A Billion Dollars Isn’t Cool. You Know What’s Cool? Basic Human Decency

‘”Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing his hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”‘A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

I know, I know. I’m old. Worse than that, I’m nostalgic. In the past few months, I’ve written about my love for fountain pens, and traditional publishers, and paper books, and handwritten letters, and live theater, and downtown Las Vegas. Those who follow me on Twitter will have read about my enthusiasm for the New York Times Crossword, and hotel writing paper, and socializing with friends sans mobile phones.

It’s cute to be the token Luddite at TechCrunch — but it’s also hugely disingenuous. I’m writing this stuff on Twitter, and on a hugely popular technology blog. You could cut the irony with a knife.

The truth is, I love technology. It’s rare that I dismiss or disparage a new gadget, app or company without trying it out at least once; and I certainly believe that – on balance – the more technologically advanced we become as a society, the better the world becomes.

And yet increasingly I wonder whether, for the sake of humanity, it might not be a bad thing if the earthquake comes and tips all of web 2.0 into the sea.

I should possibly explain.

The Internet — particularly “web 2.0”, with its communities and tagging and reuniting and friending and liking — was supposed to civilize us all. The idea was that by connecting the whole world through a variety of social networks and crowd-sourced standards of behavior (from reputation scores on eBay to Yelp reviews for dog walkers) – people would be driven to greater empathy for, and responsibility towards their fellow man. When Randi Zuckerberg sat on stage at DLD ’08 and told us the story of the Palestinian and Israeli children brought together through their joint membership of a Facebook group about soccer, we all shed a tear. Web 2.0 is working — it’s really working!

In the early days, the entrepreneurs behind these services really seemed to believe the gospel they were preaching. Anyone who has met Craig Newmark will testify that he lives and breathes customer service — turning down acquisition offers and obsessing over how his eponymous List can help connect communities in ways that enrich society. When they invented Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin really did dream about making the world’s data easier to access. Jimmy Wales, for all of his fixation with personal celebrity, really is passionate about a free and open encyclopedia, and has turned down a large amount of personal profit to realize that dream.

At first, Web 2.0 seemed like a perfect two-way street. Brilliant entrepreneurs who genuinely wanted to change the world built services that we all wanted to use. They became rich, and our lives became better connected. We were all in it together.

Fast forward just a handful of years, though, and something has gone very, very wrong with that particular social contract. We users have kept our side of the bargain — dutifully tagging our friends in artificially-aged photos, and checking in at bars, and writing reviews of restaurants. We’ve canceled our newspaper subscriptions, and instead spend our days clicking on slideshows of “celebrities who look like their cats” or obsessively tracking trending topics on Twitter. We’ve stopped buying books published by professional houses and instead reward authors who write, edit and distribute their own electronic works through self-publishing platforms. We’ve even handed the keys to our cars and our homes to strangers.

On the face of it, the entrepreneurs have continued down the same track too: inventing ever more Disruptive companies to further improve the world, and in doing so enjoying multi-billion dollar valuations and all the trappings of fame and fortune. Even richer have grown the angels, super-angels and VCs who carefully nurture young entrepreneurs, molding them into the next breed of Mark Zuckerbergs and Sean Parkers, reminding their charges that “what’s cool” is a billion dollars — and that every new user acquired is another dollar added to their eventual high score.

And yet. AND YET. You only have to look at a couple of mini-outrages that bubbled up in the past few days to realize just how misaligned the interests of some entrepreneurs have become with those of the human beings they rely on for their success.

This time last week, the musical world mourned the death of Amy Winehouse. Almost immediately, the Huffington Post approved a post by unpaid contributor, Tricia Fox, entitled “Amy Winehouse’s Untimely Death Is a Wake Up Call for Small Business Owners“. We were all shocked, of course, by the callousness and cynicism of the headline — but we weren’t really surprised. We take it for granted now that the most popular online publications rely on search engine traffic for their survival. We know that, in many cases, “content” sites don’t employ editors to monitor what appears on their pages — and that those editors who are employed are encouraged to blindly approve any headline that name-checks a trending topic or two. Arianna Huffington talks a good talk about the democratization of journalism — but every so often we are reminded of the grimy truth: making money with online content is a question of attracting millions of eyeballs, whatever the moral cost.

An even more grotesque example of this was this week’s Airbnb scandal — the so-called #ransackgate (ugh).

Having been convinced by the company’s mantra of throwing open our doors to the world for monetary reward, a user by the name of “EJ” was shocked when a stranger comprehensively trashed her home. We’ll have to await the outcome of the police investigation to understand what really happened to EJ’s apartment, but what we know for sure is that Airbnb’s immediate, and subsequent, reaction was grotesque in its inhumanity. I’m not talking about the company’s initial apparent unwillingness to pay compensation — I’m talking about the behavior of the (unnamed) co-founder who wrote to EJ and asked her to remove her blog post about the incident, lest it affect the company’s ability to raise millions more dollars. From EJ’s blog

‘I received a personal call from one of the co-founders of Airbnb. We had a lengthy conversation, in which he indicated having knowledge of the (previously mentioned) person who had been apprehended by the police, but that he could not discuss the details or these previous cases with me, as the investigation was ongoing. He then addressed his concerns about my blog post, and the potentially negative impact it could have on his company’s growth and current round of funding. During this call and in messages thereafter, he requested that I shut down the blog altogether or limit its access, and a few weeks later, suggested that I update the blog with a “twist” of good news so as to “complete[s] the story”’.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we also know for sure that investors in the company leaned on publications like TechCrunch to stop reporting the story. Their ludicrous wail of protest: AIRBNB IS RUN BY NICE GUYS! IT’S NOT FAIR TO CALL THEM OUT WHEN THEY SCREW UP!

The question of whether Airbnb is run by nice guys is irrelevant. For all I know CEO Brian Chesky is a modern day Mother Theresa who had to break off his important work curing kitten cancer to deal with this growing PR nightmare. What’s relevant — and all too obvious — is that good old Brian and his co-founders stand to make millions, if not billions, of dollars from the success of Airbnb. His investors stand to make even more. That kind of wealth can easily drive the most saintly of us to behave in inhuman ways — to become so remote from reality and humanity that users like EJ become (at best) PR problems to be solved and (at worst) irrelevant pieces of data; eyeballs or clicks or room nights to be monitized in the pursuit of an ever greater exit.

And therein lies the real problem of web 2.0 — whether it takes the form of SEO-driven “news” or crowd-sourced accommodation. To make money — real money — at this game you have to attract millions, or tens of millions, of users. And when you’re dealing with those kinds of numbers, it’s literally impossible not to treat your users as pieces of data. It’s ironic, but depressingly unsurprising, that web 2.0 is using faux socialization and democratization to create a world where everyone is reduced to a number on a spreadsheet.

Sarah Lacy has written about how many of the current breed of silicon valley wunderkinds have been conditioned to behave like the movie version of Mark Zuckerberg, eschewing humanity and decency for personal profit and glory. Nothing either she nor I can write will reverse the trend — there’s simply too much money and power at stake. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t loudly call bullshit on those who use words like “disruption” and “revolution” and “democratization” as cynical marketing buzzwords simply to line their own pockets, only to retreat behind the barricades when the going gets rough. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mourn a not-too-distant past where technology entrepreneurs created things to make the world a better or more interesting place, not just because they wanted to make a billion dollars.

And above all, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remind the current breed of entrepreneurs and investors that, in the final analysis, a billion dollars isn’t actually all that cool. What’s cool is keeping your soul, whatever the financial cost.