform, regardless of whether you did or not. Do you know what I mean?

I get a ton of feedback with positive or negative and they’re both exaggerated. I mean like the bad stuff is terrible. Like the first time somebody says something horrid about your child or publishes your home address or goes after your spouse or whatever — Not even the first time. Every time, which is about once a week these days — is awful. Like it never stops being awful.

But the flip side of that is I can say things that are obvious, that others have said before, that are not new and get a lot of pats on the back. And that’s almost as dangerous. Like it’s almost as challenging a thing because you start — you want to believe it. Somebody's like — you said something really smart. Yeah, I sure did. Do you know what I mean? Nobody's going, "No. I’m not that bright."

And that’s a real danger too because you get incurious. You get complaisant and you start to sort of — and this human nature, I think, — think well these people who agreed with me and say I’m smart are right, and all people who think I’m horrible are wrong. And you really start to value — as in the case with this conversation about the killings in Orlando — I raised the point, which is sort of not super relevant, and I was sort of thinking out loud. And honestly, I think I was trying to dispassionately process it because it was such a hard event. I didn’t really want to dwell in the horrible emotions that come up from it.

And Roxane Gay, who’s an incredible writer and a friend that, among many other people, was the first one that saw it and just really made me think. Well, I screwed up here. I said something that was just thoughtless and that hurt people I care about and that it's really hard — I mean Roxane has huge fans and a lot of followers and a voice and is an incredible author and well-known sort of a celebrity in some ways.

And so she’s got cred. But even she hadn’t been, just as a friend to speak up, when somebody is screwing up and they have a lot of followers, if they’re not in a gracious mode and they want to sick their followers after you, it’s horrid. So it’s intimidating to correct somebody and I don’t ever — I don’t like to sick my followers on people. That’s not something I ever choose to do. I don’t ever want people that are in my network to be bad and unkind to others. But you don’t know. You might not know. I mean I don’t see Roxane in person. We’re internet friends.

And so she took a risk and put herself out there, especially as a black woman to say, “Look, you really came across like a jerk here.” She said it much nicer than that. Like, “What are you doing?” And I thought for me, it really stuck with me — if somebody I respect this much, this talented, is going to go this far out of her way to publicly correct me, then I probably transgressed in a pretty serious way. And then thinking about that, I was like, “What a kindness she did me.” Because otherwise, I’ve got potentially 100s and 1000s of people saying, “What an a-hole this guy is?” Do you know what I mean? And for somebody to say, “Look, I’m going to save you from yourself," is incredible kindness.”

So I don’t think that lightly. And I think it’s something that I hope I don’t lose. I worried about that a lot. I do worry about that a lot.

Steve: From my perspective, I think you’re doing a good job whether you feel like it’s earned or not. But it makes think about like the company I work with. We do a lot of work for a lot of governments and they serve 100s of 1000s of people, millions of people. And just hearing you say like — a friend of yours online does you this kindness by correcting you publicly. I think of that on projects too and the content that we work with. If someone can correct me or I can them or whatever and that this government website or public or private, whatever it happens to be has better interactions, it’s more exclusive. Yeah, is made better by it. That’s more than eight football stadiums. And we lose site of that I think too.

Anil: But there's a really hard thing which is the challenges building a culture where that kind of correction is seen as a positive, get feedback. It’s seen as a kindness as opposed to an embarrassment, as opposed to undermining somebody. And it can be those things too where people do that. There’s a lot of people that will wield a good cause as they stick with which to bludgeon others, you know.

Steve: Yeah.

Anil: And that’s a hard thing, right? Like, if somebody comes to me, and I've had this happen, where people whose politics I agree with or advocating for a good and meaningful cause, but come at it with like "you don’t care about this, you’re ill informed, thoughtless, hurtful, harmful, whatever." I agree with you but I'm a human and I think that’s one of those things that’s really hard with a lot of internet platforms as we build them to certain to humanize each other. It’s like you're represented by this avatar and it doesn’t really look like a person and it’s sort of divorced from your real actual persona and personality and things.

And so you end up with an environment where I think about it as a lot. What the internet does is like once a group has decided that a person is bad, for whatever reason, their ideas or actuary mistake they made or whatever, as soon as the group has decided on that and some sort of identified this is a bad player, bad person, then it sort of shifts and mutates into a contest to see who can be most scathing, and the point scoring is retweets or likes or hearts or favorites or whatever.

And it’s really toxic feedback dynamic. I mean I’ve been on both sides of it and I try not to encourage it anymore amongst others, but like it’s — it can be almost intoxicating. I mean I think when you get a group saying, “Well, this is the bad person then I’m going to get a retweet from this person I admire very much if I go after them," that can be really tempting. And I think that also spoke to why I chose to be really mindful about who I retreat or amplify or whose voices I sort of share because you’re modeling the world, the people. I mean it sounds ridiculous but it’s totally true. I mean so much of what we consume is through social media.

We spend more time communicating through social media then through all other media. It is the majority of the conversation in the world happens on chat and social apps. And pretty soon, the majority of all human conversation that is ever occurred would have happened through chat and social apps.

And so already that’s sort of statistic we're always trotting out about more photos will be taken than in all our human history, like we are seeing this amplifications and accelerations of these trends. And then we think about well there are values baked in to these apps that we use to take these photos and share this little bits of information. And it can be everything from what colours or the emoji in the app for the faces, into does it pick up on when you are doing something that is probably abusive or hurtful to others?

And that whole range from simple to very, very complicated is a series of product choices that really truly are shaping global culture and that are being made currently by a pretty narrow group of people with a very limited range of experiences.

Steve: Yeah and typically like I said safe to say, it’s pretty privilege group of people too.

Anil: Yeah, yeah, I mean they’re good people. I’m very lucky I’ve got to see people building these apps and sit down with them and talk to them and some of them are friends. And so they all have good intentions. There’s nobody that’s like "I’m setting out to make the patriarchy worse." They're sort of, "here’s my way of making a tool." But if you are working on a chat app at Google and you were a top student at Stanford and got hired right out of the school and before that, you probably went to a great public school or private school where you went and your parents had sort of provided you everything and had a stable home and vaccines and clean water and all that good stuff.

By the time you get all the way through to top of your class then to Stanford then to Google, life's been pretty good to you. And most of the places you’ve been there was a drawer of snacks and some free drinks over in the fridge. You can have good intentions and mean well, but to really understand what it is to do without the basics: food, shelter, water, sanitation, access to education, like all these things, it’s almost impossible.

I'm that guy. I grew up in like the suburbs and had personal computers as a kid and all that stuff and if I haven’t gone back to visit my cousins who are still live in India and one of the poorest regions in the world, regularly as a kid, I wouldn’t have gotten it. Like nothing short of having live there got through my head, do you know what I mean? Like I don’t think I’m evil. I don’t think -- in the abstract, I cared. Like you see a TV show. You’re like, “Oh those people are suffering. That seems terrible." Like you care. But to know what it is to live without electricity, without running a water is clarifying.

Steve: Yeah.

Anil: It’s very quickly. When I saw that my cousins who were girls didn’t go to school because they were busy fetching water, and from wells that were not clean. Like the difference between that and being able to crowd fund building wells on the internet now and have wells built in the region that we’re from. So like water, the girls can go to school is like — it’s the thing that gave me clarity about like what my actual role is, what my job is.

It took away from me the desire — even though I saw friends becoming very wealthy and successful. Some of the people that I came up with in the early social web are billionaires now. And everybody has ambitions and goals and inspires things. Like I don’t demonize them, some of them are still good people. I mean there are some good billionaires and bad billionaires. But the thing for me, I was like, well compared to them, if you look at it from the standpoint of my cousins, I have the same plain running water, the same vaccinations for my kids, the same food everyday. I can watch the same movies. I can listen to the same music. I can wear the same clothes mostly, unless there were some crazy, fancy couture things. And I'm living their world.

I guess they get to ride in private jets but I don’t really like little jets so that’s fine. And when you realize, well my life was indistinguishable from a billionaire's and my kid is not less happy than their kids. I’m like, “What was I’m chasing? I don’t really know.” I don’t know what that ambition was, like I have enough. And to be able to say, in our culture -- like I live in New York City, I live in Manhattan and I have a child that we're getting by. That is more of enough. That is among the most fortunate privilege people who’ve ever lived. And difference between being in the 5% versus the 1% versus 0.00001% is an absurd thing to chase, like that is the most -- I mean if you make more than 30 grand a year US, you are in the global one percent.

And so in tech, nobody is talking about that. The narratives are not like boy, shouldn’t we be happy. We’re making 85 grand a year, $115,000 a year, whatever it is. Life is good. We are fortunate -- that sort of thing is very clarifying for me. And then that does translate to me all the way back down to writing that one line of copy on the homepage about why you should download this app and sign in and why you should give your email address and all those things. Here’s like, “Who am I really writing this for? Who I really want to use this tool?”

And this is sort of thing that is designed for all of those other people that don’t have what I have even in the more local context. Now, I’m talking about extremes about some of the poorest people in the world but talking about even people in my own community that don’t have the same stability access that I do like I said, I live here in Manhattan and here, a quarter of families have library or public Wi-Fi as their primary internet access other than their phone. They don’t have a PC at home. They’ve got one smartphone for the whole family and got data limits on the amount of data you can transfer. How much does that change your experience? How many people talk about and design review meeting, how this going to work on a library computer that has Java script disabled, not enough.

Steve: Well, we’re really excited to have you coming this summer, this July, Anil. This is the exact stuff that we’re looking forward to talking about and hoping that we can these conversations because the work that we do is very impactful. And I think we lose site of that, both good and bad.

Anil: And they can have huge positive impact. I mean that’s not to diminish all the amazing things that tech does. It does change people’s live and empower them — I mean my cousins were in those rice paddies, in that village that we use to go to when I was a kid, are now on Whatsapp and can send me messages and they can get their own messages about what the price of rice is at the market and the town three times over that used to take them all day before. It has changed their life better, let alone that I can download iTunes and launch it which is cool too.

Steve: Yeah.

Anil: And so there’s a lot of great stuff. I don’t diminish that at all. I just get excited about thinking about — like wow, if we have been able to accomplish this much without even being as thoughtful or inclusive as we need to be, think how much more potential there is when we’re actually start getting that stuff, right?

Steve: No, that’s inspiring.

Anil: Thank you.

Steve: So coming to Vancouver this summer this July it’s been awhile since you’ve been there, is there anything you’re excited about being in Vancouver?

Anil: Just that it’s going to be green actually it’s a big deal. Living in Manhattan like we have trees and they are very careful sectioned to off into tree places and being able to kind of get -- I think the geography is something I’m very, very excited about and the few times I’ve been in Vancouver the people are great. The food is great. That stuff is -- that’s pretty exciting.

Steve: Yeah. There will definitely be a lot of green, a lot of mountains and ocean and we’ll make sure you get to see some of it while you're out here. Well, thanks Anil so much for chatting with us today and we look forward to seeing you in just four or five weeks now.