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Thought Leaders as Loss Leaders

The breathless, investor-beguiling fable that the next iteration of the Web has to be the smart one has been around long enough now to qualify as a touching millenarian faith, like the quadrennial fiction of a “deep” GOP presidential field, or the diehard belief that the Chicago Cubs will eventually make it all the way through the postseason. It wasn’t so long ago, really, that Web 1.0 prophets proclaimed that “content is king.” Once this bold transformative vision washed out in a sea of red ink and failed startups, their fast-talking Silicon Valley successors descried a new battery of swifter, smarter open-source innovations destined not merely to re-engineer the IT world, but indeed the world at large.

Now the Internet smart set is cooing that the saving vision of the future has to be a gently caressed and “curated” entity. We are, after all, inundated these days with an unceasing torrent of barely digestible information. So the smart thing, you see, is to have a trusted community of experts filter it for you, and customize your online experience to arm you with the conviction that you’re animated with self-improving momentum and an energetically branded sense of purpose as you click through your daily digital-media fare, and not just chasing down salacious celebrity rumors, cloying cat videos, and sensational political lies.

Consider, then, Heleo—another in the countless array of Net-branded junk words (“Kinja,” “Gizmodo,” etc.). This one sounds like a banal interpersonal greeting delivered under the influence of laughing gas. Heleo is the brainchild of Netpreneur Rufus Griscom, who boasts a sterling track record in floating successful media properties during prior Web gold rushes, first with the still-thriving nineties “smart smut” site (now profitably networked with the dating site HowAboutWe, meaning that Nerve’s formerly faux-daring editorial content is now a social-media afterthought, graced with gruesomely tumescent section headings such as “Cum Shot”) and then with the parenting site Babble, which Disney snapped up (after it became a platform for mommy-bloggers) for a cool $40 million in 2011.

Far from an exuberantly free-form cocktail party, it’s more like a never-ending LinkedIn meetup.

If the logic of Griscom’s last two media launches was to take niche operations and pare them down to lucrative service sites, the business model for Heleos appears to be pointed in the opposite direction: serve up a carefully branded array of high-concept loss leaders to the general Web public, gratis—and home in on the TED-like lifestyle content. Then, once he’s whetted his readership’s appetite for Heleo’s life- and career-improving wisdom, he plans to impose a gradual subscription fee. Here’s how that model is translated into PR patter on the Heleo beta site’s “About Us” page:

We’re a lighter, faster, internet-native, more humble version of the media company. Our mission is to elevate . . . thought leaders, to help today’s great thinkers spread their ideas and build online audiences. We are believers — we think that the right book, the right speech, the right new habit, the right cautionary tale or clarion call, the right I-just-can’t-take-it-anymore rant, the right insight on what makes us tick — perhaps even the right tidying tip — at the right moment, can be life-changing. Our goal is to make sure that everyone has access to these transformative ideas in a format they can use, and that the thinkers who create them have the tools and incentives they need to keep inventing fresh ideas. 

On paper, it looks like a can’t-lose proposition: feed eager young professional Netizens a steady diet of content designed to improve their already elevated standing in the world—and then have them pay through the nose for it. The only problem is that there’s precious little on the Heleo beta site that bears any recognizable imprint of thought, let alone “thought leadership”—the site’s hotly touted premium deliverable. Instead, everything chimes in creepy unison to the holy imperative of maximized personal value (or, what amounts to the same thing, brand recognition) in the sprawling marketplace of Internet buzz-phraseology. Looking to woo harried VC executives to go in on a pet project on the fly? Then here’s Daniel Pink—the practiced ad sloganeer with an armload of New York Times bestselling business advice books to his credit—spewing a random assemblage of vacuous “psychological hacks”: RhymeOne wordGet specific—but not too specific. (Would this latter mandate be best executed in one word or two?)

Might you be momentarily unsure that digital technology is the answer to absolutely everything? Then imbibe the wisdom of Jane McGonigal—oafish Silicon Valley evangelist of the “gamified” life (er, excuse me, “game changer” and “PhD of performance studies”)—whose new language-mangling bestseller SuperBetter, parsed by Heleo’s content drones, explains “how FarmVille saved one couple’s marriage.” Want to know how Steven Johnson, formerly “the sexiest man on the Internet” and now the Web 2.0 knockoff of Walter Isaacson, keeps track of the many excellent ideas pulsating through his brainpan? Let him deliver a pompous yet content-free Web tutorial to show you! (Full disclosure: I was a regular contributor to Johnson’s first Web launch,, before it ingloriously crashed and burned after the first great Nasdaq crash. It’s fair to say that he and I drew radically divergent lessons from the experience.)

Heleo’s mission statement declares “it’s high time that content is organized around the brands of the people who created it. . . . We want to meet great ideas the way you meet people at a cocktail party.” Leaving aside the glib equation of brand identity with intellectual liberation, the net effect of any sustained encounter with Heleo’s battery of content is the opposite of an exhilarating social adventure or an innovative exchange of ideas. It is, rather, a monochrome study in flat corporate groupthink—a chilling immersion in a worldview mandating that every last iota of intellectual effort must be harnessed to some witless agenda of market-share dominance or the fever dream of a lifesaving IPO. Far from an exuberantly free-form cocktail party, it’s more like a congeries of last-call hangers-on at a PR junket at Davos or Sun Valley—or worse yet, a never-ending LinkedIn meetup.

Staking your business model on Christensen’s work is akin to bringing in Donald Trump to head up your fact-checking department.

Even though Griscom and Co. fancy themselves a “more humble version of the media company,” they go out of the way, on their About Us page, to feature a photo of a shelf of books that one can only assume is meant to double as an advertisement of the company founder’s thought-leader daring—and by extension, an enticing hint of the intellectual adventure you’re about to share in. Instead, it functions like a desperate cry for help from someone who’s uncritically imbibed the idiot bromides of the Silicon Cult for so long that they’ve somehow mistaken them for actual, non-obsolescing life wisdom. There’s Tom Rath’s Are You Fully Charged: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life (which is, in the trademark epistemic closure of today’s corporate elite, fulsomely blurbed by three Heleo-branded thought leaders, Gretchen Rubin, Adam Grant, and Daniel Pink). There’s Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo, author (of course) of The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. In a nod to the past, there’s The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the ur-text of the Protestant ethic and the book that launched our republic on its monotonous romance with the gospel of self-reinvention. (There’s also, I must glumly report, an edition of Baffler emeritus columnist Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic. Sorry, Tom.)

And most curiously of all, right in the center of the shot, we see not one but two editions of Clayton Christensen’s nineties-era bible of market disruption, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Presumably the aim of the Griscom team here is to demonstrate to the casual drive-by reader that they’ve gone all in on Christensen’s vision of the capitalist marketplace as the great nurturer of creativity, gumption, and innovation. Maybe they’d worn out their first version of the title and were forced to buy a replacement, like their treasured iPad chargers or their vinyl editions of OK Computer.

Placing Christensen at the forefront of Heleo’s brand-cum-intellectual-revolution is unfortunate in another way, however. The thesis of the book—that new technologies embody a salubrious brand of “disruptive innovation” that magically democratizes the reach of consumer sovereignty in this, the best of all possible markets—has been roundly discredited.

In any sanely configured marketplace of ideas, staking your business model on Christensen’s work would be akin to bringing in Donald Trump to head up your fact-checking department. But intellectual accountability has zero to do with brand integrity, in the great gold rush of mini-Malcolm Gladwells thronging the athenaeums of Cupertino and Sunnyvale. As I digested the drivel gushing forth from the Heleo portal, I also got a promotional email notice from the Washington Post, a paper that employed me once upon a time, beseeching me to take part in its inGENuitY Summit. (No, that’s no typo; the summit is celebrating the tireless inventive spirit of GEN Y—get it?) The cast of featured panelists is a nightmare mashup of on-the-make DC insiders, like shady Obama Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and Heather Podesta, the power lobbyist veteran of the dictator-osculating lobbying concern the Podesta Group, alongside CEOs of such plaything-titled startups as theSkimm, Venture Hive, and Bumble. One supposes that this, too, is a brand of innovative disruption, making the terminally corrupt lords of DC’s permanent government seem notionally hip, and the new millennial apostles of market disruption seem notionally influential. And giddily presiding over the whole sad branding spectacle is my local newspaper—itself a plaything, these days, of digital commerce lord Jeff Bezos. All hail the new age of unfettered thought leadership! Now, will someone please show me to the bar already?