Is the media too tough on tech?

Or, maybe, not tough enough?

Hi! Can here. Today, we are going to talk about tech and the media.

One of the more dramatic effects of Erdogan seizing authoritative power in Turkey has been the centralizing of all “private” media under a few pro-government oligarchs. It’s tough to describe to an outsider how the entire media landscape has shifted in a few short years. In theory, there are multiple private newspapers and TV stations with different owners. In practice, though, they all work under the orders of the president’s office. Most of the business people who own the media companies either bought them through loans provided by government banks or made their riches through various other government contracts [1].

The funny thing is, these different newspapers don’t even bother to hide how much they operate as a single mouthpiece for the government. Every few months, I see another tweet making the rounds where several major newspapers have the same exact headline. It’s so brazen that you don’t even need to speak English to realize this is not just bad journalism, it’s bad bad journalism.

Anyway, I bring this all up because every time I see a bunch of influential tech people clamoring the vices of mainstream media, I cringe a bit. Recently, the Washington Post had a piece about the supposed trend of male executives in Silicon Valley getting cosmetic surgeries to look younger. It’s not really that interesting of a bit in itself, and had it been published about, say, any other demographic, I can imagine most people in tech would either read it out of some morbid curiosity or sheer boredom.

You could, for example, consider the fact that it is probably true that some people have been so traumatized by the ageism in Silicon Valley that they had to make themselves look younger. Or, you could use it as way to reflect on the body-shaming women have been dealing with for decades, and now how men have to deal with it too. Or, I don’t know, just simply call the piece out on why on earth we should care about grown people doing stuff to their bodies on their own dime. These all would have been interesting takes on a piece that honestly didn’t deserve much of a take.

Authoritarian Language Seeping In

Yet, several tech people that I follow (and a few who has long blocked me) on Twitter went on to pull the piece apart, going as far as to say it’s pieces like this that make them trust mainstream media less. To be honest, it doesn’t feel genuine. At best, it’s a boring take. But at worst, it’s dangerous. I don’t want to blame anyone for Trumpism, but to my Turkish ears, hearing the language of an authoritarian-leaning president seeping into the influential thought leaders is a cause for concern. And concerned I am.

Look. I hope I am not committing tech career suicide here, but here it goes: I am convinced that most people in the tech world do not understand the role of a free media in a liberal society. They generally do not get the distinction between PR and an adversarial press. There was a time people liked to pay at least some semblance of lip service to the fourth estate, but people don’t even pretend that matters anymore. It’s maddening.

It’s really not that hard. The media is not there to be your friend. It’s there to inform the public, and make you feel self-aware. More tactically, there’s not a single “media” entity, but a bunch of people working loosely towards similar goals, but in significantly different methods. It is, just like the tech industry, composed of generally flawed people. And those people occasionally make mistakes, and there are plenty of bad apples. And yes, just like any industry, the media is a business where people are sometimes incentivized to do things that aren’t purely altruistic.

Souring of the Relationship

Yet pointing to those examples and painting a broad brush on an entire industry is not just unfair, but also dangerous. As I was discussing this incident with a senior person in the tech industry, he also pointed out his frustration with both media and the tech people’s tendency to generalize the entire other side with the single worst behavior of them. I think that’s part of the problem but not the whole problem.

We still need to explain how this relationship soured in the first place. You can’t deny that something has changed the last few years. Techlash, as they call it, arrived with a vengeance. Since roughly 2015, the entire tech industry’s reputation has been in a freefall. Most of what has happened have been unforced errors on the industry’s part. Just off the top of my head, there has been accusations of being a tool of election meddling for foreign adversaries, helping incite genocides, widespread sexual harassment at multiple companies, generous bonus packages to those accused of sexual harassment, fraud, allegations of fraud, people walking away with billions after failed companies, people creating fake medical devices, and to top it off, allegations of abusive bosses fostering a toxic workplace [2].

I think there are several threads here worth discussing.

The Second Coming

First of all, for many years, the tech industry had showcased itself as an unadulterated good that had bestowed itself upon us mere mortals, and we had to take it all in without any questioning. Tech was, above all, about making the world a better place. If you stood in the way of tech, you stood in the way of progress. It didn’t matter how it happened or who got hurt in the process. As long as things got better on balance, which they often did, it’d be fine. There has been a slow build-up of anger, from labor groups to privacy activists at various companies, but the camel’s break obviously broke in late 2016 with Trump’s election.

The anger Facebook had garnered [3], obviously, seeped into the rest of the industry as well. It’s not fair to say that most people in the tech industry were not ready for the tune changing this fast. They have, in other words, went from whiz-kids who could move mountains, launch things to the sky and bring them back, even possibly cure mortality, to blood-sucking vultures, creeps who track your every move, weirdos who listen to your conversations. Calling yourself a tech company went from your founders being hailed as the second coming of Christ to inviting the typical amount of scrutiny reserved for the powerful that no one in tech seemed to be ready for.

Incentives Rule Everything Around Me

I wonder if the materialistic obsession with “incentives” is partly to blame here. A standard line of thinking in tech circles is that people are simpletons that just respond to incentives. There’s no intrinsic motivation, but merely reactions to incentives. The world is just a maze dotted with carrots and maybe a couple sticks. Engineers respond to their OKRs, CEOs to their boards, VCs to their LPs, and of course, journalists to their clicks. It’s a neat, simplifying way to think about populations and large groups, but it does miss the point that many people do things because they want to do them. Incentives might play a role, but they are motivated to do something, because, well, they are. The double standard here is that technologists do recognize that people have these innate desires, but that agency, that celebration of obsession is only extended to the in-group.

A software engineer may want to join a risky startup instead of taking a cushy job at Google because she wants to work on interesting problems. You give up on a lot of money so that you can do what you want. Yet, in their eyes, a journalist is not allowed that same free will. He or she can only be chasing clicks. There’s no world, for example, where a reporter investigates a company because she got a tip that there’s something sketchy going on, but a product manager is allowed to hop on the rocket ship, because, why not? Once you recognize how this double standard is applied to different groups, you’ll start seeing everywhere.

Reaping What you Sow

It is easy, and tempting, to point fingers at technology firms, but the media at some level brought this on themselves. For several years, tech firms have received fawning coverage from all parts of the media. They were not just the New Establishment at Vanity Fair events, but they were also the Good Establishment. The criticisms never seemed genuine, but instead felt like most media firms were doing the bare minimum to give the impression of being critical. As the media got in bed with tech, a slow but steady pipeline of reporter-to-VC career track evolved. As long as you paid your dues with a couple glowing puff pieces, PR-pieces masquerading as “scoops,” and maybe penned a few navel-gazing Medium posts as “critical thinkpieces” to establish your “deep thinker” bona fides, you too could become a partner at VC firm who would surely need your contacts in the media business in the years coming. It worked beautifully, and it still does.

Gawker

Maybe things didn’t have to be this way. There were a couple organizations that took on the powerful as their MO from day one. You could argue with their methods, and I certainly did, but you couldn’t argue with their resolve. They made it their goal not just to be the annoyance of tech people all around, but they did it with gusto. I am, indeed, talking about Gawker [3]. Had Gawker not been sued into oblivion by the famous “philanthropist” (and New-Zealand-citizenship-purchaser and doomsday-bunker-aficionado and Trump-supporter and respected Facebook board member) Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley could have gotten used to being criticized by a bunch of young, whiny, but oh-so-funny New Yorkers instead of clutching their jewels at the first sign of being criticized. We could, as my co-writer Ranjan likes to joke, maybe even avoid having Trump as the leader of the free world. Things could have been different!

Just Move On

I have lucked into this industry because I liked making websites, and I was good at math. I do not drink raw water, nor do I make repeated visits to Esalen. I have never bought a Juicero, but I bought Soylent the day it came out. I am not polyamorous, but I have many friends who are, and they are as happy as I am, if not more. None of what I read online about the virtues or vices of my industry, the companies my friends or I worked at changes any of it.

Throughout incessant late-night tweeting, I have made several friends who work at various media firms. Some of those people had written extremely critical pieces about places I’ve worked at before, during, and after my employment. I have called them out on their bullshit, both in public and in private. And yet, I have never believed that they were out there to get me. I choose to believe that they resorted to their tactics, their methods not because they hated my guts or were chasing clicks, but because, that’s what they felt like they needed to do. Because, as cheesy as this sounds, I know how bad things can get when people, very influential and powerful people are accountable to no one.


[1]: Here’s an interesting “tech angle.” One of the most prominent Turkish media moguls before Erdogan came into power was a guy named Cem Uzan. He had drawn Erdogan’s ire after a failed attempt to get into the Turkish parliament, which would have been notable given the 10% threshold. His other claim to fame is embezzling both Nokia and Motorola out billions of dollars when he was also running one of the biggest GSM operators in the country.

[2]: I have written this piece mostly over the weekend, but it turns out she’s back at her job. This, in some sense, is the perfect ending to this saga. For those who consider media an annoyance, “Twitter mob” will become another “fake news.” It was a term that once meant something, but now it’ll become an easy and dangerous way to discredit any and all criticism. This is the hell we have brought upon ourselves

[3]: It’s not like the Facebook stock is hurting! One way to think about it is none of the reporting matters. But maybe, it’s that the reporting is good, and given how much Facebook has done to fix its obvious problems (and not), it can still make boatloads of money.


📖 What I’m Reading

How the Digg team was acquired — My good friend (and former boss) Will Larson has a good play-by-play on how Digg was acquired back in 2012. I’ve written about my time at Digg extensively, but Will has the real good stuff.

The Book That Captured 70’s Paris — San Francisco is home for me, but I can’t say I don’t miss living in (or at least close to) Paris. There’s a rhythm to the city that’s unlike anywhere else. Citylab goes deeper on a book that goes deep on that.


📝 Write for Margins

Ranjan and I write Margins mostly for ourselves, make no money from this, and pretty much go the opposite of everything you are supposed to do to grow it. It still blows my mind every week that several thousand of you receive this in your inboxes.

We are also always on the lookout for guest writers. It allows us to take the occasional week off, but more importantly, it provides a fresh breath of air. We can’t promise anything, but if you’ve got an idea brewing in your head, reply to this email or simply email us at substack@readmargins.com.