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Silicon Valley is finally willing to counter speech with speech
Suing and blocking can only go so far
In 2016, when news about the secret Peter Thiel lawsuit against Gawker came out, I made a plea to Thiel and a prediction. Call off the lawsuit while you still can, if this lawsuit is successful, it’s going to accelerate a culture war where everyone loses. The crux of it is here:
It’s fine to disagree with Gawker. They certainly have screwed up sometimes, but there’s a reason we made freedom of the press, the first amendment. Why can’t Silicon Valley counter speech with speech? Why do you need to use a proxy lawsuit? Many legal experts predict that Gawker will win the Hulk Hogan case on appeal but it won’t even matter because fighting the lawsuit took so much money that it bankrupted the company. This is Silicon Valley justice?
My worry, as someone who works in tech, is that support of the Thiel lawsuit is going to backfire and everyone in tech will suffer. The world is waking up to the hypocrisy and grotesque wealth of the valley—they want to know who this new power is and they won’t always be nice in their questioning. The middle class in America, the European Union, and those abroad want to know what kind of future it faces as the tech industry continues creating products that eliminate their jobs. Thiel just crucified the most notorious dissenter of Silicon Valley and called it ‘philanthropy.’ If this is how Silicon Valley billionaires are going to treat their dissenters, then dissenters have no choice but to go underground.
I stand by the post but I was wrong in one respect. Dissent of Silicon Valley did not go underground, it went above. Gawker alumni were fired or quit in 2016 and they graduated to the most elite media organizations in the country. The hypocrisy of a Facebook board member secretly destroying another company because it didn’t like its media output was too much. A new cohort of journalists and critics started asking questions and applying pressure that wasn’t there before. The floodgates opened.
For the past few years I’ve heard endless complaints from people in tech about how the media is unfair. The complaints about negativity have gotten to the point where many companies treat the NYT like Gawker, where they vow to not engage in a request for comment.
I’m sympathetic. The NYT has also morphed in the past four years and there’s an illiberalness to it sometimes that’s disconcerting. What I haven’t understood is those in tech talking about this problem as if they don’t have any agency.
There was a point, in the Spring of 2020, after reading Marc Andreessen’s “It’s Time To Build” essay, where I couldn’t resist.
The response at the time was about what you’d expect. Balaji suggested a decentralized fact checking system that hasn’t been built, Antonio García Martínez said that we’ve been here already, and Paul Graham said that SV’s contribution to media is the infrastructure that powers Twitter.com.
But as the year progressed, efforts and energy around building more handcrafted media in SV increased.
A16z invested 10 million in to Clubhouse but more notably, they are on the app all the time. You have some version of Andreessen + friends radio happening every night on Clubhouse right now and it’s getting a big following.
And then a16z announced their new enterprise.
There are many reasons to be cynical here and many reasons this could blow up but it’s a long time coming.
My hope with this accelerating Silicon Valley interest in media and local government is that those with the resources, swing for the fence. Stop tweeting into the void about how people in SF hate techies and put your own ego on the line. Many know the infrastructure and bureaucracy in SF, and other American cities, is a kafkaesque nightmare—expose it. If you don’t have the electoral power—get it. Stop thinking gov and media is someone else’s problem and build a new coalition.
I’m unsure this crew understands how challenging this is going to be but I’m happy to see them more formally enter the arena. The tech industry needs better ways to process and organize criticism and opportunity. How this project, and others like it, develops an audience will be revealing.
It’s time to build.