Bill Gates on Journalism and Social Media (and the iPad, too)

Despite Gates' decades-long technology reign, he's a fairly freshman social media user. So for a reasonable chunk of our 40-minute conversation yesterday, that's what we talked about.
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Bill Gates strikes me as a guy who rarely says anything other than what he wants to say. And these days he's largely talking about the big, multi-billion dollar philanthropic work of his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But, despite his decades-long technology reign, he's a fairly freshman social media user and I wanted to find out what was up with that. So for a reasonable chunk of our 40-minute conversation, that's what we talked about yesterday.

He started off a multi-campus tour at UC Berkeley this morning - probably not in a bus - spreading the altruism gospel and looking for junior Bills: smart, innovative young people to help him figure out where and how to spend that $37 billion he's put aside to cure disease and poverty (especially in Africa) and the sorry state of education both in the U.S. and abroad.

We were in a classroom on the 3rd floor of Barker Hall. Gates had two Diet Cokes in front of him. His knee jack-hammered some and he occasionally rocked back and forth like a lot of braniac tech whizzes I know.

I'm paraphrasing my questions, otherwise I might embarrass myself. But his answers are faithful transcripts.

You were always touted as one of the richest and smartest men on earth, as well as the leader of the technological revolution. But you just started using social media. Where have you been?

I've always been a super heavy user of technology. Until Facebook supported asymmetric relationships, it was a bit of a problem, I had like 1,000 people a day from the Philippines wanting to be my friend. I couldn't say 'no' quickly enough; I love everybody in the the Philippines, but I thought it'd be strange if I had all those 13-year-old girls signed up as my friend. Facebook wasn't working for me, and then they came up with a different format, where you can have 'fans' so it's asymmetric. So that was a big help. And then I wanted to have a demarcation between what I had done when I was at Microsoft and what I was doing outside of Microsoft. I do one thing which is fairly low tech, I do a letter that's distributed every year over the web. We've done a lot of videos on the web that have been successful

Is Twitter mostly about random things: 'I'm getting into my car, parking my car, the light is red?' Is it about that or about more serious things? We decided last fall: okay, even though it's been used a lot for more celebrity oriented local interest type things, a few people were starting to use it for very serious topics, to stay engaged and know what's going on. The format we have now [is] essentially: we have a blog, we're doing experiments with this audio/video thing I do after every trip, we're doing some Q&A things, we use the Twitter stuff to drive traffic not just to us but to other things I see like [this recent NYT piece by U2's Bono]. It's working super well. We basically got started about a year after I left Microsoft, and social media had evolved quite a bit.

You have 75,000 followers and follow 44, including Ashley Tisdale and Ashton Kutcher...

I owe [Tisdale and Kutcher]. When I first came onto Twitter in January, those are two of the people who, to their whole group of followers, said 'Hey Bill Gates is on Twitter, hey Bill Gates is saying interesting things,' and took a few things and re-tweeted them out to their group. That was kind of nice, because what's the intersection of people who are interested in global health education and broader policy things, which is more my deal, and their founding? It's interesting, you have all these statistics, when I do a post and it gets re-tweeted by them, how many people click on it, so we can kind of get a sense of the degree of overlap between the various large groups that are out there. Because they have such big followings it was a big help to me.

Successful social media usually has an interactivity component. How do you respond to people?

I see what other people are doing, what they think is interesting, so I'm learning from other people. I can do all kind of searches on Twitter and say, is there any global health stuff out there, is there any education reform stuff out there? The Gates Notes website does have a thing where you can submit questions right now, but the interactive pieces of that, for the next few months, you have to be careful with these things because they can be a bit random. [In the comments section] of one of my TED speeches, I think it was last years', which had nothing to do with abortion, you got some big back and forth thing on the TED website in the comments section. Those things, if they're completely unfiltered, and there's a large set of people coming into them, it can get a bit random, but what we're going to do on the site is have a mix of some that are wide open and who knows, they may go random, and some that are more filtered in terms of what gets up there.

You re-tweet a lot of mainstream media stories. I saw you read the WSJ, NYT, etc. are you worried they'll disappear?

I think it's a serious problem. There are obviously good things happening. That anybody can publish, that overall is a very good thing, the fact that you can search and find things is a very good thing. In the video realm, there was such a limited portal for video things to get out, like educational videos and things, my son and I do a lot of science trips, my daughter and I do a lot of trips, the amount we can inform ourselves before we go really is mindblowing.

But when you get into investigative journalism, particularly for topics that the public is less enamored of, particularly global health, but any policy issues in general: I mean, explain the 3,000 page health bill. What's in there? I don't have time to read the 3,000 page health bill. Is the Internet missing something that the top papers have collectively provided? Probably so. Propublica is small but those stories are interesting, they did a really good New Orleans story, they did three or four where you go geez, I'm glad someone did this story. And yet, if you look at the size of ProPublica, it's tiny compared to the number of reporters [who have lost their jobs]. You're cutting really core stuff. Yeah, there was a lot of duplication, where every paper wanted a Washington bureau, some of that - 'How many photographers do I need?' - but there's some meat, some really good stuff, that is starting to be cut, and under what economic model will that be maintained? That's definitely something to worry about. For example, there is a much smaller set of publications that will come to Africa with us [to report on what the Gates Foundation does], much less today than five years ago, and that is scary. The truly core guys can still do it, but not as much or as often. In every tier of this game, we're thinning out.

It seems to me that technology might provide an answer it hasn't provided yet. Is there a way to narrow Twitter to verifiable information useful to journalists? Is there a technological fix for verifying information?

The trusting is hard. Just look at coverage of vaccination even by mainstream media in U.S. and their willingness to give a voice to the anti-vaccine crowd, it is hard. Trust has always been hard. The sense of 'Oh it has to get out right away' really is a problem. What is really going on? Are we being thoughtful about this? There will be voices that emerge. There are people like Hans Rosling, if you're into the field you can go to his website and see his stuff, or go to The Foundation website and see good stuff, the problem is the person who is only lightly engaged in global health, they're not hardcore enough [to do that]. We need more reporters and editors to say, 'we're going to put global health on our front page today,' to elevate something up and create that broader awareness, not just [focus on] something that's interesting and got a lot of traffic.

You retweeted the Michael Specter TED appearance. He said you can't take anything for granted. What have you taken for granted?

I take for granted that if you're smart about a problem you can come up with a solution. I have this optimism about technology and the opportunity of innovation to solve things, I sort of just have that as a basic principle. I take a lot of scientific things for granted.

You once said Steve Jobs could see the next big thing. Do you like the iPad?

It's okay. The scenarios aren't that clear. But it's good looking. [Steve Jobs] does good design, and [the iPad] is absolutely a good example of that.

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