“Blue ticks were a mistake”: Bruce Daisley on leaving Twitter and fixing workplace culture

Twitter’s outgoing European vice-president opens up about life at the social network, and his quest for worker wellbeing.

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Bruce Daisley never imagined his future would encompass Silicon Valley. Twitter’s outgoing European vice-president, who also ran YouTube in the UK between 2008 and 2011, started out working at McDonald’s.

His accent is broad Brummie rather than California cool, and there are deep smile lines around his eyes where the thick-framed glasses of a chic media executive should be. Wearing a blue shirt and black jeans, only his hipsterish purple-soled trainers hint at his career choice.

The 48-year-old grew up in Birmingham, where his mother worked on the production line for Cadbury Creme Eggs and his father was a bricklayer. At 16, Daisley began working in fast food outlets like McDonald’s and Burger King, bars and restaurants, and it was around this time that he developed a fascination with workplace culture.

“When you’ve worked on the fries or on the burgers, you’ll never work as hard as that – you go home totally spent by it. But it means everything you do afterwards isn’t so hard.”

Daisley began working in the tech industry in 1993, when he sent Capital Radio a hand-drawn comic strip CV and was offered a job as a production assistant. Having worked in media sales he set up YouTube’s UK division in 2008, after Google acquired the video streaming service in 2006. He was hired by Twitter in 2012, where he ran the social network’s European operation until resigning early this year.

The first person in his family to attend university – he studied economics at York – Daisley considered himself a “troublemaker” and “agent provocateur” while at Twitter. “I often used to say ‘look, I’m going to get fired’,” he admits. “Where I grew up and my background, I never expected to have a job like this… [I thought] ‘enjoy it while it lasts, but it probably won’t last’.”

I met Daisley to talk about his self-help guide, The Joy of Work, which has just been published in paperback. Refuting the trend among leading tech gurus for life-planning and hyper-organisation (the Tesla boss Elon Musk is said to plan his entire 85- to 100-hour working week in five-minute slots), Daisley’s book makes the case for stepping back and enjoying our jobs.

“Electronic devices have definitely made things worse,” he told me. “We’re spending two hours a day more connected to work than we ever were before smartphones… It’s such an unhealthy place for us to be as a society. It’s not even in the service of us doing our jobs well.”

In his industry, Daisley meets people with intense daily routines, who hit the gym at 5am, and finds it “a life devoid of happiness, because you’re optimising so much to eke out that last degree of productivity, it seems immensely sad for me”.

He “playfully ridicules” such workers, but tried to put bonding above burnout at Twitter. He used techniques laid out in his book, from physically bringing teams closer together by moving the office kettle, to a marshmallow tower-building competition.

In The Joy of Work, he hints at “a time at Twitter when things weren’t going so well”. It was when the stock price went “incredibly low” in 2015, he tells me, and “in one year we saw 40 per cent of the team leave”. It was his job to rebuild morale.

While praising its innovation, he warns that Silicon Valley has been “guilty of a lot of misdirection”, saying a lot of tech firms “don’t have a second act” and have “bought a lot of their best ideas” rather than allowing staff to be creative.

“If you search for ‘best places to work’ and see images of people smiling over smoothies, what you’re seeing is marketing,” he warns. “You’re not seeing the reality of what it’s like to work there… having done those jobs, and having done the jobs that were far more traditionally British, I’d say the comparison is far less sharp than you might be given the impression to believe.”

Citing academic studies and drawing on his own experiences, Daisley’s tips for transforming our working culture are as simple as they are subversive in the age of connectivity: switch off notifications, never sacrifice a lunchbreak, go for walks instead of holding meetings, and observe a weekend “digital Sabbath”.

Such advice is rather ironic coming from a man who aided the rise of two of life’s greatest distractions: YouTube and Twitter. “I adore my phone! Just be a bit more intentional about how you use it – the big thing is to stay off emails at weekends; I don’t mean all the things that make you happy.”

The Joy of Work has already topped the Sunday Times business bestseller list and follows his podcast Eat Sleep Work Repeat, which was launched in 2017 and has ranked as Apple’s number one business podcast in the UK.

On 6 January, Daisley tweeted his resignation after eight years at Twitter to concentrate on his research into work culture, productivity and happiness. “The job I joined was a world apart from the job it became; when I arrived at Twitter, it had about five million people using it in the UK, it was frivolous and immensely fun.” But UK users have nearly tripled since then. “Clearly, it’s evolved, and the impact it has across the world is in a different league.”

Tweets now move markets, destroy reputations and, in the case of Donald Trump, escalate geopolitical tensions. In September 2017, his tweet that North Korea “won’t be around much longer!” was regarded by Pyongyang as a “declaration of war”, and this month he threatened to target “Iranian culture”, which would be a war crime under the Hague Convention.

Twitter’s co-founder and CEO, Jack Dorsey, is under pressure over accusations of a laissez-faire approach to trolling and fake news. Some users even accuse the US president’s account of violating Twitter’s own rules against “hateful conduct” and “abuse”.

Daisley acknowledged that validating certain accounts (with a blue tick) was a mistake. “One of the things we felt we got wrong was verification. The intention was for a badge to say, ‘this is the real one’. What happened over time is that when these people sent things that were egregious and politically offensive, people would say to us, ‘Oh, so you’re endorsing that?’”

He also admitted that there was “most definitely” tension between the European and US sides of the Twitter operation over these questions. He diplomatically described Silicon Valley’s more libertarian instincts, compared to Europe, as an “optimistic take on life”. “We used to talk about ‘seeing both sides’, because our belief was that empathy leads to better understanding. The reality of the world is that the optimistic path is often not always the one people go down.”

Social media executives such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have tried to avoid editorial responsibility for content by insisting their products are “platforms” not “publishers”. But for Daisley, “I think we’ve realised there’s a degree of publication… it definitely sits across curation or publication, or there’s an editorial function in whatever way you describe it, isn’t there?”

Daisley can leave these issues behind as he advances his research into worker well-being. Yet he departs an office under scrutiny.

“When you bring arbitrary judgement into things, you’ve become part of the story,” he warned of Twitter’s future role in policing content and stopping misinformation. “The moment you become the arbiter of truth, where can you even begin to start?”

The Joy of Work by Bruce Daisley is published in paperback by Cornerstone, Penguin Random House UK

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

This article appears in the 17 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing

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