In conversation with Yahoo’s editor-in-chief Ninja Srinivasan

In conversation with Yahoo’s editor-in-chief Ninja Srinivasan
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First Published: Sun, Feb 15 2009. 09 04 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Feb 15 2009. 09 04 PM IST
This is Kamla Bhatt. Today my guest is Srinija Srinivasan or “Ninj” or “Ninja” as she is known. She is the vice president and editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Inc. She was employee number 5 at Yahoo. Jerry Yang and David Filo recruited her to organize their content when they started their company. Ninj is a bachelor in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University and she grew up in Lawrence, Kansas.
Kamla: Welcome to the show.
Ninja: Thank you very much, nice to be here.
Kamla: What was it like for a Tamilian to grow up in Lawrence, Kansas?
Ninja: Well I did not know anything different so I only have some perspective on that much, much later. I can say that my father moved with the family there before I was born. He made the decision to go there before I was born. He first came to the States on a Fulbright and was teaching in Berkeley in the late 1960s and all of his colleagues in the academic world thought he was mad to think about moving from Cal (Berkeley) to Kansas. But as a matter of lifestyle, The University of Kansas offered a great opportunity for you know a tenured position in a math department where he can do some interesting things. And the community there, great public schools, supportive community in a place to raise what was going to be with kids. So, for me it was truly, it was a great place to grow up. The public schools were great. We remained to their huge Kansas basketball fans as it was the big community binder in that town. And some of my closest friends are the ones that I grew up with there.
Kamla: How would you describe your job at Yahoo?
Ninja: So in title I am editor-in-chief and in role other people have used words even
as I think may be pretenious as conscience or consciousness of Yahoo. But we’ve always talked about in
terms of shepherding the voice of Yahoo. The notion of editor-in-chief, it is a very different kind of editor-in-chief then 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 is really always been about the power of aggregation nd 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. 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. So, and that is the impression that somebody takes away to the consumer or a reader takes away in using our products and services. We believe there is a real relationship there that people have a sense who or what Yahoo is and they have a sense of what that relationship means to them and then that comes from the sum total of some very, very small things.
Kamla: You mentioned the voice of Yahoo. What is that voice of Yahoo and how has it changed over the years?
Ninja: In the early days we focused largely on the one product and task ahead of us,which was categorizing websites. Tooday 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 kinds of issues that I focus on everyday start with categorization but go far with beyond that into choice making of all kinds. What headlines are on the front page. How do we think about content programming and then even beyond the editorial round or the editorial standards and practices but into a lot of different policy areas, which is probably I spend most of my time these days. 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 it 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 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. As a leader in this industry we can’t necessarily look to a sign out there that says you must be this tolerant or this right it is actually up to us to be mindful for the implications of our actions and to make sure that the sum total of those choices brings in an Internet and a culture that is one that we want to be a part of and one that we want to usher in.
Kamla: Your answers raise a lot of questions in my mind. One of them being, are you involvd-are you personally involved or is Yahoo involved in policy making initiatives at the government level?
Ninja: Yahoo is involved in that. There are places like privacy where I feel like we have a really strong track record well over 10 years now. Publicly posting our privacy policy and talking about data use and how this works and why it is an integral part of our business model and how it helps us to make money and build the products and services that we put out there for free. But, its only been recently that this is 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. And it is up to us to be sort of projecting out what are the cheess moves fall two or three moves out. 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 and various aspects of corporate responsibility.
Kamla: Privacy always brings up one country, China. You have had some issues dealing with China?
Ninja: China does pose some very, very interesting and challenging issues for our industry, which is always been founded on freedom of expression. One of the core values since Yahoo’s inception was to promote the free exchange of ideas and information. In more oppressive regimes that can certainly be a really tough challenge or really tough conflict that has not really dire human consequences. I think that is soemthing 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 for ourselves but for so many companies and even states, right? This is not something that one individual or one entity can may be 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 for life for everybody, raise freedom of expression and promote these values around the world.
Kamla: How do you then also deal with controversial topics because the world map is changing so rapidly? Since Yahoo started, just before Yahoo started with the fall of the Berlin wall since then we have had a constant changing of the map and that throws a lot of age old questions, ethnic conflicts that were buried in the 19th and 20th century are resurfacing again. Pick any country, they have access to the internet and -as long as they can write, they can get their voices heard.
Ninja: 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 that people can find that information when they are looking for it. The purpose of the directory structure from the start -- it 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. And 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 that in your travels, in your browsing around the information space as you hone in on things that you like you can find more things that you like and that you can sufficiently, you can safely stop wasting time on the stuff that was irrelevant. 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. We want to use accessible terms, we want to use terms at a glance, and most people will say I know what that is so that I can either-
Kamla: Give me an example to illustrate the point that you are talking.
Ninja: So they are all really only fond of a lot of groups, individuals, political parties that shared something that most human beings will agree as a common ideology around the white race being in some way superior to other races. And whether it was the skin heads or the White National Pride party or the KKK. We knew that these things go in the same category and then the question becomes what you call that category.
Kamla: So what do you call that category?
Ninja: And we came to White Power. And, why White Power? Because when you really read the-what these people say this is how they describe themselves, these are the kinds of terms that they use to talk about themselves. Because we feel that our role is to provide context and to help people connect with what they are interested in and then to leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions rather then sort of exercising a heavy hand and pre-processing the information through our own lens. Now that said, the beauty of the Internet, the beauty of the web is that we can always juxtapose opposing views. We might have a category for Holocaust revisionism and in within that category is a category called opposing views, which gives again context to say, I am looking at a piece of information where that piece of information never lives in a vacuum. There are always other points of view.
Kamla: 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.
Ninja: Yes.
Kamla: How do you deal with it and put a label?
Ninja: Yes.
Kamla: And then people have to agree to that label?
Ninja: Yes and 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 human 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. So, you know early early days, I remember the one 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 mis-categorized a site in our Judaism category for a faith that calls iself Masonic Judaism, which happens to be a group of people that calls themselves Jews. They may have, they may be of Jewish ethnic origin, heritage, they follow Jewish traditions and practices, customs, holidays, kosher laws, you name it and they also happens to believe that Jesus Christ is The Messiah. Well that is a fascinating issue, right? And how, what people calls themselves versus what the group that may they even wnat to be a part of and howow they think of them. 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.
Kamla: So at a personal level, who 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?
Ninja: 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 medium; 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. The kinds of resumes for what we call editorial for the surfing job-the kinds of resumes that we love to see people whose experience lies all over the map. They did’nt know that they are premed and then they took the main courses and they became the doctor. You know there wasn’t a pre-determined path? May be they were a little bit unfocused and then may be they had a liberal arts degree and then may be they taught English in Equador and then may be they worked for start up. But what is important to us is not a consistency of experience but a consistency of passion. That this is somebody, who is willfully and zealously going after things that they are interested in and pring their heart out.
Kamla: But you personally, at a personal level, how do you do that?
Ninja: Oh I ask anybody I know I read anything I can, research online, offline.
Kamla: Do you find that you have become even more curious?
Ninja: Oh I hope so. Absolutely. I feel more curious every day. It is the more you know the more you don’t know.
Kamla: What is it that you have learnt in the last 13 years? What stands out?
Ninja: Well, boy. That is a very big question. One thing that stands out is nothing is more important then being surrounded by kindred spirits who are passionate about what they are doing, who are in it for something bigger than themselves. I think facing and addressing hard problems with people who are smart and genuinely interested in the bigger issues with a common vision. That is endlessly interesting. It is intoxicatingly interesting. I just can’t think of a better vehicle or platform to do that, to spend my days doing that than doing that here in Yahoo!
Kamla: So, we have talked a lot about different things, but if I was to pull it all back together - your work encomposes privacy, data policy, free speech issues and editorial decisions about Yahoo’s overall content.
Ninja: That is right.
Kamla: How do you keep them all balanced and yet present objective information? Let me add another twist. The kinds of users there are different users from different parts of the world with different levels of knowledge. So you have a very complex and the back end is very complex.
Ninja: That is right.
Kamla: The database is one part; the decision making is another part and then how you present it to the front end, which is what I see everyday when I go to Yahoo. How do you tie them all up together on a consistent basis and not go mad?
Ninja: Well I think you have just hit on the guzillion 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.
Kamla: So the front end is very simple but the backend is...
Ninja: But, 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. The thing that you most wanted and may be you did not even know you want it but, again that makes your life better. That is our challenge. 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 and interest in-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.
You were listening to Ninja Srinivasan, editor-in-chief at Yahoo! Inc. Tune back in for part 2 of our conversation. This is Kamla Bhatt; this interview was brought to you in association with Live Mint Radio and as always thank you for tuning in.
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First Published: Sun, Feb 15 2009. 09 04 PM IST