Twitter's ongoing growth problems suggest an interesting limit case for just how wide the distance can be between a company and its users before the gap becomes fatal. That is, regardless of whether a particular company's internal culture and approach to users is good or fair or some other desired state, these modes of company culture must nonetheless manage to function sufficiently for product execution.
Facebook, for example, is a version of a company culture that has managed to be successful despite a fraught and historically arrogant relationship with its users. This is because even in Facebook's most superior-than-thou moments it has still been deeply interested in its users and their quotidian activities, a focus which led to the creation of the News Feed. Facebook engineers found users' activities so interesting that an engine was built to circulate them (Facebook's current focus on celebrity profiles came much later). Twitter, on the other hand, has performed an odd feat of seeming to disregard the average user and their activities entirely in favor of what Twitter finds more important: the experiences of celebrities, brands, and other high-volume-follower accounts. Twitter's focus on users with high follower numbers seems to fatally miss and undervalue what actually composes high follower counts: regular users. Without users there can be no high follower counts, and Justin Bieber on a site with no users would have no more users than anyone else. Celebrities and brands come after or at best parallel to users, not in place of them.
Adding to this the fact that Twitter seems to hire people who are farthest removed from the experience of its users, and it begins to appear that Twitter has become an interesting cautionary tale of how to take industry models that have worked elsewhere and apply them without success. So, while some tech companies succeed while believing engineers always know better than users, Twitter seems to have taken this faith so far as to forget to make sure its engineers really are users, thus making engineers unable to ideate products that users need. Likewise, as Facebook has done, a platform can convert to a celebrity-focused network that privileges viral content over quotidian individual content, but a platform can't stage a series of virtual podiums for celebrities without active users to consume their content. At the rate at which Twitter is applying models that may have worked elsewhere but require a tighter relationship between team and product to function, Twitter threatens to be a brightly-lit stadium concert headlined by big names, with no one in the seats.
The mystery of ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ is among other things an exercise in the ritual way in which anonymity functions online. The ‘Satoshi’ mystery demonstrates how the anonymity of a creator, whether of Bitcoin or anything else, is a feature of the work-- a part of the product. That is, Bitcoin could be Bitcoin without Satoshi, but the story of a mysterious, benevolent Satoshi attracts a set of flattering assumptions fueled by anonymity that enrich Bitcoin as a brand.
The initial way that anonymity benefits a creation is by automatically generating interest, and not just interest as such, but positive, even reverent interest. Anonymity allows for reverence by shrouding the creator in a veil of alluring modesty: who is this person, who has piqued my interest by not declaring their identity? What deity would deign not to take credit for their work? The creator's apparent lack of ego attracts us by its initial appearance of rarity and saintliness, the sense that we are in the presence of an anonymous higher being, who gifts us with something of value without expecting material attention in return. For example, the anonymously published tech fiction Iterating Grace plays on this logic quite literally by announcing itself as a beatific critique handed down from on high by some mysterious holy man, smoothing its acceptance in a tech environment where even the mildest critiques can be received as unbearably harsh.
But maybe most critically, anonymity allows for positive attention by removing the barriers to fantasy about who the creator 'is'. A person with a known identity cannot be fantasized about and fashioned into one's platonic ideal the way that an anonymous creator can. Thus, Satoshi Nakamoto is beloved to the point of godliness-- absent any details, the public filled in their desired identity for Satoshi Nakamoto. 'He' is eccentric, unthreatening via his reticence, but also cool and dark, inhabiting the shadows, happy to be the giver of the gift of untraceable digital currency. The figure of Nakamoto is a synecdoche for his currency: by buying into Bitcoin you are buying a bit of Nakamoto's mystique, his egolessness, his untraceability.
The theory that Satoshi-contender Craig Wright ultimately doxxed himself is in line with the logic of anonymity as an amplifier of value that never quite becomes the property of the creator. That is, the more successful and beloved Satoshi became, the more the gulf between Satoshi and his creator grew: Satoshi was famous, mythic, obsessed over, while his creator (or hoaxer-- it doesn't really matter, since Craig Wright either imagines himself or desires to imagine himself the creator of Bitcoin) remained, in the tweeted words of journalist Adrian Chen, a "random-ass man in Australia with tax issues". Wright, like any creator eventually desirous of the love his product generates, grew unhappy with a lack of public recognition.
But Wright's dismay at seeing 'his' fantasy identity far outstrip the world's capacity to love him, as well as his audience's dismay at finding out who 'Satoshi' really 'is', is another inevitable phase in the anonymity trajectory. That is, the anonymous identities that creators create, much like zany corporate Twitter brands, are by definition more lovable than any particular individual, due to the way that anonymity enables everyone's individual or collective fantasies about the creator of a work. Anonymity is the absence that creates the possibility of a deified presence. Conversely, if an identified person decides they want to be beloved and mythical, it is harder to do so because a known identity eliminates the narrative potential for the audience to both fantasize about you and "discover who you are". There is nothing for the reader to dream about and then, in a fit of desire to make the fantasy real, to doxx.
Anonymity, then, is the authorial decision to add valuable mystique to one's creation by packaging it with an alluring, demure, but eventually doxxable figure: someone whose absence of known identity both makes them seem impossibly cool (via fantasy that fills in the mystery with what is desired) and also discoverable, in time. Anonymity becomes a compelling, parallel story to the product story itself-- a mysterious, suspenseful story about when and if the creator's identity, however less beatific than imagined, will be found.
All this is to say that Bitcoin didn't need 'Satoshi Nakamoto' to succeed, but whomever developed 'Satoshi Nakamoto' knew that by doing so they were adding an automatically lovable face to the Bitcoin brand, even if in doing so they condemned themselves to being Satoshi's perpetually inadequate shadow.
Super excited about having an essay in the upcoming Data Issue of Dis art magazine... will post a link when it launches.
The main thing that motivates me to write in public is having a question about some cultural phenomenon that I want to produce an answer to. This year there were quite a few questions that I used essays to try to resolve, like: why did coffee shops suddenly turn into wood-shops? Why does media keep using the word 'brogrammer'? Why are brands getting so zany on Twitter? What is the connection between the voyeur-forward architecture of social media and the NSA's surveillance programs? Why do tech leaders keep talking about the magical future while ignoring issues in current startup culture? What's going on with Airbnb's new logo/house-sharing nation? Why are wearables so dorky and how will they need to change to be cool? Below is a list of writing I did in 2014 in response to these questions. I'm excited to see what questions I need to figure out in writing in 2015.
A big ~~<3~~ to everyone who reads my writing.
The Male Gazed (Model View Culture)
Sex and the Startup (Model View Culture)
Speculum of the Other Brogrammer (Katelosse.tv)
Weird Corporate Twitter (The New Inquiry)
Tech Aesthetics (Aeon Magazine)
Facebook for Space? Airbnb's Weird Corporation Nationhood (Katelosse.tv)
What's in a Free Fjallraven Backpack (Katelosse.tv)
The Myth of Magical Futures (Katelosse.tv)
Silicon Valley Has a Fashion Problem (Style.com)
What Reclaimed Wood Meant (Katelosse.tv)
Finally, this essay I wrote in 2013 had many more readers in 2014, so I will include it here:
Despite its (now frequently mocked) claims to meritocracy, Silicon Valley loves its hierarchies. However, because these hierarchies often look somewhat different than old-time corporate ones, they are often opaque to outsiders looking in. My book The Boy Kings is among other things a diagram of hierarchy as it was architected at Facebook in Facebook’s early years, where the closer one was to a Mark-Zuckerberg-when-he-started-Facebook combination of age, race, and gender qualities the higher one was in the hierarchy (a hierarchy that appears not to have changed much given the industry's recently released diversity data). In the past year tech's particular version of hierarchy has been more widely acknowledged and critiqued, and thus we are now in the situation where people as powerful as Peter Thiel are being asked to comment on tech’s diversity and misogyny problems, as in yesterday’s Reddit Ask Me Anything interview with Thiel.
Peter Thiel’s answer to misogyny in tech was that we need more women founders, and this answer struck me as interesting on a number of levels, and also somewhat opaque to someone looking into this world from outside. Why women founders? On the one hand, the possibility that a woman founder would construct the hierarchy at her company differently than Mark Zuckerberg is compelling. On the other, the idea of women founders as a solution to tech misogyny also makes existing male founders and investors unaccountable for misogyny as it exists today. Thiel is saying that he and his funded companies are not responsible for the misogynist environments they themselves have built, and furthermore, that they can’t fix them-- only a woman founder can.
This is a problem, because the misogynist hierarchies that exist in tech today are not mystical outcomes, but very real products of the values of the people involved at the formation of a company, which are investors and founders. Investors and board members in addition to founders influence everything from how much equity goes to individual employees, to perks and play budgets (which often are not evenly distributed across the company), to the construction of departments, their relative importance, and the resources accordingly allocated to them. And not coincidentally the privileged departments, on this model, tend to be those occupied by people who look most like the founder and investors (at Facebook this was product engineering, which dominated other forms of engineering, which dominated non-engineering departments, which tended to have the largest degree of race and gender diversity).
But when Thiel is arguing for more women founders he isn’t just deflecting responsibility from himself and his fellow investors. He is also doing something else that I want to unpack: he is re-inscribing a form of hierarchical thinking that is part of the reason tech is such a mess regarding diversity. That is, when Thiel points to “more women founders” as a solution, he is asking women to become founders in order to possess a status that would allow Thiel to acknowledge women in tech at all. That is, all of the women who are currently working in tech, up and down the employee stack, many at companies that Thiel may be invested in, do not seem in Thiel’s formulation to really exist to him. They do not have a seat at the table. They are not acknowledged as agents of change, or as subjects of discrimination (for example, in the AMA, Thiel cited the Bay Area “housing crisis” as a worse problem than sexism in tech, not knowing that the housing crisis disproportionately affects women and people of color because of the wage discrimination marginalized people face at work).
That is, according to Thiel’s “women founders” logic, he can only imagine women as agents/subjects if they are the founder of a company. And this, in the end, is exactly why and how tech is such a diversity disaster: because there are so many ways powerful people in the industry have of ignoring that marginalized people are working at their companies and are experiencing multiple forms of discrimination right now. This is why many powerful people in tech can only conceive moves to “change” the industry in terms of magical futures like “more women founders” or “getting young girls to code”. The women working in the industry right now are being written off in favor of these magical futures, and as long as this is the case, the now of tech (whether the now is today or twenty years from today) will be unchanged.
This is why you should be skeptical whenever you see powerful men arguing for magical future outcomes in regard to diversity. Instead, ask what they can do right now to affect discrimination in their companies. For example, what are they doing to rectify across the board pay and equity discrepancies between men and women, or white men and people of color? What do their harassment policies look like? Investors like Peter Thiel directly influence these decisions at startups they fund (even if “influence” means “failing to advise founders to avoid discriminatory practices”, which is a form of influence). So when men like Thiel speak of magical futures, we should always be asking them: what are you doing today?
Airbnb’s announcement of its new #branding struck the technical community on a lot of levels, not least of which are the many genitalia-related ways in which the logo can be interpreted. What I find most interesting in the new branding, however, is the way in which it articulates a logic of company nationhood very similar to that of Facebook's; making the “companies as countries” ideology of Facebook into not just one social network’s ambition but into a genuine tech trend that raises interesting questions about the future of platforms.
Local v. National
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky narrates Airbnb’s mission origin story in his blog post. “We asked ourselves, "what is our mission? For a while people thought it was about renting houses. But really, we’re about home. What makes this global community so great is that you can belong anywhere.” The advertised difference here is between renting a room—a transactional exchange in which money is exchanged for space—and participating in a community in which you belong simply by membership in Airbnb. This concept of belonging is described first as having insider access into a locale on your travels: the hidden discos, the off-the-beaten-path galleries. And insofar as a traveler seeks "authentic" entertainment, the inside information one gets via a local stay is valuable. “Belonging,” defined as “going where the locals go”, gives the Airbnb renter something, and thus makes business sense to advertise as a perk of the platform.
But what’s interesting about Airbnb’s announcement is that Airbnb is not content to stop with the idea of “belonging” as a stay that provides a bit more local access than a hotel. Rather, the real force of “belonging” for Airbnb is to belong not to a particular neighborhood but to Airbnb itself (via a “shared brand identity” that “cannot be separate from all of you”), which is imagined as a rich, welcoming nation that spans the world, complete with its own flag/logo to symbolize that the inhabitants of a house are allegiant to the culture of Airbnb. In this way it is not at all dissimilar to Facebook’s vision of the world as a set of interconnected nodes that Facebook hosts under its own, square F logo.
Best Western, the early hotel platform
Airbnb’s sense of the world as a set of connected spaces under its brand umbrella could also mirror the way in which chains like Best Western have franchised the Best Western brand to various independent hotels beginning in the 1950s, thus creating a global hotel network where each hotel is nonetheless independently run. However, Best Western’s corporate identity stops at the business level, seeking no particular emotional or moral commitment from either its guests or its franchisees. When you stay at a Best Western hotel, you don’t leave the hotel feeling pressure to fly the Best Western flag in your home or promote Best Western values in the world. Best Western and its guests have a business relationship: the guest pays to stay there and when they leave, the relationship ends until the next time they need a hotel.
The value of staying in an Airbnb, according to Chesky, is not the space you rent in which to sleep but the emotional connections you forge with other people in the process. The renting is a technology of social and spiritual connection, not merely housing. “However we first entered this community, we all know that getting in isn’t a transaction. It’s a connection that can last a lifetime. That’s because the rewards you get aren’t just financial, they’re personal.”
Keep corporations weird?
As anyone who has used Airbnb before might feel, Chesky’s focus on the personal connection is a bit, well, weird. For one thing, many Airbnb rentals do not involve so much as a meeting between host and renter—this function is performed by the website, which allows the renter and host to arrange the transaction without having met (and often the purpose of the exchange is so the hosts can rent while they are away from the house, thus making money for vacation). Chesky’s desire that the host and renter come to love one another on a personal level is thus rather emotionally demanding; but why? What does insisting on the intimacy between host and renter do for Airbnb? Why do they need us to join an Airbnb nation?
Airbnb’s insistence that we participate in their community for the love of Airbnb and Airbnb’s community echoes Facebook’s insistence that we use Facebook not for efficient exchange of updates and photos but because we believe in Facebook and Facebook’s mission. Facebook, that is, wants us to belong to a "Facebook nation", and it does so for a practical business reason: Facebook relies on the increasing exchange of data between users for its growth, but the platform does not compensate users financially for the exchange of their data. Thus, Facebook asks users to believe that by providing information free to Facebook we are participating in a global, transcendent project of connection under Facebook’s roof, where our own personal and national boundaries gradually dissolve and we are finally one with (or at least fully known by) Facebook’s elaborate algorithmic machinery (and by extension, the billion other people seamlessly connected to that machinery). My early history of Facebook, The Boy Kings, has more detail on this ideology.
Airbnb, similarly, wants us to overcome our suspicion of strangers (and crucially also any mistrust we might have of the Airbnb platform) in favor of the achievement of a personal connection with the platform and our fellow Airbnbers.
This focus on personal connection submerges some practical issues regarding the space being traded. For one, humans who have no real obligation to each other are, as the tragedy of the commons states, not necessarily going to assume mutual interests, and renting to strangers means a risk to property. But in the new logic of "sharing" this becomes an opportunity to "trust" and thereby make things more personal.
What differs from Facebook in Airbnb’s focus on “trust” over financial exchange, however, is that Airbnb users are being compensated for their exchange of personal property, unlike on Facebook where the exchange of personal data is done without monetary compensation to users. The whole premise of Airbnb for most people I know is financial: it allows you to occupy space somewhere for slightly less money than a hotel, and the owner of the space can be compensated for allowing users to occupy it. Given that for most this is the real value proposition of Airbnb, in another marketing universe Airbnb could imagine itself as the Best Western of freelance house rentals; and simply focus on being the most efficient and trusted place to transact rooms. But it could do all of this without relying on the users themselves adopting the nation of Airbnb, flying its national flag and posting its logo in their homes, committing to “sharing” and “connecting” (two words that are also foundational to Facebook’s mission) with renters rather than simply providing a comfortable space to sleep.
A Facebook for Space?
Given all this, I am left with several questions after consuming Airbnb’s new #brand: will Facebook and Airbnb eventually become competing corporate “sharing” cultures; one based on sharing through the Facebook graph and the other based on sharing through the Airbnb space graph? Does Airbnb want to be the Facebook for space, and will Facebook and Airbnb eventually have a merger, given that their ambitions to become global sharing networks are so aligned? Airbnb has already replicated the social network profile aspect of Facebook as a means of promoting trusting social transactions; wouldn’t it make business sense to conjoin the networks completely?
And finally: with Airbnb on the ascendant, are corporate hotel chains like Best Western going to become the new, hip model of space-renting, in that you can stay at a Best Western for a night and just sleep, without the social networking imperative to develop deep personal attachments with the #brand, its philosophy, your hosts, and your fellow guests?