The paradox of social violence

People keep pissing in the pool.

There’s a deep hypocrisy at the heart of social media. Companies built the platforms. They outsourced making those platforms worthwhile to us, the users. But they didn’t provide us with the tools to moderate those platforms and they’ve walked away from the responsibility of doing it themselves.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like built great swimming pools. They invited everyone over and told people to, somehow, make their own water and their own fun. And people did. They made their own water and built their own games and they had fun. Then people started pissing in the pool. They pissed at ever great volumes and viscosity.

And the people who made the pools didn’t do anything about it.1

No tweeter is an island

Here’s an under-appreciated reality of social platforms: every user is dependent on every other user. Twitter, Facebook, and the like may treat you as the end user — they ask you what you’re doing, your newsfeed is yours and yours alone, populated by a myriad of things from elsewhere for your consumption and, if you deign it so, a like or a comment. But, without everyone else, you’d have nothing.

My enjoyment of Twitter depends exclusively on the people I’ve chosen to follow. Their thoughts, their tastes define my experience. That extends to who my followers choose to follow, too — I see all their retweets and quote tweets.

Every social media platform, like society as a whole, is a cascading layers of interdependency. But this isn’t necessarily reflected in the design of these platforms (despite presenting you with a million faces, most isolate you into a narrow feed) or, more importantly, their rules and approaches to moderation, which focus on governing the behaviour of individuals and how individuals treat each other.

Social media platforms are an ecosystem. Each individual person matters. You don’t feel that when these companies talk about moderation, though. When someone abuses someone else, for example, there’s no sense of what that abuse means in the broader context of the ecosystem — it’s about one person acting on another. By focusing on that, you’re missing the full picture.

Here’s how Judith Butler describes the effects of violence in society in her book The force of nonviolence (which I’ll be quoting throughout this article):

It is not simply that an individual abrogates his or her conscience or deeply held principles in acting violently, but that certain “ties“ required for social life, that is, the life of a social creature, are imperiled by violence.

A social media platform’s value depends on people. Every time one user attacks another, they’re not only attacking the victim. They’re attacking the point and vibrancy of the site itself.

Soylent Tweet is people

Here’s the problem social media platforms need to solve: they need to convince people that every person, at their core, has equal value. They need to promote, both implicitly and explicitly, equality.

Good luck.

Abuse on social has a few goals but it usually boils down to silencing someone. You’re trying to control the discussion and the person; you want them to stop talking or to leave permanently.

Every platform worth its salt already prohibits violence, either in form of incitement or direct abuse. But those rules only protect people who are thought to have value to the platform.

Look at this way: the ultimate end point of abuse is driving someone away from the site. You’ve made it untenable to stay or you’ve convinced them so thoroughly that you don’t belong. A rule saying “Don’t abuse people“ will only stop you if you think the people being abused belong. You’ll only stop abusing someone if they’ll be missed if they leave.

Butler frames this as grievability: who will be grieved if they die. Those deemed to be grievable are protected from violence. Those who aren’t grievable? Not so much. They’re already as good as dead so no harm done if they die.

A life has to be grievable — that is, its loss has to be conceptualisable as a loss — for an interdiction against violence and destruction to include life among those living beings to be safeguarded from violence.

This helps us understand who social companies value. They tell you.

Donald Trump is the obvious example. He flouts Twitter’s rules on a semi-regular basis. He creates an environment of violence by targeting different social groups and legitimises the abuse of those groups.

And he hasn’t been banned. Not only hasn’t he not been banned, Twitter reinforced their rules around telling people to die because he was on the receiving end.

The distinction between populations that are worth violently defending and those that are not implies that some lives are simply considered more valuable than others.

Donald Trump is worth more than other people to Twitter. So he’s protected.

This approach — of some people being worth grieving and others not — trickles down throughout social. Think of all the people whose abuse isn’t worth removing or the abusers who haven’t done enough to warrant recrimination. It’s clear who’s absence would be missed most.

This distinction was built into social from day one:

After all, if a life, from the start, is regarded as grievable, then every precaution will be taken to preserve and to safeguard that life against harm and destruction.

Social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are stupendously big. It would take a huge amount of effort and resourcing to effectively moderation. But that’s only true because they were built with a laissez-faire rule set from the start. That replicates the status quo of wider society — a place where some people are more grievable than others.

Social platforms won’t be able to grapple with abuse and violence unless they rebuild from the ground up under the assumption that everyone is grievable. That’s the challenge.

Dehumanisation is a feature, not a bug

Now, to be fair to social companies, they’re swimming against the tide here.2 They’re operating in a society that has spent a lot of time and money dehumanising whole groups of people.

How many times have media outlets or leaders implied (or just straight up said) that immigrants are monsters on their way to destroy “our way of life“? Take any marginalised group anywhere and they’ve been called less-than by a power that wants to control, subvert, or destroy them.

It’s how people justify violence. It’s woven into the very fabric of society and how people debate.

That’s the environment social platforms exist in. And the way they present people, you know, real people, doesn’t help. Every person on, say, Facebook is present as a piece of content. They arrive to you as a small profile picture and a mix of words and images. They’re pixels. All of their depth and humanness are collapsed into a thing presented and served to you to consume. They’re dehumanised by design. Who cares if you attack them? They’re not even a person. They’re just a piece of content.

There are a lot of factors at play here. There’s the wider world where dehumanisation is an everyday rhetorical play. There’s the layout and design of social platforms. There’s a complete lack of awareness of how dependent we are on every other user of social.

This all combines to make it unclear what’s at stake when abuse and violence runs rife.

Without an understanding of the conditions of life and livability, and their relative difference, we can know neither what violence destroys nor why we should care.

A victim of optimism

We can spend all day diagnosing the root of the problems we see on social media. But one of the causes is how optimistic the companies building these platforms were about the value of “connection“ or “connectedness“. That is, they assume that the more connected the world is, the better.

The problem: they haven’t reckoned with the fact that a core part of connection is the possibility of negativity. Yes, we’re all dependent on one another but that dependency is defined by the potential for hostility:

That relationality is, of course, defined in part by negativity, that is, by conflict, anger, and aggression. The destructive potential of human relations does not deny all relationality, and relational perspectives cannot evade the persistence of this potential or actual destruction of social ties. As a result, relationality is not by itself a good thing, a sign of connectedness, an ethical norm to be posited over and against destruction: rather, relationality is a vexed and ambivalent field in which the question of ethical obligation has to be worked out in light of a persistent and constitutive destructive potential.

That potential is never going away. The challenge is to build a system where it’s acknowledged, understood, and channeled:

Indeed, when the world presents as a force field of violence, the task of nonviolence is to find ways of living and acting in that world such that violence is checked or ameliorated, or its direction turned, precisely at moments when it seems to saturate that world and offer no way out.

Let’s add another layer of complexity. We’re all dependent on each other. As such, we’re dependent on the structures that bring us together. A structure that doesn’t acknowledge how it facilitates violence on a basic level, or even react well to the violence it facilitates, will make us feel uneasy.

We’ll feel vulnerable.

We are never simply vulnerable, but always vulnerable to a situation, a person, a social structure, something upon which we rely and in relation to which we are exposed. Perhaps we can say that we are vulnerable to those environmental and social structures that make our lives possible, and that when they falter, so do we. To be dependent implies vulnerability: one is vulnerable to the social structure upon which one depends, so if the structure fails, one is exposed to a precarious condition.

This precariousness can lead to a whole lot of violence, especially in a time and space where people are being systematically dehumanised and thus okay to attack. Leaders have, time and time again, harnessed a sense of vulnerability to direct a population against supposed enemies.

People feel exposed. Leaders direct that feeling against different groups of people to gain power. Violence and abuse follow.

Social platforms were built with the assumption that more connection is a good thing. They didn’t reckon with the realities of connection and, as such, they didn’t built systems robust enough to manage connections. That weakness left people feeling exposed, which itself can encourage yet more violence.

To top it off, their moderation approaches explicitly and implicitly tell us who they value more and who’s worth protecting from violence. And it’s rarely those on the receiving end.

Time for a rebuild

I don’t have a solution here. Not a concrete one, anyway. Social platforms need to be rebuilt if they want to do away with, or even minimise, abuse and violence. They’re incapable of dealing with it as is. (You could say the same about society as a whole, if you want.)

The fix depends on what we want: do we want social media platforms that are the same as they are now but more welcoming to vulnerable groups, more open to discussion, and less dehumanising? Or do we want platforms that radically re-imagine what a world without abuse or violence could be?

If we want the latter, it’s not enough to say “Just ban the abusers“ (assuming that we accept that forcibly removing someone from a platform if a form of violence3). Bans make sense in our current social platforms but no amount of violence, no matter how morally just you can make it seem, can create a world without violence:

When any of us commit acts of violence, we are, in and through those acts, building a more violent world… Quite apart from assiduous efforts to restrict the use of violence as means rather than an end, the actualisation of violence as a means can inadvertently become its own end, producting new violence, producing violence anew, reiterating the license, and licensing further violence.

No amount of driving people off of a social media platform for “just“ reasons will stop people from driving people away from those platforms through abuse. The former just validates the latter as the ultimate way of controlling the platform.4

Social platforms aren’t special. They’re a reflection of our own societies and a reflection of their own assumptions and tools. If they want to build spaces without abuse and violence, they can’t use abuse or violence to get there. They need a commitment to equality.

Most forms of violence are committed to inequality, whether or not that commitment is explicitly thematised.

It’s hard to imagine what that would look like. There’s so much violence in the world that it’s hard to see we’d get to a world without violence without using violence to get there. That’s the trick, really. That’s what keeps us stuck.

How do you stop abuse on social, the goal of which is removing people from the platform, without forcibly removing the abusers? Maybe my wanting to find an answer to that question is my own misguided optimism.

Social companies built swimming pools. They invited people over and told them to make their own water. Somehow, against all logic, they did. They were optimistic. But then people started pissing in the pool and social companies didn’t do anything about it.

It’s hard to get piss out of water once it’s in there. Maybe it’s time to just build a new pool.


  1. Credit to my lovely partner for the pool analogy. 

  2. Not least of all because they’re tech companies — not moral philosophy or moral ethics companies. 

  3. There’s a difference between driving someone off, say, Twitter through abuse and banning someone for breaking rules. But the the latter is the equivalent of state-sanctioned violence. 

  4. A counterpoint: there are some amazing and lovely online communities that have been forged through moderators with hair-trigger bans. They generally, in my experience, pop up in the comment sections of websites with a niche, or at least narrow, focus. Draconian moderation policies can lead to vibrant and robust communities. The question becomes one of scale: it doesn’t. And it mightn’t work when you add layer upon layer of wildly divergent view points. It does open up a secondary question, though: are super-massive social media platforms practical? Or even desirable? Probably not, no. 

»


Things that have set off Siri (Part 2)

Siri just wants to help. That’s all. Siri can offer a hand with a few things, sure, but their eagerness outstrips their usefulness.

It’s easy enough to invoke Apple’s AI assistant: just say “Hey Siri” and up they pop, ready to set a timer or answer a question or whatever. But Siri often jumps the gun. Ever a keen bean, they often interject for seemingly no reason at all.

I’ve already documented a few cases. Here’s part two of “Things that have set off Siri”.

  • “Where’s the cat?”
  • The vacuum, again. (I guess it kind of makes an Sssss sound?)
  • “What was that?”
  • “It’s such a good tweet.” (Thankfully this rarely comes up.)
  • “Don’t be silly, it’s a skillet.”
  • “Siri’s bad enough as it is.” (This one hurt.)
  • The kitchen tap running.
  • “Could you throw me the tissue box please?”
  • “I’m so mad.” (Siri popping in with “I’m listening” really didn’t help.)
  • “So I said to mum…”
  • “This all sounds mighty suspicious to me.” (Siri: officially sus.)
»


Ad tech, content, and the next internet bubble

Gilad Edelman, reviewing Subprime attention crisis by Tim Hwang, for Wired:

Similar conditions were in place when mortgage-backed securities flooded the market in the early 2000s. These financial instruments traded at prices far above their true value, because the average trader had no idea they were backed by toxic assets. Once the truth came out, the bubble burst.

Hwang thinks online ads are heading in the same direction, since no one really grasps their worthlessness. There are piles of research papers in support of this idea, showing that companies’ returns on investment in digital marketing are generally anemic and often negative. One recent study found that ad tech middlemen take as much as a 50 percent cut of all online ad spending. Brands pay that premium for the promise of automated microtargeting, but a study by Nico Neumann, Catherine E. Tucker, and Timothy Whitfield found that the accuracy of that targeting is often extremely poor. In one experiment, they used six different advertising platforms in an effort to reach Australian men between the ages of 25 and 44. Their targeting performed slightly worse than random guessing. Such research indicates that, despite the extent of surveillance tech, a lot of the data that fuels ad targeting is garbage.

See also: Brad Esposito on the content collapse.

We believe that a piece of content with a million views has a million views. Everyone has bought in to the narrative, so as long as things stay that way nothing can go wrong. But anyone who works within the media will tell you, or will know deep down, that it’s not all blue skies. We’ve all seen things go viral and wonder why.

Sure, there is an insider audience within the media sphere that understands all of this. That knows the difference between a three second view and a three minute view. That knows the difference between local shares and international shares when you go to market. That knows how to sell what they’ve been told has value. Who can blame us? But the general population, so regularly forgotten by the mediaclass instructed to inform them, see this content and its success as a positive. As a fact. As a reality. Our jobs depend on it. It’s the way the water’s flowing – why would you swim upstream?

A whole lot of money is tied up in things that, at the end of the day, don’t hold much value. I wonder what will happen people start to reckon with that.

»


NYT: The Tangled Web We Weave review

Margaret O’Mara, reviewing The tangled web we weave by James Ball, for The New York Times:

The internet’s greatest strengths — its nonhierarchical architecture, its scalability — allowed it to quickly expand after American regulators opened the network up to commercial activity in the early 1990s. Yet the pace of expansion overwhelmed the organizations tasked with its maintenance and oversight, such as ICANN, the registry of domain names, and revealed the difficulties inherent in having a global network born in and governed by America.

Although Ball does not go into great detail about the broader political dynamics, his tale demonstrates how very much this timing and context mattered. Emerging as a commercial platform at a moment when Reaganite conservatism gave way to Clintonian centrism, the internet became a system where deep-pocketed industries prevailed over a public sector withered by four decades of austerity politics and an increasingly laissez-faire approach to corporate regulation.

The result was something that one Silicon Valley investor once termed “the largest single legal creation of wealth we’ve witnessed on the planet.”

Another book for my once-again-burgeoning reading list.1


  1. It was almost at a humane size, my reading list. Not because I got through it. I just looked at a few bookshelves and, you know, gave up. 

»


“You big ugly. You too empty.”

Ania Walwicz:

You big ugly. You too empty. You desert with your nothing nothing nothing. You scorched suntanned. Old too quickly. Acres of suburbs watching the telly. You bore me. Freckle silly children. You nothing much. With your big sea. Beach beach beach. I’ve seen enough already. You dumb dirty city with bar stools. You’re ugly. You silly shopping town. You copy. You too far everywhere. You laugh at me. When I came this woman gave me a box of biscuits. You try to be friendly but you’re not very friendly. You never ask me to your house. You insult me. You don’t know how to be with me. Road road tree tree. I came from crowded and many. I came from rich. You have nothing to offer. You’re poor and spread thin. You big. So what. I’m small. It’s what’s in. You silent on Sunday. Nobody on your streets. You dead at night. You go to sleep too early. You don’t excite me. You scare me with your hopeless. Asleep when you walk. Too hot to think. You big awful. You don’t match me. You burnt out. You too big sky. You make me a dot in the nowhere. You laugh with your big healthy. You want everyone to be the same. You’re dumb. You do like anybody else. You engaged Doreen. You big cow. You average average. Cold day at school playing around at lunchtime. Running around for nothing. You never accept me. For your own. You always ask me where I’m from. You always ask me. You tell me I look strange. Different. You don’t adopt me. You laugh at the way I speak. You think you’re better than me. You don’t like me. You don’t have any interest in another country. Idiot centre of your own self. You think the rest of the world walks around without shoes or electric light. You don’t go anywhere. You stay at home. You like one another. You go crazy on Saturday night. You get drunk. You don’t like me and you don’t like women. You put your arm around men in bars. You’re rough. I can’t speak to you. You burly burly. You’re just silly to me. You big man. Poor with all your money. You ugly furniture. You ugly house. You relaxed in your summer stupor. All year. Never fully awake. Dull at school. Wait for other people to tell you what to do. Follow the leader. Can’t imagine. Workhorse. Thick legs. You go to work in the morning. You shiver on a tram.

Ania was my poetry teacher in 2012 and 2013. No one had more energy and passion for the written word and all its creative potential. She mightn’t explain things like iambic pentameter in the course of a class but she’d convince you that you can make great things. Every student, and every piece of work they shared, was valid and worthy. She loved poetry and, if you spent some time with her, you would too.

I wasn’t one of Ania’s students for that long but she’s left an enduring impression on me as a writer. Every now and then, I question my approach to writing (and to poetry in particular) and I remember some of the comments she made about my work. I feel undefeatable.

Vale Ania Walwicz, 1951—2020.

»


r/IdiotsFightingThings is proof we’re failing young men

There’s something hypnotic about watching a room full of about 20 young, white, drunk, shirtless men try to fight a couch. It invites so many questions.

  • Why are they fighting the couch?
  • Was it planned or spontaneous?
  • Why does the couch seem to be winning?
  • Why are so many of them shirtless? Did one person decide to take of their shirt and the others follow suit? Did a few of of them, simultaneously yet independently, just lose their shirts?
  • Why does every group of drunk young guys seem to have one of those floppy wicker hats?
  • Who owns this house?
  • There are a lot of other broken chairs on the floor — is the couch fight the last step in a multi-stage war against seating?
  • What are they going to sit on after breaking the couch? Is one person at this party constantly trying to get them to stop just because they’re asking themselves this same question?1

All valid questions, none of which has an answer. But there’s a bigger one to ask: what are we doing, as a society, that leads young men to do this kind of thing?

Yo, let’s headbutt some stuff

r/IdiotsFightingThings is the embodiment of “boys will be boys” energy. You don’t necessarily see that sentiment in the comments — it’s more a “lol really? they did this?” kind of place — but a lot of the things shared to the subreddit are the logical end point of everyone who ever hand-waved away a young boy’s destructive behaviour with “boys will be boys”.

There’s the young guy who walked passed a tree and then turned around to kick it. The guy who, after spilling a drink on someone else’s phone, decided to wail on the phone with this glass. The guy who casually breaks a TV because this team is losing. The guy who repeatedly tried to break a car windshield with his head. The guy who headbutted a bus stop. The guy who tried to headbutt an exit sign in a hotel corridor.

There’s a lot of headbutting in general. It’s a real niche in r/IdiotsFightingThings.

Now, sure, there are a lot of other kinds of idiocy going on in the sub. Some of the submissions are dumb stunts going awry. There are young kids being profoundly uncoordinated. The occasional animal being goofy. But there’s a real through line of young men being casually destructive or violent, usually with someone else’s property, either for a laugh or in response to something not going their way.

Kick it real good

You don’t do any of these things unless you think it’s either a good thing or an okay thing to do. Even if it’s spontaneous and you do it “without thinking”, it only happens because you’ve internalised the idea that you’re allowed to act on the world in this way. It’s also worth questioning how spontaneous or uncontrolled these sorts of things actually are: if this kind of violence is only ever directed at objects men can safely attack, chances are it’s not all that thoughtless.

Let’s be real: these guys aren’t outliers. Chances are, you’ve known at least a few of them throughout your life. And they don’t just happen. These men are raised a certain way. They’ve learned a certain set of lessons, either explicitly or implicitly, that told them that aggression, violence, and destruction are okay for them.

I mean, I’ve been one of these guys before, albeit on a wildly smaller scale. I’ve done some petty vandalism. I’ve once thought about getting into a fight, but didn’t follow through. I’ve hit a robotic toy dog with an acoustic guitar (with the owner’s consent).

Every instance of my behaviour here came from a time that, really, I wasn’t happy with myself. I didn’t believe that violence was ever justified but, in my lowest moments, my behaviour didn’t reflect that. There was a wellspring of aggression inside me. It was usually directed at myself and abstract ideas of “the world” but, in unguarded moments, it came out and was directed at very particular things (and always “for a laugh”).

Thankfully that didn’t become a defining part of my personality. But that didn’t happen by accident. I had (and have) a fantastic group of people around me who have helped me understand the parts of myself I dislike and to reject the worst parts of masculinity.

Unfortunately, a lot of young men don’t have that in their lives. You only need to spend a little while on r/IdiotsFightingThings to see that.


  1. I’d never be at this party but, if I was at this party, this would be me. 

»


1 + 2 = wisdom: Life lessons learned while playing Threes

Threes is one of the best games ever made. It’s a puzzle game wherein you match ones and twos to make threes, threes to make sixes, sixes to make twelves, and so on until you run out of space on the board. It exemplifies “simple to start, hard to master”.

I’ve played Threes on and off for about six years now. It’s enthralling. It gets me in the zone like nothing else. This can be a bad thing: I’ve missed countless train, tram, and bus stops because I was playing Threes. I’ve even walked passed streets I was meant to turn down because I was lost in a game.

It’s perfect. And perfection has a lot to teach us. Threes has things to say about a life well lived (and not just “pay attention to where you’re going”, which I refuse to learn).

Threes is filled with life lessons. Here are a few of them.

  • It takes less time to think through a good plan than to fix problems caused by a bad plan (or no plan at all)
  • That said, you can fix a lot of mistakes if you make it your focus and think a few moves ahead
  • All big things happen because of countless small things
  • There’s pleasure to be found in tiny details, even if you’ve seen them countless times before
  • With enough experience, you’ll be able to pick when things fell apart (but that doesn’t mean you’ll always be able to see it coming in the future)
  • Starting with a boost does help, but it’s less satisfying long term
  • Luck is as much about putting yourself in position to capitalise on opportunity as it is random chance
  • Knowing when to cash out can be as important as building for the future
  • If you take risks early on, you’ll have more time and space to fix things if the risk doesn’t pan out
  • You can do everything right for a long time but, sometimes, life will just ruin you
  • You can get addicted to anything
»


The conspiracy theory classification model

Abbie Richards has developed The Conspiracy Chart, grouping conspiracies from “grounded in reality” to, once you cross the final “antisemitic point of no return”, “detached from reality”. This will make categorising my family a lot easier come Christmas time.1


  1. Most of them will sit somewhere between “We have questions” and “Dangerous to yourself and others”. 

»


Home

Jesper (via Michael Tsai):

The Mac gets a lot of flack from people who are nose deep in technical specifications and price matchups. What they don’t see — or aren’t interested in — is the intangible: the culture that people with big dreams and small means have made the unconventional available, the complex seemingly simple and the advanced accessible.

[…]

The culture and the people and the shared values and what it all comes together to produce. That’s why I’m still here. You can live in many houses, but not all of them will ever feel like home. I’m upset with the landlord and the building manager who ignores leaking pipes and oiled floors catching on fire while upping the rent and turning a blind eye to hustlers running Three-card Monte, but aside from that, I love the neighborhood, I love the surroundings, I love that they value the things I do and I love what it can build over time.

Jesper contrasts this with Windows:

Windows is seemingly more stable in this aspect, but while I am able to live in that house, I am not able to make it my home, and it’s not for a lack of trying. Microsoft’s repeated wallpaper-stripping and ever-changing priorities make it feel like an enormous mansion under constant renovation, with uneven floors, studs poking through the walls and fundamental features left broken or half-finished since the last time they cared.

I feel this. My MacBook Pro is on the outs. If it can be repaired, I’ll need to spend a lot of time deciding if it’s worth doing so. I have a capable PC for video games; it, combined with an iPad, handles everything I need a computer to do. I write and edit the occasional photo or video. If I squint hard enough while using iA Writer on Windows I can almost, but not quite, pretend I’m on a Mac.

Outside of a nagging urge to make an iOS app, I have no reason to fix my MacBook Pro. And this hypothetical take on Instagram I might never make isn’t quite a compelling reason to have another computer kicking around.

But here’s the thing: Windows isn’t home. It isn’t as comfortable as macOS or even iPadOS. The software isn’t as nice. I can’t find an RSS app I like. I’m sure there are great Windows developers somewhere but I don’t know where they’re hiding. Windows itself finds a new way to infuriate me every other week (but I’ve made that more manageable by stripping it to the bone). Text just plain looks wrong some times.

I try to be pragmatic. I don’t need a Mac. An iPad Air and a keyboard would do me well. But I want one. I want to go home.

»


Coinbase is off base: the joys of politics at work

Ah, politics and business. Delicious.

A tech CEO wants to keep politics out of his workplace. That always goes over well.

Coinbase wants to build an “open financial system” that would let anyone access cryptocurrencies, bringing “economic freedom” to the world in the process. Brian Armstrong, co-founder and CEO of Coinbase, wants to keep politics out of the workplace so everyone can stay focused on the task at hand without potential division. He described his rationale in a memo on the company’s blog, supposedly in response to an employee walkout over the company’s decision to not issue a statement after the murder of George Floyd.

The memo itself is unconvincing for a few reasons:

  1. It’s not as profound as it pretends to be.
  2. It has a useless graphic masquerading as a map of global economic freedom, but it doesn’t have a key so it’s just an oddly coloured map.
  3. Armstrong never defines economic freedom despite it being his company’s mission.
  4. It seems to rest on the assumption that all his staff lack the emotional maturity to disagree with a colleague’s world view but continue to work with them amicably.

But, worst of all, it wraps up what is, really, a dully pragmatic allocation of resources – “Coinbase isn’t going to advocate, externally, for any issues outside our remit” – into a political statement. All while trying to gloss over the obvious: the work they’re doing has actual political ramifications.

Bad politics

Can Duruk, writing for The Margins, sums it up well:

Suppose I am entirely wrong, and Coinbase is actually about creating an open financial system for the world. In that case, it’s almost farcical to argue that the company that’s now sitting at the center of this new system would not be involved in practically every single political decision in the world.

It goes without saying the main political ideology behind most things crypto is libertarianism and this memo barely hides its author’s leanings. While I don’t generally have favorable opinions of libertarianism, I do respect their proponents’ staunch desire to be wrong at every turn about how humans operate in the real world. What I can’t really handle, however, is veiling one’s own political goals of rebuilding the entire world order, regardless of its plausibility or feasibility and then pretending there’s nothing political about it.

The work is innately political. You can’t around that.

It’s disingenuous to say that employees can only talk about the company’s mission when that mission is economic freedom, even if that freedom is to be achieved or helped with “infrastructure for the cryptoeconomy”. You don’t get to hire intelligent, thoughtful people and then say “nah” when their thoughts walk away from your guardrails.

Especially when your company has benefited from people getting extracurricular at work. Here are two of the ways Coinbase is achieving it’s mission:

Source amazing talent: We create job opportunities for top people, including those from underrepresented backgrounds who don’t have equal access to opportunities, with things like diverse slates (Rooney rule) on senior hires, and casting a wide net to find top talent.

Fair talent practices: We work to reduce unconscious bias in interviews, using things like structured interviews, and ensure fair practices in how we pay and promote.

Awareness of things like the importance of diversity at work and the value of unconscious bias have come from people talking about politics at work, even if they’re not working at a recruitment company (where that would be “the mission”).

Never mind that these approaches are reflected in the mission of Black Lives Matter (the inciting incident of all this): BLM is, in part, about structural racism, which is baked into things like unconscious bias. If people within Coinbase were frustrated by the company not wanting to release a statement about the movement, then the problem isn’t politics.

Signaling is a virtue

That said, there’s value to what Armstrong is doing (even if I think he’s done it poorly). Companies can paint themselves into corners if they don’t think through the longterm effects of their choices and that includes political ones. They need to signal intent here as much as possible, if for no other reason than to let employees make an informed decision about how and where they work.

Ben Thompson, in a recent post on Stratechery [$], talks about a years-old decision to not put R. Kelly’s music into playlists is having ramifications for them now that they’re the exclusive publisher of Joe Rogan’s podcast. They set a precedent with Kelly that employees think is being ignored for Rogan.

Thompson:

The Spotify point is precisely why I think Armstrong deserves more credit than his (many) critics on Twitter are giving him. Leaving aside the rightness or wrongness of his policy, every CEO should be thinking through these questions before they come to the forefront, and making clear to employees exactly how the company is going to approach them. Look no further than Ek and Spotify to see how making decisions in the moment, without a long-term view, can result in long-term problems.

But, really, this is a resources problem, not a “politics in the workplace“ problem. By making it about politics, and by turning it into a public statement, Armstrong has both misread the issue and misread the room.

»