The Future of Nothing

The big thing I didn’t jump on last week was the launch of Andreessen Horowitz’s “Future” publication, which they’ve framed as a sort of “optimistic” take on tech, a way to take biases away from tech journalism by…having one centralized, for-profit entity control it. Without belaboring the actual content, it’s exactly what you’d expect - an entire blog of contributed content sections, with a few basically saying “this business model is good, it also just happens to be ours.” It isn’t that the content is bad, it’s that it is too often dull - like any writing that takes absolutely no risks, it reads like an advertisement for something, even if it’s not immediately obvious what that something is.

Calling Future a “media company” is quite a stretch - it’s a collection of contributors who are contributing, along with three podcasts, of which two of them are directly A16Z-branded. One claims to “cover the top headlines of the week,” along with occasional interviews. This, in my mind, is actually where I wish they’d have invested their energies - agendas and companies tend to make most op-ed commentary in the written word so utterly boring, but two people, even if they’re A16Z portfolio companies, could potentially have an interesting, natural conversation.

It’s a case where I do not think that A16Z has assumed they have something they don’t, and totally missed what they actually have. They’ve put billions of dollars into companies in so many industries, and could easily create an ongoing podcast series of panel-type things between them. That would be interesting! To me, A16Z does actually have a pretty deep bench of people that would be good to hear talk, but when you crush up what they’re saying into a contributed piece that doesn’t want to say what their agenda is but deeply has one, it’s just boring. Quite literally the reason that people hire PR people is why Future (and other projects like it) can’t really work - third party validation and quotations are valuable, and it is blatantly obvious that this isn’t third party.

Eric Newcomer’s piece on Future was pretty accurate - that Future is a bunch of essays, and quotes Matt Yglesias about how it’s not good at propaganda or journalism. And they’re both right in that its ambitions and execution are so utterly, terribly limited. It’s, if anything, distinctly not Andreessen Horowitz (or at least what they claim to stand for) - it’s 2015-2017 contributed essays with some podcasts. There are no risks, there are no challenges, it lacks any teeth or fire, it’s just people saying some stuff, served up in a way that’s somehow duplicative of everything else while providing none of the content. While there are things to read on there that might be interesting, you can’t help but ask why would I come back here? What’s the point of all of this? Who is this for?

The issue comes back to my point about tech’s move from an enthusiast to industry press. If Future is meant to be something that allows companies to “sidestep” the mainstream media, then why isn’t the content consistent? If the goal is to give portfolio companies (or other companies, perhaps) valuable “media attention,” what is the intended audience? Other VCs? The general public? And if the intention is to replace the mainstream media, why is this not attempting to be a media company and actually writing stuff every day? If it’s meant to be propaganda, as Yglesias suggests, why doesn’t it propagandize?

If anyone could make something that could potentially challenge mainstream media through simply funneling cash and influencers through it, it’s A16Z, and that’s what is so funny and confusing about this whole thing. It lacks purpose and direction, neither feeling comfortable as a company blog or a real media empire, and I think said lack of purpose rings through in the total lack of enthusiasm in most of the content. Matt Panzarino, the Editor in Chief of TechCrunch, seemed more excited about it than A16Z, calling it “fascinating” for some reason.

His piece, however, did say that it isn’t “meant to be a news operation,” and is meant to focus on “future-focused informational and editorial content” rather than day-by-day tech stuff. The problem is - and I say this having faced it myself! - that you have to keep writing stuff all the time to find out what people like, so that you can keep writing that stuff, and only by continually writing about stuff do you keep readers. Otherwise you are reliant entirely on people sharing your content, which is equally hard to do if you’re not writing stuff every day. Calling it an “MVP” (minimum viable product) suggests that A16Z believes this to be the minimum that they need to do to launch it - which I guess is true, but it isn’t the minimum required to sustain it.

Ironically, A16Z has invested in Substack, the company I use to write and distribute this newsletter, and I have learned a great deal since November(ish) last year about what it takes to actually keep people reading. The answer is always more stuff, and it’s not about writing things that make you feel happy, but writing stuff that you care about. A16Z, as a company that has funded one of the most successful future-of-media companies out there, could have learned from the many, many people that have now started writing regularly, and worked out what was successful or not.

Instead, they’ve taken if anything the past of media approach - a static, rarely-updated website that has an “if we build it, they will come” motif. As I wrote before about Coinbase’s “new media entity”:

Think about it - why do you read the websites you read? Are there any of them that are company blogs? If your favourite company started writing a blog every day, would you read it if it was mediocre but the company wrote it? Probably not. People have a limited amount of time in their day, and the reason they keep coming back to media entities is that they enjoy the content they’re putting out.

The focus appears to have been on filling the stands with content, which makes sense, and is also a good idea, but it lacks any of the actual things that people keep coming back to. When Defector launched, people went there because they love the writers that left Deadspin to found it, and keep subscribing because the content is good and the people are good writers. They don’t go to Deadspin anymore because they didn’t read Deadspin because it was Deadspin, they read Deadspin because it had fostered a deep bench of really enjoyable writers.

If A16Z wanted to do “the future of media,” they could have done something crazy, like hire writers that don’t write about tech to write about tech, or perhaps invest in crazy VR experiences, or, you know, something other than what literally everyone else has done already. If anything, this is a case of A16Z being terrifyingly late to the party - their content is the same played-out op-ed stuff that everyone has, formatted and presented in the same way everyone else does, and if anything exceptional is found there, it’s likely a case where you’ve had to dig for it. It isn’t even interesting enough to challenge anyone - it doesn’t bite its thumb at the mainstream media (likely to not alienate their portfolio companies), it doesn’t challenge anyone, it just is…there.

I cannot imagine this project going on more than a year or two before simply becoming a portfolio company contributed content mill. I should add that this is fine, you can do it, who cares, but don’t pretend you’re creating the future of media. It’s a feature of a company, not a product - it is a byproduct of success, the musings that come as a result, not something that stands on its own.

Specifically, I’d like to quote how I feel based on Marc Andreessen’s own “it’s time to build” piece, as I feel it accurately describes the issues with Future:

Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*.

And if you’re suggesting that I’m making a selective, bad faith read of Andreessen’s own words, well, what can I say, I’m just doing what he does.