It was billed as a fireside chat, which held out the promise that sparks might fly. Early Tuesday afternoon, Margaret Atwood, this country’s favourite novelist of cautionary bestsellers (including the not-intentionally-anti-Trump The Handmaid’s Tale) would face off against Jack Dorsey, the CEO of the social media service Twitter, which helped enable the rise of Donald Trump and a raging dumpster fire of toxic behaviour. How long before she levelled him with her speedy tweeting thumbs?
Spoiler alert: Margaret and Jack are friends
Moderated by Nam Kiwanuka of TV Ontario at a downtown Toronto creative incubator space associated with The Weeknd, the afternoon discussion began with a surprising anecdote: Dorsey and Atwood actually met 10 years ago. It turns out that, when he was launching his mobile payment company, Square, part of the marketing featured an image of phones with photos of people he admired, including Atwood. The next day, he got a phone call from her lawyer advising him to cease and desist using her image. But Atwood followed up with a friendly e-mail, and three months later Dorsey flew to Toronto for a visit, where she picked him up at the airport bearing a sign that read “@JACK” – his Twitter handle.
He’s her No. 1 fan
Atwood, said Dorsey, was his favourite author. “I first came to her work through her poetry. Then through her novels. My favourite is The Robber Bride. Her writing – it’s so rich, it’s so velvety and deep and dark but also with a twinge of science fiction. I see her as a sage, but also a seer into the future, but also someone who could just tell an amazing story that made you feel really good. And it was always a little bit surprising, and I always walked away thinking completely differently. It was fiction but it related so much to the day-to-day that I wasn’t familiar with.” Atwood told the crowd: “I hope you’re writing this all down. I’ll put it on the back of my next book!”
For Atwood, 140 > 280
Asked what it was about Twitter that she liked in the early days, Atwood referred to the character limit of tweets: “Number one, it was short. Number two, short is harder than you think. Short is actually a challenge.” In late 2017, Twitter expanded the number of permitted characters from 140 to 280 a tweet, and Atwood admitted, with a laugh, “I take advantage of the 280. But it’s made me sloppier, I have to say. You don’t have the discipline of 140. 140 is harsh. It’s like a haiku, you really have to pay attention. People who aren’t regular Twitter users will send me things that they want me to tweet for them, and I look at them and think: ‘You have not been rigorous!’ So then I have to condense it for them, because they have just rambled on.”
Atwood says she will be proved right
How, asked Kiwanuka, does Atwood deal with the online blowback, such as when she wrote an article for The Globe and Mail last year about Steven Galloway, the former head of the University of British Columbia’s creative-writing program who was fired in June, 2016? “Well,” said Atwood, “is it accurate? Is it based on facts, are there people lying? Which happens quite frequently. People just make stuff up, and then attribute it to you, and then they say: ‘You did this, you did that,’ and it just happens not to be true.” In those cases, asked Kiwanuka, does she mute or block people on Twitter? “I just let them run," Atwood replied. “Sooner or later, it will all come out in the wash, and sooner or later, everybody will wake up in the morning and they will say: ‘Margaret was always right!’”
Jack is too busy listening to say anything right now
The chat unfolded against a backdrop of an increasingly embattled Twitter, beset by accusations of the company amplifying the voices of racists, trolls, and misinformation specialists. In March, 2018, Dorsey issued a series of tweets in which he pledged that “conversational health” would be the company’s top priority. “Our work right now is figuring out and just listening to what Twitter wants to be,” he said to Kiwanuka, “and just sit with that and to understand how, now that it is more of a conversational platform, how to encourage healthy conversation, how to incentivize that. These were not things that we thought about when we started the company.”