Don’t get mad at companies because they apologize so quickly. It’s the only way to survive in the Internet.
“All this social media nonsense is destroying our community,” a prominent venture capitalist told me on the phone a couple of weeks ago. It was a throw away comment in a larger conversation, but he was talking about how quickly startups are humbled by dramatic but ultimately superficial press stories that explode out of nowhere. Like a meth-fueled mob of millions tearing through a city and destroying anything that pisses it off.
That mob has incredible destructive power, but it peters out very quickly. If it gets fired up enough it can focus on a single issue like SOPA for a few days. But as soon as it senses defeat, as soon as the target rolls over and shows its unprotected belly, the mob declares victory, gets bored and moves on.*
So is it really so surprising that anyone who finds themselves the target of the mob just immediately rolls over and gives up? And the way to roll over is an unqualified apology, backed up with a short and easily understood explanation of how such a thing will never happen again. Don’t use any big words, and for the love of God don’t try to justify any part of what happened.
One example: Airbnb’s press fiasco last year went away only after an unqualified apology.
So you shouldn’t be surprised that Path went that route as well, issuing an unconditional apology last week for downloading your address book without permission. CEO Dave Morin’s attempts at first to explain what was going on made the mob murderous. Much better to simply say you’re sorry, back it up with the deletion of the offending data, and lay low for a couple days.
Nick Bilton at the NY Times doesn’t seem to get the big picture here. He writes about the Path situation, saying “Mr. Morin seemed unconcerned about how people could be harmed by his company’s carelessness” and “It seems the management philosophy of “ask for forgiveness, not permission” is becoming the “industry best practice.”
That’s not quite right. First, it’s more than a bit of a stretch to suggest that carelessness by Path could lead to “roundups and arrests” or dissidents in Egypt. My educated guess is Path is unlikely to sell, or give, any user data to the Egyptian authorities. Instead, they were using the data to make intelligent friend suggestions, which is significantly less evil.
But more importantly, Bilton seems to think that companies do this kind of thing for some nefarious purpose, thinking they’ll just apologize if they get caught and everything will be fine. That plays to the crowd but it isn’t accurate.
The truth is that startups are always in a hurry and always make mistakes. A good CEO knows that she must remain nimble and prepared to deal with the fallout of those rushed decisions. And the mob has taught those nimble CEOs that a nuanced discussion is not what the mob wants to hear. They want to see that belly.
So the belly is shown.
Bilton seems to think that these CEOs are pulling a fast one on us, getting away with bad behavior. But what he really should lament are the lost conversations that could be had. In the Path situation there was a fascinating conversation about why Apple allows this data to flow out without user consent that never happened. Or why, if address books are so important (dissidents in Egypt!) companies like Facebook are still allowed to use it as their own personal property in any way they wish.
So instead Bilton tries to stir the crowd again. Which is fine because he also noted the very real trend of startups to just apologize, and fast, when the mob looks their way. I’m not sure things will change, though. The mob just can’t stay mad when they see that belly.
Pretty soon all we’ll have is an Internet landscape of people who’ve laid down in submission, when those people should be proudly pushing forward, trying new things, and making us, even the Egyptian dissidents, all better off.
Instead of attacking the apologizers, Nick should use his platform to lament the fact that we’re all being trained to apologize because it’s pointless to have a conversation with a mob.
Just a couple of additional thoughts here. First, sometimes an unconditional apology is the only solution, and I’ve done it at least once. But I don’t apologize just because a mob is after me. That’s easier to do as an individual, harder when you have a startup with employees and investors. Second, I am always fascinated by Facebook, which has had to deal with so much criticism over the years. The one time I think they really did need to apologize to the community they didn’t, and the issue still went away quickly.
Also, the “*” above – the whole rolling over on your belly thing reminds me of a scary day with my dog Laguna. I was taking her for a walk in a neighborhood. Up ahead I saw an unleashed pit bull laying in front of a house. We gave it a wide berth, walking in the middle of the street instead of the sidewalk. The pit bull rushed her anyway, silently, and hit her head on and knocked her over. Laguna, being the docile retriever she is, rolled on her back and submitted completely. But the pit bull didn’t stop, it was tearing into her stomach and Laguna screamed and it sounded like a human screaming. Without thinking I kicked the pit bull in the head as hard as I could, which was pretty hard. It became airborn but landed squarely and looked at me with emotionless eyes. For a moment I thought it was coming for me. But it turned and trotted off, and didn’t give us another thought. Laguna was shaken up but was ok.
Nick Bilton is like that pit bull (in the same way that Path is endangering those dissidents, which means not really). He didn’t weigh in and attack until his prey was on its back and showing its belly. A safe way to conduct business, but not very noble.
Disclosure: Both Path and Airbnb are CrunchFund portfolio companies. We don’t own any Facebook stock, but their privacy snafus have also failed to incense me.
Update: Wow, an epic rant by MG.