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Founders, corporate wars and chain emails
Plus: some more links
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I’ve been watching all three of the tech founder shows that all landed at basically the same time — The Dropout, about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos; WeCrashed, about the rise and fall of WeWork; and Super Pumped, about Travis Kalanick and Uber. I’ll probably write more about them when I’ve actually finished watching them all, but I think they’re interesting to think about as a collective enterprise.
In one sense, all of these shows are a culmination of the long march of the scam into pop culture. Over the past few years, there has been a notable shift towards scammers, grifters and hucksters in the broader crime entertainment complex — probably for both deep psychic reasons and also the fact we’re running critically low on interesting murders — and Silicon Valley in the 2010s was abundantly rich with these kinds of characters writ large. (And still is.) All three shows explore the vast confidence trick at the heart of the industry, and the tensions between the self-aggrandising carnival barker mystique of major tech founders with hard material reality. Elizabeth Holmes is a fraudster, obviously, but Super Pumped suggests Kalanick kind of is too — just one that managed to parlay his scam into a global reality before his fall from grace.
They’re also dramatic explorations of the ongoing tech backlash, and on some level are part of the cultural backlash. Of the three, Super Pumped is most explicitly engaged on that level, with its Wolf of Wall Street trappings like the ill-advised Quentin Tarantino voiceover. Uber is also the easiest to cast as a morality play between a rapacious, win-at-all-costs startup and an existing social and political order. But they all do: The Dropout is about a fraud, but it’s also about an ecosystem which incentivised it and to some extent made it an inevitability. WeCrashed approaches it by asking whether ‘tech’ is a legible ontological category at all, or whether it’s all just a sales pitch given weight and form by incomprehensible amounts of money and absurd characters like Adam Neumann, who in the pre-modern era would have probably been highly eccentric aristocrats or village mystics.
Obviously, the tension at the heart of all these shows is that they are critiques of the messianic self-styling of founders, but that self-importance is only reified by turning them into cultural antiheroes. Elizabeth Holmes turned out not to have a great deal of technical or managerial skill behind her always-on Steve Jobs roleplay, but she’s permanently embedded herself in the public imagination as a girlboss Icarus. Theranos may have achieved very little other than burning capital, but she’s now historical furniture — boosted by a cultural industry that valorises the scam even as it openly criticises it.
A consulting firm hired by Meta was behind some of the anti-TikTok stories in the press recently. From the Washington Post:
Facebook parent company Meta is paying one of the biggest Republican consulting firms in the country to orchestrate a nationwide campaign seeking to turn the public against TikTok.
The campaign includes placing op-eds and letters to the editor in major regional news outlets, promoting dubious stories about alleged TikTok trends that actually originated on Facebook, and pushing to draw political reporters and local politicians into helping take down its biggest competitor. These bare-knuckle tactics, long commonplace in the world of politics, have become increasingly noticeable within a tech industry where companies vie for cultural relevance and come at a time when Facebook is under pressure to win back young users.
It specifically calls out the so-called ‘Slap a Teacher Challenge’ — which is exactly what it sounds like — that spread around local news outlets. That was apparently shopped around by Targeted Victory, even though the challenge itself didn’t actually appear on TikTok.
Corporations running influence campaign against one another is nothing new, but there’s a few interesting dynamics here. Firstly is the fact that, as the Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files revealed, this is very much a battle for the hearts and minds of America’s young people. Meta suffers from a deep (and well-founded) institutional panic that it is losing the kids to ByteDance and TikTok, and it has lost the brief window of opportunity it had during the Trump administration to have the app banned altogether. So it makes sense that all of the stories being fed to the media are ultimately about young people behaving badly or being otherwise harmed by TikTok influence.
But it’s also the fact that Meta simply can’t shake its bad smell, which has persisted even through its rebrand. As the Financial Times reported, its terrible brand was almost single-handedly responsible for torpedoing its cryptocurrency ambitions, and are still plaguing the company as it tries to make us want to conduct our lives as legless monstrosities in metaversal space. It obviously wants to push some of that hatred onto another target.
But, as a campaign, it’s weird. As multiple people in the industry have told me over the years, it’s pretty difficult to get regulators and public opinion to turn against one social platform without bringing heat on the entire sector. At Platformer, Casey Newton makes a similar point:
From the perspective of basic company self-interest, it’s hard to imagine a worse time to draw further attention to the risks social apps pose to children. Regulators and lawmakers paint with a broad brush, and any step they might be inclined to take to punish TikTok would almost certainly splash back on Facebook and Instagram as well.
Of everything I find insane about Meta’s latest dirty-tricks campaign, it’s this scorched-earth element that I find the most mind-boggling. The fact that the very issues Meta sought to expose began as rumors on Facebook only underlines the absurdity of the whole affair.
This clip went around this week showing a Nebraska State Senator going on some Facebook-brained spiel about how some local schools were accommodating students who identify as furries by feeding them out of dishes, letting them use a litterbox, etc. It’s funny, but it’s interesting that it came just after the same story did the rounds in Australia.
A handful of students at an elite Brisbane girls school have begun identifying as animals, walking on all fours and cutting holes in their uniform for a ‘tail’ in a move that has created confusion and concern amongst parents.
It’s the bizarre dinner party conversation parents could never have imagined: children are identifying as animals.
It is also the chatter in back seats after school pick-up as kids swap stories of classmates behaving like cats and foxes.
To be clear, this is not about students playing dress-ups or using fun face filters on social media but about genuinely believing they are animals.
The story, by associate editor Kylie Lang, appears to be based entirely on something she heard at a dinner party, which Media Watch called out in an episode this week. It all seems to be rooted in a story from a viral video from the end of last year about students at a Michigan school district, which was denied by the local superintendent.
Obviously it’s percolating through the media because it’s a neat little culture war yarn about the slippery slope of wokeism and so on. It’s difficult to tell whether this stuff has bubbled up globally just because it’s an effective social media brain virus, or whether there’s some organisation or another out there pushing it forward to litigate a point about queer kids and schools. (It does come amid an active lobbying campaign against Disney on those grounds.)
But, either way, I always find it interesting that the dynamics of the chain email forward have remained essentially intact despite the form of the media changing around it.
Oh, what a lovely day
I’m reading Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road by Kyle Buchanan, and I highly recommend it if you’re a fan of the movie or moviemaking in general. Overflowing with oral accounts of one of the wildest productions in recent memory.
Some good stuff early in the book abut George Miller and his influences, crediting his work as a doctor at St Vincent’s in Sydney and dealing with road casualties:
A filmmaker has an obligation to look at the world from many points of view, and that’s exactly what a doctor of any worth does. You’re looking at those individuals during surgery, or even postmortem. You’re looking inside of them; you’re looking at them as a full human being … I wouldn’t be the filmmaker I am if I hadn’t had that life experience. It resonated with me, the feeling of working in casualty at St. Vincent’s Hospital and being quite disturbed by the violence and road carnage and the way we processed it. We accepted it.
Liked this interview with Matt Mullenweg of Automattic, the company that owns both Wordpress.com and Tumblr. Interesting that he basically pitches his platforms as being among the last refuges of weirdness on a heavily centralised internet.
This episode of Odd Lots is a great explainer on how the Russia-Ukraine conflict is disrupting the world supply of wheat.
Thought this was interesting from fantasy author Brandon Sanderson on his experience of crowdfunded fiction.
Really interesting on the debate over SSRIs and other antidepressants.
Graeme Wood at The Atlantic profiles Mohammad bin Salman. Can’t say it’s particularly revelatory, but an interesting window into how a thoroughly weird guy conducts himself in person. (There was also another article justifying the fact it was written at all.)
On the lingering social effect of virtually unlimited online storage. “The belief that we could save endlessly online turned us all into information hoarders. What society needs instead is better systems for preserving public knowledge.”
On the return of native advertising amid shifts in the algorithmically targeted ad market. (The Rebooting is a great newsletter about the media business also.)
How organised crime took over Canada’s tow trucking industry.