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Twitter Co-founder Jack Dorsey On Using Twitter For Social Change

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In case you haven't noticed, Twitter has made headlines recently as a platform for passionate people to effect social change.

In April, the president of Moldova ordered a recount of votes in their recent election, following a Twitter revolution that resulted in mass protests.

During the Iranian elections, when news on what was happening in the country was hard to find, people around the world used Twitter to get news out, and show solidarity with the protesters.

Jack Dorsey is the co-founder of Twitter, which now boasts 18 million users.

Impact caught up with Dorsey at the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit in Mexico City in mid-October. The conference was designed to inspire leaders to effect nonviolent world change through the use of technological tools. We asked Dorsey about the role of Twitter as a force for good in the world and he shared some tips on how to use the service to create a social movement, even if you don't have millions of followers.

Impact: How can people use Twitter more effectively for social change?

JD: I think the biggest thing is supporting each individual update more, getting away from [Twitter] being a social network and focusing on individual tweets - you can create a whole movement from that. Right now we have the hashtag, which was invented by our users, but it's still a little bit cumbersome. But we've seen that tool have a dramatic effect on how people organize and it serves a particular event or a particular moment and then disperses when it's no longer necessary. The hashtag could then become a full-fledged Twitter account which people can follow permanently. I think making that transition [to concentrate on the value of individual tweets] in an easy way would be very, very helpful.

Impact: You have said that it is not important how many followers you have, but how you can effectively use Twitter hashtags. How does somebody who doesn't have a lot of followers on Twitter but is interested in promoting a cause use the platform to effectively do that?

JD: It's really about focusing on the content, making sure the message you want to put out there is simple, direct and genuine. It should express passion and love for whatever you are talking about, because when people see that, it is very engaging and inspiring. It sounds silly, but it's really that simple. Just focus on the message and keep at it: it will be discovered at some point. We see many examples of that today, and over the past year. I think it's really difficult to overcome the notion that you need to have 20,000 followers to say anything meaningful, and you're not going to say anything meaningful until I have 20,000 followers. Because what's the point of that? The way you gain people and lead is to express yourself right now. No matter who is listening right now, if you start talking, people will eventually listen if it's something that resonates with them.

Impact: What cause are you most passionate about?

JD: I wouldn't necessarily focus on any specific one. My position is really to build technologies that speak to any cause; that's what I want to do all the more of. There's a number of causes that are particularly relevant to me, that resonate with me. One is what the Grameen Bank did, and Kiva -- creating the ability to give micro-loans to people, so they can worry less about the risk and start their own business or project and be independent and self-sustaining. That just speaks to me personally, because that's how I like to operate in the world, and I love to see other people do the same thing. I think the UN refugees organization has done dramatic things with these technologies. That's something we don't see it in the news: the number of people who are moving and transitory between two countries and don't have a solid place to call home, people who have been uprooted for political reasons or natural disasters and now have to make a new life. What is that like, and how can we help those people and shed light on the challenges they are about to face or currently facing?

Impact: What you're talking about are complex issues that will take a sustained effort to help solve. How can Twitter, a technology based on catching a person's short attention span, help mobilize movements that take patience and sustained effort?

JD: I believe you can use that short attention span to your advantage. You can use the limitations, the constraints on the technology to your advantage by constantly exposing snippets of these various causes and concerns in the world. You can constantly talk about them, exhibit a lot of passion around wanting to build things and work on projects that help answer these issues and solve them. But the biggest thing for these longstanding issues is to bring awareness that they're still around. Maybe they're not affecting people in the same way but they're still affecting people in a new way, and this new way might be more detrimental to society than before. I think if we generate a lot of awareness and discourse, and we generate a lot of empathy and understanding of how other people live, that goes a long way to minimize conflict. That way we can have a healthy and positive discourse instead of always being in the dark and up in arms because we don't understand where the other person is coming from or why they asking these things of us.

Let's shift the conversation for a minute. Miley Cyrus and Trent Reznor left Twitter very publicly and very upset. How do you respond to something like that and what do you think were their reasons for leaving?

I think it's really unfortunate. Both were frustrated with the number of imitators of their personae, who were creating significant, negative damage. A lot of people have seen these fake accounts and believed that they were following the real person. Part of that is just something that is going to exist, but part of that we can try to solve with technology. The company has created the "verify accounts" program, where our customer service staff actually verifies that these are the right accounts, and you can see these badges so you know you are looking at the right account, not something that has been set up for ill intent. I would hope that we could inspire more patience around our development of those [technologies] and that we can have open conversations about the challenges of solving those issues, because they are always going to be with us.

After hearing from so many activists all over the world, do you have any ideas on what new tools or ideas that can help solve the world's big problems?

I think there's a lot missing. I think we can think a lot more about mobile and SMS technology as a way to bridge the gap between those who do not have access to the Internet and electricity. There are portable cell phone towers positioned in villages and I think a greater understanding of what the mobile world brings to us and how we can utilize that is very important. In that same light, these devices contain information on where they are and who is using them and the conditions around them. My iPhone has an accelerometer in it, it can tell when there's an earthquake or when I'm moving or running. There are so many sensors in the world that are underutilized right now and could present so much data, we can create some very interesting visualizations. I would definitely look specifically at what's happening around mobile phones and location to use those tools to really create awesome products.

How would you advise people to take action, based on your own experience? How can they find a passion and follow it?

Travel would be the number one thing. Travel not just around the world, but in your own neighborhood as well: travel around your city, walk instead of driving or taking the bus. You'll discover so many things that need innovation and need someone to care for them.

Once you stumble upon something that you're passionate about, get started. Put something out there, get it out of your head, take it away from a concept to something you can see in front of you. We can't really do anything until we have something in front of us. Until we're writing words and we see them on the paper, or we're building code, or we're painting a picture, we can't iterate on it or determine if it's something that will sustain our interest or the interest of others. Perhaps it's something that just needs to be put away and closed, or learned from, or integrated into another idea. The only way to get through these things is to see them and play with them and allow others to play with them and iterate, iterate, iterate. Until you have that, you're just getting lost in thought and you can convince yourself that this is the best system in the world, but there's nothing to show for it. The hardest step is getting started, and it's the most important one.

Follow @jack on Twitter.