The Faux-Culture of Internet Fandoms

Today reviews came out for the latest Marvel movie The Eternals, and fans are going nuts over a film they have not seen. One particular fan - and they’re not the only one - was furious at a reviewer for calling The Eternals “a convoluted mess,” saying that he disagreed and, importantly, had yet to see the movie. As if summoned through the dark content gods, I was immediately treated to a tweet around the remake of Dune (coming out Friday) and reflected on one specific worry:

Sidebar: I will say (before we get in too deep) that I very much believe people should enjoy the things they enjoy. It’s a miserable world and whatever happiness you can garner without hurting others is fine.

Anyway, what’s bothering me recently is how the internet has vastly changed how we consume stuff. It is not simply enough to have watched something and liked it/hated it. What one likes and dislikes becomes a kind of political allegiance and makes up a significant part of your identity depending on the type of person you are. To be clear, while it isn’t new that the things we consume become our culture and identity - sports being the most obvious example - it has now taken on a new form where the things that you like are not simply for enjoyment anymore, but make up who you are to your core - and you must fight for them, or against forces that you perceive as harming them.

It’s a step beyond parasocial relationships, in that it’s no longer protecting a person and more focused on preserving a thing, even if the thing you are protecting is inanimate (a movie) and you’re not protecting it from anyone. Star Wars fans harassed actress Kelly Marie Tran for months until she left social media with racist and sexist comments based on a vague sense of dislike for her character in the movie, then created a wrongheaded petition demanding that they removed the movie “from canon” as it “destroyed the legacy of Luke Skywalker.”

It’s not about being a fan of something, but about claiming deeper ownership and understanding of it through your love than the creator of the thing in question. The fans that didn’t like The Last Jedi aren’t mad simply because they didn’t like it, but that it symbolized something different from what they considered to be “their” Star Wars.” They chose to attack both Tran and actress Daisy Ridley did so in an attempt to “protect the franchise” from forces they considered bad - as if said entertainment was a service that was being provided to the customer to their specifications.

The demands and scrutiny of creators, I believe, are partly linked to how deeply people have begun to associate the entertainment they consume as part of their identity and how defensive and emotional they become when they see that threatened. A Twitter user crying out for “their generation’s epic” may seem harmless, but to me feels symptomatic of a great problem - that we don’t simply watch or enjoy things, but that we must associate with and join factions of people who like or dislike things in specific ways.

While being a fan of something used to mean you liked it, a modern “fan” is now an identity, something that you build to show others. You must bring it up in conversation, you must know Jeopardy levels of trivia to prove that you’re “enough” of a fan, and in many cases, you must defend the material in question from attackers. It’s high school writ large, with the association one has with a particular form of entertainment becoming such a fundamental part of who you are that defending what is frequently a multi-million or billion-dollar enterprise because you believe it symbolizes something greater than “thing I like to watch or listen to.”

The irony is that so little of it is even about the creation itself but in submerging oneself in the idea that what you consume is who you are. When someone doesn’t like something you like, it’s a personal offense that must be corrected (despite the fact that this is entertainment), turning the liking of something into some sort of morality.

It’s a post-9/11 cultural miasma, where we can connect with people almost anywhere in the world while accessing a seemingly endless spigot of stuff. As multiple generations cope with growing up in a profoundly unfair world, they naturally turn to entertainment to find something to believe in and align themselves with. And it’s that bit easier to become obsessed with something - endless wikis and Reddits and communities that will fuel and unite you under the banner of whatever fantasy world or character you’re obsessed with and give you a thing to stand for - even if that thing is “I must defend a fictional universe from a perceived threat.”

What I am not against is enthusiasm or enthusiasts, and I believe that everybody interesting has something they’re sort of obsessed with. The difference is when that obsession becomes the person they are, and turns them into willing members of an army fighting to prove that their thing is superior, with no specific goal other than to make the lives of those who disagree worse. I have referenced Felix Biederman’s quote about this before:

Felix Biederman put it well - that “…we [are] not just fans of things anymore, we declare our media consumption habits to declare the types of people we are…now. if someone doesn’t like something we like, they hate us, our way of life, and our identities.” By attaching so much meaning to what we watch, and how we enjoy it, and to whom we share our enjoyment (or distaste) to, we’ve entered a painful loop of being served media that makes us do the work for the creator.

There are many different versions of this - people attacking others who don’t like a politician, or do like a politician, or like a sports team, or hate a sports team - but defending an entirely fictional product from those who dislike it is utterly bizarre and indicative of a larger cultural situation. There are many people who have left behind defining entertainment as something to entertain you - it’s now there to make us who we are, to build our identities, and to give us something to stand for and believe in.

Companies building vast franchises and universes allows us to turn on the screw harder, giving the illusion of depth to an entertainment product that might fool us into believing that what we’re aligning ourselves with is a thing of substance, rather than a movie or a TV show or a company. They leave things vague (see: Lost) so that fandom websites can endlessly discuss “fan theories,” continually fueling the non-culture of those that attempt to guess what the movie is going to do next, creating the illusion of activity and life in a story that has been told or will be told only once.

That’s the ultimate problem - that there really isn’t a culture in being a fan of something, because being a fan has transcended the appreciation of something and become about aligning yourself with the idea of liking it.

You can easily be a fan of something without being this type of person, but the commonality of the forceful adoration of something seems to totally transcend the thing itself. It’s not about enjoyment, or fun, or happiness, but about having something to stand for in a world that seems to have a lack of heroes and an abundance of villains.

Managers Are Becoming The New Cops Of The Workforce

Companies are distributing the means of control to their managers, including pointless, punitive policies and surveillance tools.

A Gallup poll from last week showed that 45% of full-time U.S. employees worked from home either all or part of September, unchanged from July and August, which, as Gallup says, suggests that the push to ‘return to work’ has lost steam. Companies may have finally started to realize that this whole remote work thing isn’t going away and that they’re going to have to offer something, even if it’s a paltry four weeks a year of remote work time like American Express is offering.

The continual problem you’re seeing is that companies aren’t willing to commit to either side of the debate. AMEX quotes that 80% of employees want to come back “at least some of the time,” which seems like a question was asked that was extremely vague about how many days “some of the time” refers to. Amazon has now said that they’re going to be allowing “many tech and corporate workers to work remotely indefinitely,” with the moon-sized asterisk of “as long as they can commute to the office when necessary.” Alongside that extremely easy-to-abuse wording, there’s also an additional problem - that remote work can be done “at the discretion of the team.”

In essence, this means that your manager will be the person who decides whether your team comes in, and that, as I’ve hinted at before, is going to be how companies effectively banish remote work. In fact, I had an anonymous tipster add this about Cisco Meraki, a company that has been hailed for offering “flexibility, choice, wellness and inclusion”:

Cisco has made big noise about "our new hybrid work future". Which in practice, at least at Meraki (a division of Cisco, based in SF) means managers at the team level -- leaders of 5-15 people -- get to decide on remote or "traditional" arrangements. And many of the team managers are stating "100% traditional in-office once we return to office.”

Your quote about Credit Karma just stung because it's exactly the same as what I'm seeing. Big noise from corporate, undermined by Peter Principle local managers.

I wish any of this was surprising, but it is interesting considering the research that Cisco themselves put out that said that 64% of their customers’ employees agreed that remote work directly affected their willingness to stay at a job. Then again, plenty of companies have chosen to simply ignore the productivity benefits and research (their own, in this case) and go with something that makes them feel warm and happy inside - sending them back to the office so that they can Webex in with people in other offices.

The distribution of power back to managers is one of the more depressing things I’ve seen in the recent growth of remote work, including every single one of the New York Times pieces. It’s a perfect crime - you’re allowed to work remotely, as long as your manager says okay, and we have a “great culture” that “promotes flexibility” is something that reads nicely but likely sucks in practice, with your work conditions being entirely dependent on the whims and feelings of a single person. And it’s going to be the way that companies do this going forward because when a manager decides that a team needs to come into the office, they can suggest that they’re worker-friendly and “going with what our people want,” without acknowledging any of the industrial pressure that a company can put on you through management or, indeed, how managers are often given quiet remits from the company side.

I also wondered if it was legal, which is why I went to Austin K. So, the Chief Legal Officer of a public company in the Philadelphia area and asked about whether these flexible working relationships are questionably legal:

Any time there is discretionary application of job requirements, there is a risk of discrimination, or at least of an allegation of discrimination based on actual or perceived patterns that run along the lines of race, gender or other protected class.  

In order to avoid the appearance or perception of discrimination, managers should set standards based on objective criteria, such as job descriptions and duties, and apply those standards uniformly across departments or job categories.  For example, a manager may require all warehouse workers to work in-person five days a week, while permitting IT staff to work remotely three days a week, based upon the ability or inability to complete job duties remotely.  Conversely, a manager may not require one secretary to work in-person five days a week while allowing another with similar job duties to work remotely, absent a defensible, objective rationale.  

Companies should ensure that managers are setting objective, non-discriminatory standards for flexible working situations and enforcing those standards uniformly across departments or job categories.

Austin makes a good point about the fact that there are some defensible positions that demand in-office time - but those have to have a firm level of “you can’t do this from home” and that discretionary application of policy is risky.

The problem is that the dissemination of HR-adjacent personnel decision-making to managers is going to lead to managers destroying your ability to work from home. A study from August of last year said that 84% of workers blame managers for creating unnecessary stress. Another SHRM study said that 72% of managers would prefer their subordinates back in the office.

As a response to proof that people can and will work well remotely without their supervision, managers are being given more ability to supervise and control people. It’s another example of where companies that are talking about being part of the “future of work” are obsessed with keeping us in the past, changing the idea of management to something more like a prison guard, concerned more with being able to see you working than the work itself. The irony is that the pandemic proved we need fewer managers - but thanks to the tireless work of some of the most stupid and powerful morons in the world, we’re going to create more busywork for them to pretend they’re important.

Managers are also being given the ability to surveil workers, with draconian “workplace surveillance” software that ranges from logging the keys that you press and the websites you visit to actively measuring where you’re looking and for how long. The Washington Post had one particularly insane-sounding story:

Then she received a laptop in the mail with her instructions: To get paid, she’d have to comply with a company-mandated facial recognition system for every minute of her contract. If she looked away for too many seconds or shifted in her chair, she’d have to scan her face back in from three separate angles, a process she ended up doing several times a day.

It’s another beat in the long song of companies that want to measure productivity and success based on metrics that make them feel good rather than ones that are indicators of things that happened:

Companies say the tracking offers a critical way to ensure their employees are staying productive and telling the truth about how much they work when their bosses are many miles away. Some employers have voiced concerns that, without the monitoring, their workers might cut corners or pursue multiple jobs simultaneously, depriving them of the focus and labor they need to stay competitive in the remote-work era.

I would absolutely love to hear whether managers and CEOs are measured on their own productivity - or indeed what the “truth” is about how much they work. It isn’t (just) about privacy, either - it’s about the fact that most of these productivity measurement things are not indicative of success, or even whether the person is doing the thing that you’re measuring on. I spoke with my good friend Dr. Ben Wolfe (credentials at the end of the quote) about the subject, and the results are pretty clear that surveillance tech sucks at actually surveilling:

To start with, it makes terrible fundamental assumptions about human behavior. If the idea is that you can operationalize attention based on gaze (which is fundamentally wrong, because you can attend somewhere other than where you look), it's additionally assuming that your employee is always looking where you, the boss, think they need to be looking. This is a really common mistake in a lot of applied spaces (e.g., people who study driving think drivers need to look at pedestrians to notice them, when peripheral vision will damn well tell you that there's something in your field of view).

The idea of a gaze-based attention score is fundamentally based on an incorrect understanding of gaze and attention, and all that it really tells you, unless you have a research-grade eye tracker and a panopticon view of your user, plus enough analytics to make sense of your panopticon, is "user looked at or didn't look at screen"

Dr. Benjamin Wolfe, Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University of Toronto, and a co-director of the Applied Perception and Psychophysics Laboratory, which specializes in applying vision science methods like eye tracking to real-world problems.

These tools, which are sold with the idea of “keeping employees honest,” do a fairly terrible job at doing so. According to Dr. Wolfe, “…if you don’t know what they’re looking at (hey, now you don’t just need a screencap tool recording a timelocked feed of their screen, you need their environment as well to see what else they look at), you have a bunch of meaningless eye movements….and better still: webcam eyetracking is, at best, able to tell you “user looked at this portion of a screen.”

Yet it’s another way in which managers are being empowered with the ability to control the lives of their workers, giving managers the ability to “measure” their workers based on something other than output. It’s also something that CEOs are going to love - a future-forward-sounding idea that lets them pretend they’re doing Moneyball with workers, using the “hard data” to make “business outcomes” that don’t likely connect to the bullshit software they’re making their workers use. As Dr. Wolfe told me, “we don’t - and can’t - keep our gaze in one place all the time while doing real tasks, so the assumptions are both flawed and evil,” yet the use of this software has jumped 50% since the pandemic started, including, and I quote, “software…[that] allows managers to secretly spy on employees, including turning on remote cameras and microphones.”

This “tattleware” can also do things like monitor workers’ social media, the websites they visit and other things that will tell your boss absolutely nothing other than stuff they can interpret in a way that benefits them and hurts you.

I admit that I am disappointed in myself that I didn’t come to this conclusion sooner, looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses and thinking that we might see an end to managers as we knew it. While I still believe that it might happen, I also think that the ultimate next step is to find managers a new job, giving them (instead of more resources to help their workers) more power and more things to keep an eye on.

This is the new workplace militarization, a hyper-efficient way to punish the worker and empower do-nothing management with the ability to control the entire workday of their underlings. Companies would rather burn out their employees and hurt their productivity than lose a single iota of control, and they’re naturally going to gravitate toward solutions that help them keep it - even if these solutions hurt their ability to make money.

The natural counterargument is that these pieces of software are bad, and thus companies will realize their benefits are nebulous. To that, I have a simple question: how many places have you worked that had ridiculous processes that actively stopped you from getting your work done?

Yeah. That’s why I’m worried.

It's Perfectly Fine To Shut Up

Sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing.

Today’s Twitter main character is Liz Mair, a conservative flack who proudly talks about abusing her child by burning his stuff when he doesn’t eat. Twitter’s reaction is naturally furious - as it should be - and Nair, who has been in trouble for bad tweets before, is claiming, of course, that this is “simply a troll.” The truth of the matter may never come out - who knows if she’s trying to rile people up for the hell of it or revealing a grotesque fact of her life and then attempting to cover it up by saying, “you fell for my troll.”

“Trolling” as a term is extremely vague, meaning everything from “posting dumb stuff” to “actively trying to upset people with what you’re saying to get people to engage with you.” In most definitions, it requires you to do something to get a reaction, the digital version of being the class clown that nobody likes but everybody remembers. I’d also add that Nair likely falls into the “triggering the libs” department of posting - the “ah, I offended you! I win!” game that never seems to have a specific goal. Defector’s David J. Roth put it well when describing an anti-vaxxer march:

The reality is that nothing really happens as a result of any of these trolls. Perhaps Nair receives a visit from Child Protective Services, or she doesn’t, or she does and never tells anyone. While on the outside, it may seem as if this is a victory - the “libs” are triggered, everybody is upset with her, and all the right-wing people are very happy - it is an act of desperation, either for attention-seeking based on one’s feeling that they lack relevance, or because you need someone to edify your bizarre views.

One of the most consistent lessons I want to share from my career in public relations is that you do not need to post, and you certainly don’t need to post this. If this scenario is true, as with almost every scenario in your child’s life, you do not need to share it online, especially when it’s in the realm of punishment, and the insight you just gave in to your life is not the type of thing that’s going to engender trust or good feelings, even if someone agrees with you.

If it’s not true, the kind of attention you attract will be either negative, or the type of positive that wore a suit and carried a briefcase in middle school. The self-satisfied neo-cons that take satisfaction from hoodwinking in the least-consequential way possible are not going to bring you business, or grow your platform, or do anything for you. One might even ask what your goal is here - what’re you trying to say to the world? Do you want people to remember you as boringly antagonistic, even if they think that’s cool? What does that say about you?

Shut Up! Please!

Regardless of the truth of the situation (which we may never know), there is also something Nair could’ve done - nothing. You do not need to share every little thing you’ve done in your life, and the easiest thing in the world you can do is shut up. Just don’t say anything. One cannot shoot a gun without bullets, and any and all content you put out into the world creates, even in small increments, the foundation of what people associate with you.

I realize that I’m also a guy who will log on at 9:45 pm on a Tuesday and tweet that “I have created the Fortune 600” or “Scrappy Doo has been arrested for wire fraud,” but these are harmless jokes, things that I find funny and share with the world because they make me laugh and may do the same for others. I enjoy Twitter because it’s basically hanging out with friends and peers, making jokes, and talking about the news of the day. Crucially, I will simply choose not to post a lot of stuff - miserable complaints, problems at home, dumb stuff that could be taken out of context, or anything when I’m in a truly depressed state.

I really cannot express enough how many people screw up on social media because they don’t realize they can say nothing. Many people seem to have a terrifying instinct that they must share certain things - that their lives are so full of wonder and discovery that the world must hear about it, and that their voices are so important that they must weigh in on every subject as quickly as possible. Realistically whatever you have to say has been said before, and even if you could say it better there’s never really the need to. You could want to, and that’s fine, but depending on what the subject is you could simply choose not to say anything and also be fine.

This may seem like an obvious lesson, but so many people seem to miss it. While you can and are totally free to give your take on just about everything, the world will be fine if you don’t.

The problem is that Twitter is the purest form of the devil making work for idle hands - it is a big, open platform where something you say could be entirely ignored or spread like wildfire, screenshotted and talked about at length until it takes on entirely new meanings and consequences than you intended. It is a platform that can keep you busy for hours and hours, feeding your need for attention and validation in an unhealthy way that I absolutely love, but also recognize creates a hotbed for neuroses to develop. The near-instant feedback loop of post-and-reply that big accounts get is what leads people like David Sacks to go crazy, the huge amount of followers and their responses giving a mirage of immediate importance and prestige to every single message, no matter how petty the grievance or spurious the logic.

I have to wonder if Sacks wouldn’t have taken such a hard right turn in his life if it wasn’t for the fact that Twitter is so quick to send people validation for their ideas. Past a certain follower count, Twitter begins to reward you for every idea you give it, even if said idea is stupid or crazy. And it’s easy to conflate being right with getting a lot of engagement off of something, which is not what is happening in any of these cases.

The Poster’s Demise

I think it was my lawyer that once told me that the easiest way to stay out of trouble is to say nothing. If you’re mad, say nothing. If you’re sad, say nothing. Twitter is so satisfying when you receive a response, and creates a false air of one’s own importance that makes it feel like your every word is breaking news. This leads you to believe that you must post, and encourages the sense that you’re the protagonist of reality.

This is a classical thing that I think everybody falls into with social media. The joy of being online is that we have a sense of self that we largely create, and people have a way to continually engage with us in a way that’s totally alien to offline communication. We’re able to interact with and gain the approval of people at random and at scale, and even a little taste of that is enough to give us poster’s madness, and believe that we’re now some level of famous.

A lot of it comes down to the meaning of the word “follow.” It’s tempting to believe that someone following you means they’re waiting on your every word, versus curating their own personal feed of content that they consume at their leisure. We may believe we are the top thing that they’re looking to see - that our account is the most important one to them - versus one part of a larger buffet of people’s content.

We also forget, at times, that following is not a difficult act, nor one with a deeper meaning. Someone following you takes a single click, and may indeed mean that they would rather see your content than not, but it does not mean they’re our friend, or someone that’s excited to see what we’re up to. And when we see we have hundreds or thousands of followers, we may believe that these people are fans of ours, versus people who like us enough to hear from us occasionally.

If we make the mistake of adding more to the meaning of a follow, we begin to believe we have an “audience” and that we must perform for them, which leads to extremely bizarre and unhealthy habits. We go down dark paths trying to juice the numbers, and this line of thinking always leads to us getting ripped apart. Conversely, we may also not realize that something we don’t think is a big deal - that we got a $22 avocado toast, for example - may lead to our content going far further than we ever conceived and get people performatively mad at us as a means of performing for their perceived audience.

The thing that I keep coming back to is this idea that people have lost the ability to shut up. It isn’t a bad thing to say nothing, or not have a comment. It is totally fine for something to happen in your life, good or bad, that you do not share to social media, especially if you think the words “people are gonna wanna hear about this.” Generally when something goes wrong it’s because you kept talking when you shouldn’t have, or interjected where you shouldn’t, or talked when you weren’t prepared to talk.

This is basic crisis communications, too - if something goes wrong, you should do everything you can to be as informed as possible before you even decide to respond.

None of this is meant to be condescending or suggesting that making posts, in general, is wrong, or stupid. It’s just that so many of the mistakes that people make online come down to a simple point: they didn’t need to say what they did but they did it anyway. Nobody needed to hear about Bean Dad’s story, but he wanted to share (because he “had to” because it was “funny”) it without thinking about whether he truly had to, or how it would look outside of his own brain. Nair may have been kidding, in which case she chose to upset a bunch of people for no discernable reason other than “engagement.”

In almost all cases, nobody needs to hear what you have to say, and you should act accordingly. If you want to add stuff to social media, that’s totally fine, but always take a second to think whether the thing you’re adding may be interpreted as good, or bad, or so utterly vile that everybody gets mad at you for several days.

Faking It, Making It, And The Lie of the Meritocracy

Today, Albert Burneko of Defector had an excellent piece about media startup fraud Ozy and the larger ecosystem of pontificators and their tolerance of fraud within their industry. One particularly upsetting quote he selects is from career pontificator, Scott Galloway:

As Galloway rightly observes, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos could have met with ignominy and maybe even prison time, and their companies with doom, had their hype and shady accounting practices faced more critical media coverage earlier in their growth, before—well, before what, exactly? Galloway seems to think what happened to Musk’s companies and to Amazon is that they survived long enough to vindicate their leaders: “Sometimes the line between vision and alleged fraud,” he says, “is getting your next round of capital.” In this framing, what makes Elizabeth Holmes or WeWork’s Adam Neumann or Ozy’s Carlos Watson and Samir Rao frauds isn’t that they, you know, did fraud, but rather that they didn’t do it successfully enough to attain critical mass:

“Conversely, if Elizabeth Holmes had managed to raise another $500 million, and Theranos had shown some progress with the Edison [the company’s blood-testing machine], I wonder if she would’ve given the commencement address at Stanford last spring.”

He correctly adds that what undid Theranos was not, as Galloway puts it, faking it until you make it, but the fact that she made stuff up and lied. Burneko’s core problem with the FITYMI (I hate writing this so much) philosophy is the addition of “have to” along the way:

I want to know what “have to” means, in that paragraph. Visionaries “have to” have some sociopathic tendencies. They “have to” boast and lie and not lose sleep over it. They “have to” overpromise and underdeliver. Have to … for what? Because that’s the only way to get a bunch of VC money? That’s the threshold dividing frauds from visionaries—whether it works?

He also concludes that Tesla’s Musk and Ozy’s Watson are similar, in that they’re both “sleazy megalomaniacs” seeking power and wealth. However, I’d argue that the division is a little starker in that Musk has delivered cars that drive and do stuff, and Ozy was a publication that reported to have traffic that did not. Musk, however, continually misleads people about the state of autonomous driving in Teslas and literally had someone dress up like a robot to pretend like Tesla was building a robot.

The issue with both of them - and this entire situation that Burneko is discussing - is that they were both rewarded not for being great businessmen or working hard but by some combination of luck and deceit. Galloway’s ideas around “50,000 shades of grey when you’re talking about the differences between being a visionary or fraud” is accurate, but also remarkably forgiving of the elite - it intimates that there is the existence of innocent lies, framing the visionary as a dreamer that, through their naivety and capacity to hope, misleads investors and customers. This must be a nice way to look at the world - claiming that “it’s the SEC’s job with mandatory disclosures to bring the shades of grey into sharper focus” rather than it being the job of the person who is lying, for example - where the blame is taken away from the beautiful startup founders and put on the shoulders of those taking a chance on them, which is fair in the sense of venture capital but not fair on those taking jobs with them, writing about them or buying their services.

Take this quote from Galloway:

Visionaries have to have some — and I know this is a strong word — sociopathic tendencies. They have to be able to make statements that are so outlandish and then go to sleep at night and not worry that they’re basically committing fraud. They have to captivate the markets. It used to be that CEOs would underpromise and overdeliver. That has switched in the last 20 years. Now, you have to over-promise and under-deliver while you raise a ton of capital. The difference between a visionary and a fraud isn’t even a blurry line, it’s a blurry house of mirrors.

There is absolutely no reason in the known universe that Galloway should be so forgiving of these entities. This is whitewashing gruesome acts - it is saying that the only way things can progress is through lying, then lying again, and keeping lying until something you lied about comes true. It has worked - but not for long - and it is a genuinely offensive thing to claim is essential to raising VC.

Let me be completely clear: there is a very clean line between visionary and fraudster, and that’s telling the truth about things you know and suggesting other things might be possible up to the reasonable level you can, supporting said suggestions with evidence. This is how many companies have raised money, it is how people write proposals, it is how many people do business - and the critical difference is that it is pretty obvious when you are lying, and that lies do not have to be a binary “this can never happen” to be a lie.

For example, one of the classic things that happens in PR proposals is the overpromise - for example, saying that you think you could get a client into the New York Times in month 1. While there are scenarios where that’s possible, the likelihood is next to zero - unless they have some very specific things (say, a $500 million investment round). Telling a company at a seed-stage that you’re confident you can do it when they raised $2m for their dog measurement app, while there is a theoretical possibility that you could potentially email a reporter on a perfect day in the perfect way as they worked on a dog measurement story, there is no reasonable grounds on which you could say this was a possibility without lying. Saying “there’s a chance” is a lie of omission - you are omitting how remote that chance is, and thus you are lying. Ozy reporting numbers that didn’t exist is lying. Elon Musk saying that in 2020 there could be 500,000 robotaxis by the end of 2020 based on some nebulous measurements? Probably lying too, though defenders would likely say he was “estimating.”

The reason that there is so much attention and lust for stories about those who have misled and defrauded their way to the top is that it helps people feel like they’re not crazy about the distinct unfairness of the world. We are raised on the idea that the world is this big yet conquerable space, where everybody - especially Americans - is on an equal footing, and it’s simply a case of working hard to get to where we want to. Nevertheless, we all are consistently reminded that this is absolutely not the case. Many people still beat this drum about the supposedly fair world, then unfairly judge young people for not simply working hard to get where they are.

When we see furious, endless takedowns of people like Ozy’s Carlos Watson, it’s equal parts gossip and catharsis. We love to hear about people messing up, but we also love to see these people get their just desserts, not because we think that this is an act of universal balance but because all of us knew, deep down, that the rich and successful didn’t get there on hard work, and many of them got there through lying. We are gaslit for years of our life by our peers, teachers, bosses and the media that our failures are simply related to not wanting it bad enough or working hard enough, but seeing these people having conned their way to the top is satisfying, if not a little depressing. It’s a chance to not feel as alone - that we’re not crazy, that the world isn’t actually a meritocracy, and that perhaps it isn’t our fault.

And sure, there may be times we haven’t worked hard enough, but what divides Elon Musk from someone else isn’t a lack of grit or moxie but not having pulled the right levers in the right places at the right time, though (as I’ve said) some combination of privilege or luck. To become Elon Musk - or someone like Elon Musk - likely requires you to be born at a different time, in a different way, and then get lucky, and yes, likely requires you to bulldoze people along the way.

The Big Lie Of Work

One of the (many) frustrations people have with Musk is not simply that he hasn’t “earned” what he has, but as Burneko intimates, but that one earning a billion dollars is a ridiculous metric - and that hundreds of millions (billions?) of people who worked (and work) harder than Musk can barely make ends meet. At the same time, we’re fed stories that the world works a certain heteronormative capitalist way and as a result will have a non-specific amount of success, as long as we do well at school, then go to college, then go to work, then we can buy a house and get married and have children.

This story is told because it is difficult to give anyone a clear-set description of what actually makes you successful that doesn’t make those telling you it uncomfortable about their success or depressed about their failures. Those who are successful - myself included! - have got there through some work, but also through a combination of privileges (paid-for college, loving parents that fostered my interests, good upbringing, an internet connection at home, a computer) and luck (family connection for internship in journalism that I was able to work for free because I lived at home, happened to meet the right people at the right time).

Though the truly loathsome hustle culture people will say that success comes from “opportunistic luck,” one still has to be put in the situations that luck appears in and have the means to take advantage of it. Their argument is that “everybody has some sort of luck,” and my argument is that even if that is the case, not everybody has the means to take advantage of said luck, or said luck is not something that is advantageous for success.

Nevertheless, we are fed a comfortable lie from those who are unaffected by it, or those who want to continue to believe that the world is simply made up of those who work harder and those who don’t. This is either done disingenuously or ignorantly, with the intent of telling people what they want to hear (that they are simply several bits of hard work from success) or simply misinforming people because facing the reality of “luck plus opportunity plus privilege” is just so painful.

Seriously, I believe that so much lies behind the pain of the truth that there is a very real possibility you will work until you’re in your 80s and still not have experienced happiness or “success” by the judgment of society. Those that succeed do so by knowing enough about certain things to get in the right room at the right time and say just about the right thing to get ahead, and those that do really well often do so because they were able to engineer enough scenarios to get a job, or make money, or what have you. While success may be possible through hard work, and there are those that have succeeded through hard work, the very nature of hard work is insufficient to be rich, wealthy, or shit, even upper-middle class.

The reason that so many people don’t see this is that there are enough myths of uncles or fathers or sisters or mothers who have worked hard and then come out on top, and plenty more of people who have just had stuff happen to them and don’t realize how much of that was luck, or privilege, or both. One can simply have lucky things happen to them and perceive it as only hard work, and thus perceive those who don’t “work hard” as lazy, because it isn’t obvious to them how many chances they were given and how their ability to take advantage of said chances was a chance in and of itself.

The result of all of this complaining on my side is that I think, slowly, young people are coming to the realization that this is the case. They know that just going to college is not enough, and that the masters of industry are not simply hard workers, but opportunists - which doesn’t always mean that they’ve had to take advantage of someone to do so (though in many cases they have, especially with billionaires). I’m also not being a techno-libertarian and suggesting the end of college, simply the end of the meritocracy and informing people that college isn’t really about preparing you for the working world.

I’ve rounded the bases on this before - in my discussion of remote work and management on the Atlantic as well as on this newsletter. Managers are the ultimate proof that the meritocracy doesn’t exist - an alarming chunk of society that doesn’t do much but continues to rise on the backs of those who do work.  Remote work is troubling for some managers and executives because it isn’t possible to pretend you’re working hard, which erodes your ability to enjoy the little lie you tell yourself about all the hard work you’ve done to get there. People are quitting their jobs because they realize that the thing they’ve been doing isn’t working, and the people they’re enriching aren’t enriching them.

This isn’t meant to be depressing, and I think there’s a lot to learn once you get out of the headspace that the world of business isn’t just working. The sad thing is that some people take that to mean that you now need to screw people over, and see every opportunity that you can succeed and make someone else fail as some sort of Darwinian economy - and they’re assholes. What it really means is that you have to be aware of the unfairnesses that people take advantage of that you don’t know about, and the ways in which your success has materialized - even if said success is “because I was able to write an email to someone based on reading their Twitter profile and they liked me because I knew about the sport they liked.”

The Silicon Valley Victimization Complex

The ongoing misery of tech's rich and successful.

Brian Armstrong, a man with a net worth of 10 billion dollars, has again taken to social media to cry about how deeply unfair CEOs have it. His painfully whiny tweetstorm complains about America’s apparent loss of talent to “attacks from press, politicians, trolls and congressional testimonies” that “make the job not fun,” which causes them - in this case, multi-billionaires - to leave from burnout. Specifically, he claims to have found a way to be “resistant to demoralizing attacks from trolls”:

  • “Hire employees and build a board of independent thinkers who are insulated from biased third parties scripting their minds,” which I assume refers to having a culture of boot lickers and a board of people who don’t care about anything? I don’t know.

  • The “trolls” that Armstrong refers to are likely the people who criticize cryptocurrency or Coinbase itself, which is why he created a little blog to complain about things on, a blog that has been updated, from what I can tell, twice between May 26 and September 12.

  • “Give customers (not just employees) a sense of ownership,” which he claims crypto has pioneered and, hilariously, suggests would have helped Facebook avoid a lot of the hate they’ve received. This point is amusing because it absolutely wouldn’t have - a sense of ownership in Facebook would not have stopped them doing awful things if “all of their users owned a piece of the network.”

  • Also, “giving customers (not just employees a sense of ownership” is not something Coinbase does, and as Twitter user Palley added, they don’t even give customers a phone number to call.

  • “If people felt like everyone was growing together, there would likely be a greater sense of unity” is just total word salad. Growing what, Brian?

Mr. Armstrong, like many crypto (and startup) zealots, is furious with the idea of regulation and criticism, considering these things a form of harassment versus “how countries run” and “how free society communicates.” Armstrong’s battle with the SEC, which involved them refusing to meet with him and threatening to sue Coinbase over the launch of their lending product (which they then canceled), seems like a startup that a government agency has unfairly maligned until you think for precisely one second what that means.

Take this quote from Armstrong:

“We’re committed to following the law. Sometimes the law is unclear. So if the SEC wants to publish guidance, we are also happy to follow that,” Armstrong said in the tweets.

So, the thing that is not discussed - and I cannot find any information to suggest if they have - is how often Coinbase has engaged with the SEC in the past. Crypto’s entire attitude to governments - much like many startups - is to move fast and break things, and thus likely hasn’t sought to build much of a relationship with the SEC beyond “we know it exists and we’ll mostly abide by the laws we can interpret.” Suddenly Coinbase is proposing a regulatory framework for crypto, presumably based on the fact that the SEC has woken up to the risks of cryptocurrency, and they can’t skate by hoping that things will work out.

The problem is that Coinbase, like many silicon valley companies, has chosen to bite its thumb at a very powerful government agency and then suddenly try and develop a relationship years after they should have. I refuse to believe a company with the size and reach of Coinbase couldn’t have many many many years ago sought to engage with the SEC at length - to talk through what regulation may look like, to seek guidance, and more importantly, to keep an open channel between the government and the most significant player in an industry that the government could quite easily regulate into dust. Coinbase was founded in 2012 - and is acting as if the SEC is a jilted lover, versus an understandably pissed-off element of the government that Coinbase’s entire industry has treated with equal parts disgust and anger.

Brian and his ilk act like victims because they deliberately chose to flaunt regulation, following a similar path to Uber by assuming that the world would mold itself around them. Except Uber is also finding that global governments are beginning to close in on them for flaunting labor regulations to sustain their growth…and people need to take cabs places sometimes. Cryptocurrency is, to its core, built on hiding money under the guise of “freedom” and enabled $80 million in scams in 6 months of 2021 alone due to its lack of regulation and the ease through which someone gets their ass handed to them.

Also…the SEC doesn’t work for you! Oversight doesn’t exist to make your company better, or help you, or make things easy for you, and it exists to make sure that things are safer and to stop the things that are not.

While there may be times at which it approaches usefulness, and theoretical examples of potential use cases, the overwhelming majority of crypto is focused on either expediting transactions or handling money, which makes Armstrong and his ilk’s hesitance to engage with the SEC in crypto’s early days has likely led to their disgust. Think about it - your industry is well known for being full of scams, and the SEC has previously made it clear that they don’t like what’s going on, and they’ve shown that they’re willing to take legal action going back as far as 2013 (a year after Coinbase’s launch). At some point, surely Coinbase, with all its money, power, and influence, would have thought, “Hey, why don’t we get ahead of this?” and repeatedly try and engage with the SEC?

Probably because they tried the same old bullshit of the valley - whining about being regulated years after they could’ve engaged with the government in good faith and then trying to claim that they’re the good guys now that they’ve farted out the possibility of writing regulations. Guess what? The SEC is probably not going to be open to these regulations because you took nearly a decade to build a relationship with them, and now, when it’s clear that you’re about to get regulated, you’re demanding they form one overnight. Calling this behavior sketchy is hilarious - what’s more sketchy is not actively seeking guidance early and often and trying to build a relationship with the agency that exists explicitly to stop regular people from getting screwed. The lack of explanation from the SEC is likely because the SEC doesn’t feel the need to declare its intentions or ideas to a party it may very well consider a bad actor.

The counterargument here is that the soul of crypto is anarchy - which would make more sense if Coinbase didn’t send records to the IRS or if Coinbase wasn’t a publicly-traded company. But there is no anarchism to crypto - everything eventually flows into real money, as we are way past the point when regular people could easily mine Ethereum or Bitcoin themselves. Those controlling the transactions are not dirty little goblins in their basement but people who can afford to set up vast ASIC rig farms. Armstrong continues to act like this isn’t the case, whispering vague sweet nothings about how crypto is the future while trying to write regulations that likely protect Coinbase and nothing else.

And at the end of all of this - all of this crying and gnashing of teeth from Armstrong - he is still a billionaire at the height of a multi-trillion dollar industry with no real purpose. He has nothing to weep for - his rants about the “shady” SEC or non-specific “trolls” are a laughable mixture of his own mistakes and thin skin.

The Tech Culture War

Paul Graham - a similarly (but not as) rich white guy and former VC once said that you should ignore complaints from people who habitually complain, which is likely why I ignore him and his many complaints. He’s part of the vanguard of “guys who habitually complain about the media that made them wealthy,” claiming that journalists are entirely focused on hit pieces and that the media is out to control people and polarize them. Even Michael Arrington, who founded popular tech news website TechCrunch, has glugged down a big bottle marked “ironic culture war poison,” claiming that he “doesn’t need to have his words filtered through someone with an agenda” after making a great deal of money filtering other people’s words (startup news) for his own agenda (making a website that gets traffic).

Sidebar: It’s also extremely funny that Michael Arrington is mad that the media is treating startups “unfairly” after writing a blog back in 2011 called “Why We Often Blindside Companies” because he went to a source about a potential story to confirm, and they - oh, the irony! - went and wrote the story on their own platform. I also cannot escape the powerful irony of this man saying “treat us [the media] with respect and you’ll get it back times ten in return. That’s all we ask.”

It’s a bizarre new condition where guys who were quite happy with the media 5-ish years ago are suddenly mad at them, claiming that there is some new malicious intent in the press that causes them to look critically at certain things and raise news to the public eye. It’s part of the whole “the tech press becoming an industry press after being an enthusiast press” problem, but it also is very much what all of these people wanted.

They have, from the beginning, fought for legitimacy in the world - not just for their own companies, but for the (previously) humble startup founder that theoretically set out to change the world (make money). Perhaps they were naive (maybe?) or are simply acting like right-wing demagogues that shift their stances and ignore their past to suit whatever they feel at any given time, constantly acting in bad faith while crying that they’re victims of a media culture that existed when they were born and will still exist when they die. When something becomes significant enough to have something approaching mass adoption or appears to be on the path to doing so, it is naturally going to have scrutiny - and that scrutiny often comes from the media.

While Armstrong and his ilk cry that this is in the form of unfair attacks and that scrutiny should only be exacted through the users’ buying power, that suggests that scrutiny only exists to stop people from spending money. The reality is that scrutiny is to bring the whole truth about a person or company - to let the public make their own decisions in the most fully-formed way, and to shed light on, say, a company that claims to be all about freedom and equality that has significant problems with racism. That scrutiny exists to inform the public if a company with power and influence has issues that may corrupt the use of said power and influence, which is a necessary part of an open society.

Nobody enjoys being at the business end of scrutiny, but it is part of the cost of success - as you become more visible, more people can see you, and thus more people will want to know more about you and whether they can trust you with money or time. David Sacks wrote in 2014 in an email to Times writer Jodi Kantor that “If meritocracy exists anywhere on earth, it is in Silicon Valley,” but cries like a baby about Apple employees using their merits - their labor - to call for change in their organization - despite this being, one might thing, the kind of disruption that makes real change.

It’s the flagrant hypocrisy and nihilism of the bored, rich and miserable - people who believe in nothing other than the growth and protection of their ability to make money. They don’t seem to enjoy a single thing other than getting on Twitter and being furious about whatever their friends are furious about that day - as Alex Wilhelm of TechCrunch puts it, they don’t seem to be having fun - entering increasingly more circular and specious rants about how everything is deeply unfair, saying shit like “the Biden administration is holding the sword of Damocles over “Big Tech” that doesn’t really mean anything but is definitely scary.

Whenever I read these rants, I think what you could do with even $100 million - the obvious good, and the even more obviously fun. They could have their favourite chef make their favourite meal in a huge house that they own outright, drinking amazing things and hanging with those they love in perpetuity. Instead, they sit on Twitter and, instead of DMing their friends’ typos back to them or posting their lunch, choose to get progressively more pissed off at their local DA, or complain that a government agency isn’t being fair to them, or screech that the media is not letting them talk about what they want to talk about to an audience that ranges from 200,000 to a million people.

I’m not sure what they want, or whether they even know. They’ve managed to reach this point of success where they should be incredibly fulfilled, but seem to feel so utterly empty, lashing out in all directions in the hope that they can feel something. Perhaps all that work to get to the top of their industry never actually made them happy, or gave them the perspective that breeds gratitude for success. Or maybe they simply thought that this is what they deserve, and that any force that would dare stymie their (and others’) god-given right to wealth is a force of evil.

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