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Reinventing the Wheel

Moguls and the media companies they love—right into the ground

You could grow old waiting for an enlightened billionaire to appear. No one is swooping in to save us, especially not one of the tech elite who have arrogated themselves the responsibility of changing the world. They can be credited for occasionally trying. Last week, the Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff—widely considered one of the more public-spirited members of his elevated class—tweeted: “If every CEO adopts a public school, & every company adopts their local public school district, we would get a boost to our national system.” He was quickly mocked for having invented the concept of taxes. After a couple days of ribbing, he added, “Your corporate taxes doesn’t satisfy your obligation to public schools.”

Consider this a microcosm of Silicon Valley philanthropy. Tech billionaires, by adopting members of the hoi polloi in their downtime, might emerge as beneficent patrons and community sponsors. Meanwhile, their foundations subsidize charter schools, providing the requisite means of tax avoidance. (Mark Zuckerberg, who has volunteered in Palo Alto schools and famously made an immensely ill-advised donation to the Newark school system, is the exemplar here.) That one hand doesn’t seem to know what the other is doing—that Benioff, for instance, seems blind to the fact that his cohort is directly responsible for eroding the Bay Area’s tax base—is all part of a convenient illusion. You can’t “invent” the idea of taxes if you already have some familiarity with them. Ignorance breeds innovation, or at least the perception of it—Benioff’s original public-schools tweet has been liked more than two thousand times.

Ignorance breeds innovation, or at least the perception of it.

This attitude of deliberate myopia, which allows men like Benioff to reinvent the wheel, is common in Silicon Valley. And nowhere is it so evident than in attempts to transform digital media, which has experienced a content explosion while following every deflationary trend set by its sister industries of music and film. The most heralded new media outfits are largely venture-capital-backed, data-driven entities whose secret sauce includes a heaping of uncompensated labor (think of HuffPo’s blogging platform or Vox Media’s SB Nation, which uses armies of volunteers to fill out its subsidiary sports team sites). Others limp along under indifferent ownership or are subjected to repeated pivots and layoffs as they mindlessly chase the wave of viral relevance.

In this latter category, you can place Medium, the pet project of Twitter co-founder Ev Williams. The elegantly designed blogging platform has become a locus of out-of-touch techie diatribes and corporate press releases, but it’s never managed to conjure any greater identity—or a meaningful revenue stream. The site’s magazine-style initiatives, like Matter, a blandly named but skillfully edited longform effort, have foundered shortly after leaving the docks.

Now Williams is remaking Medium a third time—an effort that was recently captured in a meandering Fast Company profile. Under a doe-eyed photo of Williams, Cale Guthrie Weissman sketches a picture of a new Medium that sounds rather like the old model, except this one has some novel attentional metrics to help determine how users are spending their time. These metrics—along with some prophesied subscription revenue and a bizarre like-type gesture known as a “clap”—will help determine how writers are paid. The particulars are murky, but apparently they will remain so. Comparing this engagement model to Google’s secret search algorithm, Williams said, “It’s probably not going to be super transparent.”

Good luck, then, to the various writers and editors reportedly taking meetings and entertaining recruiting pitches from Williams. Few of us dream of working for a mercurial billionaire who doles out rewards according to a cryptic scheme of incentives and proprietary metrics. But that increasingly seems to be the story of twenty-first century digital media. It’s one that gets told in World Without Mind, a recent book of tech criticism by Franklin Foer, the former editor-in-chief of The New Republic. Foer had the luck of helming TNR as its ownership passed from Marty Peretz—whose old-school ownership style gave his writers a decent berth, provided they tolerated his tourettic outbursts of anti-Arab racism—to that of Chris Hughes, a boychik mega-millionaire whose fortune was predicated on having had the luck to room with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard.

Foer is a bit of a nostalgist, but he’s not immune to the charms of the web.

Hughes seems to be trying to repay his benefactors with a total devotion to the technocratic style. While he and Foer bonded over a shared love of culture, TNR under Hughes was a decidedly Valley-style operation, complete with open-floor plans, in-house data gurus, and flatscreens tracking the day’s traffic numbers. Much of this dysfunction has been told before, but it’s made interesting here by way of Foer’s tone, which leans toward wry regret, and a light patina of gossip. We learn that Foer lost a crucial ad buy—and nearly his job—for writing an essay critical of Amazon and that Hughes “recruited Credit Suisse to pay for a new section of our Web site devoted to the future of banking, just as the bank tried to recover from accusations of tax evasion.” Foer’s attitude is unequivocal: “This sort of arrangement is corrupt.”

Foer is a bit of a nostalgist, but he’s not immune to the charms of the web, the compulsive refreshments of Twitter, or the drive for revenue. Still, he bridles at being told to produce “snackable content” or to reshape his writers’ material in concert with what traffic data and trending topics would suggest. “Clicks would rain down upon us if only we could get over ourselves,” Foer writes, but the data told a more depressing story. The magazine had a world-class art critic, for instance, “and the metrics showed only how few readers clicked on his pieces.”

Ultimately, like many rich people before him, Hughes became bored and anxious to make a profit. Anticipating his imminent removal, Foer resigned and was followed, in solidarity, by a mass exodus of staff. (The magazine has since been purchased and revived by Win McCormack, who also supports The Baffler.) With his importation of Silicon Valley executives and his positivist belief in the power of data, Hughes seemed to think he could reinvent a political magazine that had thrived largely by being unprofitable, by having its best qualities immune to mathematical measurement. But it’s not all abstract sensibility: as Foer notes, the culture industry is still capable of generating significant revenue. More than 600 million hardcover books are sold per year in this country. People pay for things they believe in, though the steady hollowing out of the middle class has certainly cut into magazines’ subscriber bases and left many writers shaking the cup for donations on social media. (At one point, Foer is shocked to learn that under his editorship TNR paid the same amount for book reviews—$150—as it did during the Great Depression.)

“Silicon Valley has succeeded in bending journalism to its whims, because journalism is weak,” Foer writes in one of his indictments of viral media. That is why Ev Williams can continue to receive fawning, credulous coverage from the professional press for every staffing turnover at Medium and why editors will invariably answer his calls. People like Williams and Hughes have the money, and they aren’t interested in parking their funds, say, in a magazine-supporting trust, as The Guardian does. They want control, and they want return-on-investment, just as Marc Benioff wants to see his local schools implementing coding classes with the new computers that he’s paid for.

Today’s tech titans confuse business and charity, to the detriment of both. Docked safely in their aeries, they are blind to some rather prosaic verities: that taxes on the rich fund communal services and provide a check on elite power; that some virtues can’t be measured; that efficiency, while useful, is not a moral or aesthetic value. And in the case of Chris Hughes, the blindness comes tinged with a note of tragedy. Pity the man who lucked into $800 million and could do nothing better with it than run a hundred-year-old magazine into the ground.