Srinija Srinivasan is vice-president and editor-in-chief of Yahoo Inc. “Ninj” or “Ninja” as she is known, was recruited by Jerry Yang and David Filo to organize the content when they started the Internet company. In the first part of an interview aired on 16 February, Srinivasan talks about how she helps people connect with the information they are looking for, the issue of privacy and the challenges before free exchange of ideas. Edited excerpts from an interview with Livemint Radio:
How would you describe your job at Yahoo?
In title I am editor-in-chief and in role other people have used words, even as I think may be pretentious, as conscience or consciousness of Yahoo. But we’ve always talked about in terms of shepherding the voice of Yahoo. It is a very different kind of editor-in-chief than say at a magazine or a newspaper where there is a much more overt and may be even a heavy handed editorial task with bylines and columns and points of view...sort of out on the page.
At Yahoo, it has really always been about the power of aggregation and that even when we were nothing more and nothing less than a searchable directory of websites that recognizing the mere act of aggregation is creation.
Bringing a connect: Yahoo’s editor-in-chief Srinija Srinivasan.
The choices that Jerry and David made even as a hobby of what to list, what not to list, what to call things, where to put things, how do we describe things. The sum total of all these seemingly minute choices adds up to an impression, to a point of view. We reveal something about ourselves in the total of those choices. That is the impression that somebody takes away to the consumer or a reader takes away in using our products and services.
You mentioned the voice of Yahoo. What is that voice of Yahoo and how has it changed over the years?
In the early days we focused largely on one product and task ahead of us, which was categorizing websites.
Today, that still remains something that really a talented, diverse group of people work on. But the voice of Yahoo today is the sum total of so many more complex and rich elements because our products and services have become so much more diverse.
So, the kind of issues that I focus on every day start with categorization, but go far beyond that into choice making of all kinds. Things like privacy, things like accessibility and making the site accessible for disabled consumers, things like child safety. How all this plays out in a mobile environment, where the expectations are different, where the ground rules are different. And our corporate responsibility arm (which) we call Yahoo for good.
All of these things have the property that, there may be some legislation, may be regulation and it varies from country to country, region to region.
But for the most parts these are highly under-regulated, under a legislated areas, places where it is up to us to define the bar because this continues to be an emerging landscape, because this continues to be technology that is being adopted in different ways in our society.
So, where we set the bar is actually shaping what these things can mean to our lives.
Are you personally involved or is Yahoo involved in policymaking initiatives at the government level?
But it’s only recently this has been more a matter of mainstream. You know, something you are going to pick and read about in your paper. These are details that I feel like we have been sweating for years and years because we are in the thick of it... But today, it is becoming more of a public and I think mainstream conversation not just with regulators and legislators, but also with the media and with consumers and readers.
And I think you can say this about all of these issues whether it is accessibility or child safety or various aspects of corporate responsibility.
Privacy always brings up one country, China. You have had some issues dealing with China?
China does pose some very, very interesting and challenging issues for our industry, which has always been founded on freedom of expression. One of the core values since Yahoo’s inception was to promote free exchange of ideas and information.
In more oppressive regimes that can certainly be a really tough challenge. I think that is something we are learning a lot about. I feel like that is something we have been putting a lot of focus and attention on in terms of investing in helping to shape, define and demonstrate best practices (not only) for ourselves, but for so many companies and even states, right?
This is not something that one individual or one entity can solve on their own, but it is something that we can be a part of shaping, how can we have a dialogue with our own government, with our own legislators and regulators to be having the kinds of conversations that are going to help raise the bar for everybody. Raise quality of life for everybody, raise freedom of expression and promote these values around the world.
How do you then deal with controversial topics because the world map is changing so rapidly?
Yes. And this actually gets me back to that notion that the mere act of aggregation is creation.
In our very early days exactly the kinds of human conflicts that you are raising were the kinds of things that I would sleep over and my team would sleep over and that we would have healthy and long debates about how best to handle that and how best to play a useful role. A useful role in providing the context without trying to answer the questions that we have no business to answer.
We are not an international diplomacy entity to determine where exactly in the hierarchy of things the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus should sit. However, we find ourselves in the peculiar position of having to place it in a hierarchy, in a categorization scheme, so people can find that information when they are looking for it.
The purpose of the directory from the start wasn’t to classify all of human knowledge. It wasn’t to document everything out there. It was to connect people to what they found interesting.
So, the reason for the categorization system was to try to make sure that things that are like each other are near each other, and things that are unlike each other are somewhere else. So, bringing that back to the issue of conflicts that drove us to create some basic common sense rules just like call a thing what it calls itself. You know, if it’s a group of people, if it’s a state, call people what they call themselves, all else being equal.
There must have been issues where people must have rallied around your categorization and said we disagree with the way you have categorized the content.
How do you deal with it and put a label?
That is the role that we take on reluctantly, but we take it on and that is a responsibility that we decided to take on by forming this company and by doing this in a very humane way.
The way that we handle it is by listening and by knowing that we will come up with the best possible answer we can think of today and that we will probably and hopefully get lots of input about that.
And if we can change it tomorrow and it can get better and can better then we will change our minds.
You know early, early days, I remember fax machines literally ringing off the hook and we just could not get the fax going out. Because the faxes were coming in to tell us that we had made a tragic mistake. We had miscategorized a site in our Judaism category for a faith that calls itself Masonic Judaism, which happens to be a group of people that calls themselves Jews. They may be of Jewish ethnic origin, heritage, they follow Jewish traditions and practices, customs, holidays, kosher laws, you name it and they also happen to believe that Jesus Christ is “The Messiah”.
Well that is a fascinating issue, right? It was exactly these kinds of issues that helped us really on to form the kinds of rules of engagement for what role do we play and how do we take responsibility for that role and be as inclusive as possible and help people get to the information that they are looking for.
Whom do you turn to for clarifications? How do you keep yourself updated on all these different things that are unfolding every day in different parts of the world?
Well, we start with our own medium and you know that it is amazing how much one can learn online and it was true in 1995 and it is certainly true in 2009.
We start with our own team. We go out of our way to hire people who themselves, each of them, are intellectually curious and have diverse backgrounds... We love to see people whose experience lies all over the map.
What is important to us is not a consistency of experience but a consistency of passion. That this is somebody, who is wilfully and zealously going after things that they are interested in and bring their heart out.
At a personal level, how do you do that?
Oh! I ask anybody I know, I read anything I can, research online, offline.
Do you find that you have become even more curious?
Oh! I hope so. Absolutely. I feel more curious every day.
We have talked a lot about different things, but if I were to pull it all back together, your work encompasses privacy, data policy, free speech issues and editorial decisions about Yahoo’s overall content.
That is right.
Database is one part, decision making is another part and then how you present it to the front end, which is what I see every day when I go to Yahoo. How do you tie them all up together on a consistent basis and not go mad?
Well, I think you have just hit on the gazillion dollar question. I think since our inception that is being the biggest challenge and it is a bigger challenge today than it ever has been because information sources are greater and more varied then they have ever been.
And people are greater and more varied then they have ever been inclusive of our user base. And yet, since the beginning our goal has been really very simple: connect people to what they want when they want it, in a way that enhances their life.
So the front-end is very simple but the back-end is...
The back-end gets increasingly complex, scale becomes an increasing challenge and cutting through what is not relevant, what is less compelling to get to that thing, that is the best use of your time now.
Now, how do we do it? We do it in a very kitchen-sink approach. We use everything that we know and everything that we can know, and we bring that to bear.
So, sometimes it is completely technological solution about algorithmically understanding trends and usage by different people, by different regions and matching that to the results on the page right now. And then some of it is just entirely roll up using human finite.
Just use your brain and say what would be interesting in this scenario and everything in between.
Excerpts from a radio interview by Kamla Bhatt.