Silicon Valley’s Blind Spot
A few months ago, well into that giddy and protracted labor market phenomenon that’s become known as the “Great Resignation,” I started seeing posts by a company called Blind on my Instagram Explore page. Most of them were simply text on a plain background, bearing quotes from nameless employees of major tech companies and financial institutions. The content of these testimonials originated on Blind, a forum and anonymous networking site. It all suggested a kind of white-collar unrest: an insight into how the Great Resignation, which has been driven mostly by the retail and service industry sector, was playing out among the professional class.
“Amazon is [a] shitty workplace” reads one post on Blind. A prompt asking “What’s the best exit email you’ve seen?” yields stories of unruly mass emails sent on the way out the door. “My Company pushed me to the brink, and I almost died,” reads another post, signed only with the name of the author’s employer (Blind users are required to sign up using their corporate email accounts). Threads titled “Interview Horror Story,” or “Google and the mistreatment [of] contractors,” cater pointedly to tech industry veterans while riding the coattails of Reddit’s r/antiwork—a vibrant online community that mainly features stories of precarious, low-paid employment. Blind users can discuss on a closed board with employees of their own company or post on the forum’s public section, where workers share candid details about compensation, work from home policies, parental leave, and discriminatory HR actions at major firms. While Blind is rarely sentimental, there’s a kind of solidarity there, built on company gossip and rage against Silicon Valley’s corporate bloat.
But alongside these commiserations are discussions that hew closer to self-help books or advice from a junior manager: the inside track on how to win a salary raise or a promotion. These posts are more explicitly tied to Silicon Valley myth-making: FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) career strategy, endless tips for negotiating better offers, the rousing story of an Amazon delivery driver who retrained as a software engineer and now makes six-figures at the company. Salary, bonuses, and stock options are a constant preoccupation on Blind, regardless of the industry.
This shows up in even more innocuous posts which have nothing to do with work at all. An anonymous user employed by the technology company NVIDIA asked, in a post titled “Cat vs Dog,” “What would you rather have as a pet[?],” including not just a poll on preferred household companion but also the poster’s total compensation (TC) and years of experience (YOE)—$180,000 and six months, respectively—as has become customary on Blind forum posts. See also “Best actor on Friends,” a post by a user with $300,000 in total compensation and seven years of experience; “Post a poem as a comment,” by a Microsoft employee making $160,000 who also happens to be a fan of Langston Hughes; and “I miss the twenty-one-year-old carefree and curious me,” by someone who, after some prompting, revealed their TC to be $230,000–$250,000 a year.
Blind grapples with a strange set of contradictions—a tension that seems increasingly relevant to the fate of the Great Resignation, especially as consensus grows that workers aren’t dropping out of the labor market but instead switching jobs. Blind is built on employee turmoil and the kind of discussions that are too risky to have openly in most workplaces. And yet its business model, at least in the United States, relies on packaging that dissent in such a way that companies and large financial institutions can pursue strategies of appeasement. Forum posts by employees on Blind have fueled corporate scandals and become a touchpoint for coverage of tech worker issues on sites like Forbes and Business Insider. Having found success in airing grievances, Blind has in recent months turned its attention to HR departments and corporate recruiters who are eager to make the most of these complaints.
However much it may be associated with Silicon Valley now, Blind is not, it should be said, a product of American tech. The company got its start in South Korea, inspired by an internal anonymous forum that was provided for employees of Naver, a large Korean-language search engine site where one of Blind’s founders was an employee. “Korea’s known for having like these very vibrant forum cultures,” says Kyum Kim, another of Blind’s cofounders. In Korea, it’s common to have anonymous, close-knit forums serving high schools, colleges, and companies, he told me over a Zoom call last month.
In Naver’s case, Kim says the company forum acted as a foil to challenging internal politics that emerged as the company grew larger. The newly competitive atmosphere meant that employees at the once nimble tech company were reluctant to support coworkers who were outside their immediate team. But on the company forum, things were different. “They were actually helping each other out, they were actually giving each other information. And there, they were being honest about criticizing, [about giving] constructive criticism.”
Eventually, the upper echelons of the company took issue with the sensitive topics being debated on the forum and decided to shut it down. Blind, explains Kim, was formulated as an outside solution to company backlash.
It quickly spread across Korea’s white-collar industries: not just tech and finance, but media companies and police departments. It began to break major corporate scandals. The most potent of these for the company’s success was the 2014 “Nut Rage” incident, a heavily publicized freak-out involving the daughter of a Korean Air executive. Blind had made it big, exerting its influence on the country’s largest airline. Today, the app has an astonishing uptake among professionals in South Korea: approximately 40 percent of the country’s white-collar workforce, according to the Blind’s own calculations.
Following the forum’s nut-induced success, Blind made its move on the U.S. tech industry. Kim spent a portion of his adolescence in the States, making him the natural leader of Blind’s shock troops, who began waging a bold form of frat-boy guerrilla warfare in downtown Seattle. “We rented out an apartment right next to the Amazon office,” Kim recalls. “We threw parties every week and invited Amazon employees over, and we talked about Blind in those parties, and asked them to post content.”
Their targeted IRL strategy paid off. In 2015, the New York Times published a ground-breaking article about poor working conditions at Amazon offices, which detailed a cutthroat management style and included reports of employees crying at their desks. Amazon’s press team went into overdrive downplaying the investigation, and Amazon employees reacted defensively as well. “On Medium, LinkedIn, Facebook, people were posting: ‘I work for Amazon. It’s a great workplace, the article’s exaggerated,’” Kim says. But Amazon employees on Blind were more willing to admit there were issues at the company. A poll was taken about the workplace crying, and threads about Amazon’s workplace practices exploded on the forum. “That’s when people started to realize this is something different. This is a place where I can actually talk about things that I can’t talk about publicly with my identity attached.”
Amazon’s labyrinthine corporate structure and tendency to overwork both warehouse workers and software engineers continue to be some of the most discussed topics on Blind. And few issues have become as pressing in the forum as Amazon’s “performance improvement plan” (PIP), a particularly punitive and opaque workplace evaluation aimed at increasing productivity among staff. Managers are often unclear about when an employee has been put on PIP, and this probationary period has been seen as a way of culling workers. Roughly 10 percent of Amazon employees are put on PIP, according to some estimates. On Blind, current and former employees commiserate about the misery of being “PIP’d,” discussing how to tell if your manager has recommended you for PIP, methods of navigating Amazon’s HR system, and stories of employees who evaded termination when it seemed inevitable. Across Blind, Amazon’s PIP strategy is generally seen as over-aggressive and unwarranted.
As Blind expanded further into the United States, it continued to thrive off of corporate scandals and often helped propel them. An anonymous Lyft employee posting on Blind was the first to reveal that the ride-sharing app had been breaching users’ data privacy and allowing engineers to snoop on riders’ info and journey history. Tesla briefly blocked employees from receiving verification emails from Blind, preventing workers from signing up in an apparent attempt to crack down on internal leaks. After the failed WeWork initial public offering, employees of the company joined Blind en masse to discuss the fallout.
Moving in lock step with both these crises and the steady flow of venture capital, employees on Blind developed new tactics for facing the corporate world. They honed their bargaining tactics and learned how to exert maximal leverage over employers. Compensation jumped ever-upward as users weathered new job offers and discussed the best time to jump ship. Blind became host to an almost obsessive fixation on LeetCode. A coding website with problem sets that often serve as the basis of whiteboard interview questions for high-paying developer roles, it is seen as a simple and effective way to master—and potentially game—the interview process. In growing numbers, workers admitted to ghosting their employers. And the forum developed a gift system for referrals to new jobs—an exchange that can net an easy hiring bonus.
A 2018 investment in the company by SoftBank helped Blind further entrench itself in the U.S. tech scene. Ironically, the investment came roughly a year after Blind’s most lasting hit on the tech world, centered on one of SoftBank’s most well-known investments: Uber. After employee Susan Fowler published allegations of sexism and harassment at the company, the average amount of time spent by Uber employees on Blind jumped to almost three hours a day. News of mass resignations at the ride-sharing app were circulated on the forum, which garnered quick press attention. In response to the anonymous discussions, Uber blocked employees from accessing Blind in their offices.
Blind has become an index of unrest and bad behavior in the tech industry, and tech executives have found its revelations difficult to ignore—especially as the company’s release of polling and analytics from the forum have become fodder for the business press, a canny media strategy. Forbes has published pieces like “How Businesses Are Using Anonymous Blind App To Change Work Culture,” while Mashable celebrated the forum with an article titled “Blind: The hot app where all the best Silicon Valley gossip is read right now.”
The posts on Blind may still invoke discomfort among some tech executives, but Kim says there has been a gradual shift in how the forum is received. Nearly five years after blocking employee access to the forum, the current Uber executive team talks openly about what appears on Blind, he explains. Today, 25 percent of Uber’s desk workers are enrolled on the forum, according to Blind. Kim is optimistic about the pickup from the top brass: employees air their grievances, and it seems like companies are responding in earnest, Uber in particular. “I think right now they have a very healthy relationship with Blind,” Kim tells me when I ask about the incident.
In some ways, this points to Blind’s limitations as a means of raising tech workers’ consciousness. Theoretically, the company has the potential to bring about deep transformation in tech, particularly within the large companies that set the tone for the industry more broadly. The sheer volume of workers on the platform is eye-popping: there are nearly thirty thousand Amazon employees and almost twenty thousand Microsoft employees on Blind, while Google and Facebook each top an approximate ten thousand employees. But Blind sees so much promise in corporate receptiveness to complaints raised on the forum that they’ve developed their U.S. revenue stream around it. In Korea, the bulk of Blind’s revenue comes from advertising, notes Kim. “In the United States, however, we want to be more focused on the B2B [business-to-business] side of things.” In October 2021, the app introduced a “company insights” service geared toward employers and HR departments. “We want companies to understand what their employees are thinking,” says Kim. “They couldn’t listen into water cooler conversations or lunch conversations, but now they can, through Blind.” Conceived as a subscription product for companies with a big user base on Blind, the new service offers sentiment analysis as well as employee turnover trends to help executives stay on top of what’s being posted on the forum.
At the same time, Blind has developed another revenue stream: recruiting those disillusioned forum-goers. Since moving to the United States, the company has begun working as a recruitment agency, connecting jobseekers with new openings. This allows Blind to cater both to worried executives and employees so disgruntled they can’t be reconciled to their current jobs: while the company insights subscription helps companies manage the possibility of resignations, the recruitment tools help employees move on and other companies scoop them up. Although he’s cagey about which companies are currently using the service, Kim says that Blind has been working with a few dozen of them to date.
The frustration and camaraderie that made Blind a favorite for tech industry gossip haven’t dissipated. But in a true testament to the disruptive business models that sustain Blind, these feelings have been subsumed by the tech industry itself.
Blind’s success hasn’t come without its share of growing pains. A 2018 security gaffe exposed user data that was purportedly kept secure and anonymous. Threats to Blind’s anonymity could send it in the direction of platforms like Glassdoor, the employer review site that has long had trouble with employer snooping. In India, a company sued a former employee who left a negative review on Glassdoor, while a San Francisco judge ruled in 2018 that a company could fire a transgender employee who had accused their employer of discrimination on Glassdoor. Glassdoor itself is currently battling two different lawsuits that would prompt the company to reveal the identities of users. Blind could meet a similar fate.
And while executives might be using Blind now, they’re not always gracious about it. The forum recently made headlines after the Better.com CEO Vishal Garg, coming off a round of particularly brutal pre-Christmas layoffs, took to Blind to counter the company’s bad press, publicly berating employees he had just let go. “At least 250 of the people terminated were working an average of 2 hours a day while clocking 8 hours+ a day in the payroll system,” Garg wrote in one comment. “We want executives to look at the discussions, we want them to engage,” Kim notes dryly. “But I don’t think the way the Better.com CEO engaged was the best way to do it.”
For all their criticism of the tech industry, Blind’s user base can also be viciously retaliatory against Big Tech whistleblowers. Timnit Gebru, the Google AI ethicist who was fired from the company after co-publishing a report on algorithmic bias, has been openly critical of the site. She says that after being fired from the company, she faced serious harassment on the app from Google employees. Even more recently, Blind posters targeted former Apple employee Cher Scarlett, a labor activist and software developer behind the #AppleToo movement that emerged late last year. While the opinions expressed on Blind aren’t uniform, users seem to prefer for tech industry issues to be kept within the industry itself, and they tend to view whistleblowers like Gebru, Scarlett, and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen as technically incompetent, publicity-hungry, and ultra-woke. There is often an underlying sexism to Blind forum posts attacking high-profile whistleblowers.
Kim puts it down to the tech industry itself: tech is an echo chamber, so Blind is likely to reflect that. He contends that the attacks on whistleblowers aren’t as pervasive on the site as they might seem and that there are a diversity of views about whistleblowing on the forum. While that may be the case, there’s a clear limit to the support that anyone attempting to publicly change the tech industry can garner on Blind.
In Herman Melville’s parable of workplace protest and complacency, Bartleby, a law copyist with an underdetermined, anonymous backstory, shows up at a downtown New York office looking for a job. When he’s hired, he initially works at his craft, but soon starts refusing to do so, at first stating his preference not to revise copies, then not to copy at all, eventually declining to leave the office altogether. Melville grants Bartleby a strange, almost mystical power over the lawyers and clerks of Wall Street, who, in their panic, find ways to work around him. Over time, Bartleby comes to inhabit a system of corridors, screens, and banisters, almost melting into the environment. His is an act of refusal without resistance.
This is what the Great Resignation threatens to become, at least among the upper echelon of salaried employees—those who continue to be central to the cultural imaginary of a post-pandemic “Big Quit,” despite labor market statistics that say otherwise. Blind especially can feel like watching Bartleby at work. Posters’ antagonism toward their employers is matched with a constant re-investment in the system that produced it, or at least, like Bartleby, an inability to get out. While the forum’s fixation on salary and upward mobility may seem a long way off from Bartleby’s vegetal disposition, it keeps them at their desks just the same. For a company that’s become a hub for discussions of tech’s darkest secrets, the horizon that Blind sets for itself can appear oddly cloistered. Any aspiration for a substantial shift in the labor market is packaged and commodified, with recruitment companies taking a slice off the top.
Melville’s story is a thought experiment about what would happen if you did exactly what you were told not to do at work. But through all his petulance, the narrator of Melville’s story, Bartleby’s employer, takes a liking to him. In the final pages, this narrator recounts a rumor that Bartleby had previously been employed at a dead letters office, disposing of undelivered mail. He imagines those letters filled with rings and cash, meant for those in need that never met their final recipient: “On errands of life, these letters speed to death.” What better job for Bartleby, and what better way of describing the forum posts on Blind: full of potential, brought into a world where they make no difference at all.