All hail our corporate truth overlords

This is my personal blog. There will be the stray typo. All corrections to press@coinbase.com, thanks! — Alex

I’m bored of the tech companies vs. media discourse because it’s nearly entirely bullshit. Sure, there’s a little public angst between a small cohort of investors and investors arguing with a few folks in the media, but that’s the entire affair.

You might think that there’s more to the narrative given how much attention it receives, but there really isn’t. If you could peruse my inbox or DM folder you’d see what I mean. Nearly every single venture capitalist, venture-backed startup, and bootstrapped upstart wants TechCrunch’s attention. And the investing groups and startups that they back spend handsomely each and every month to buy themselves PR mercenaries in an effort to to snag our ear.

So when you hear companies discussing going direct to their audiences over engaging with the media as their lead communications strategy, bear in mind that you are hearing the decidedly minority perspective.

Not that there’s any problem with being in the minority. In fact it’s often where you want to be. But in this case the less-popular view is convincing a lot of NPCs that it’s actually the leading perspective. It’s not.

I’m circling towards Coinbase’s news this week that it wants to go direct to its audience more, and talk to external media less.

The company’s decision to bulk up its internal content operation is just fine. I don’t really care if Coinbase blogs more or less. But I did want to point out a few passages from the CEO’s note that are worth chewing on, from my perspective, as illustrative of the mindset that has led to Coinbase’s decision.

The first is something worrisome. Here’s Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong discussing the option of taking the “fight” to the media (emphasis added):

The opposite end of the spectrum [to “Option 1: turn the other cheek”] is to actively fight back. Any time someone posts false information about your company, it’s war. Come out swinging and never back down.

This is a legitimate strategy that some companies have engaged in. Amazon’s recent responses to Andrew Yang or Elizabeth Warren are in this direction, along with FedEx’s CEO aggressively pushing back on a story they found inaccurate. And Peter Thiel’s takedown of Gawker may be the canonical example.

The advantage of this approach is that you are standing up for yourself.

After reading this a few times I can’t escape the read that Brian is arguing that funding someone else’s lawsuit against a publication you found rude, leading to its financial execution simply because it made you mad and you had lots of money, is “standing up for yourself.”

You can learn more about someone when they have power over others than when they don’t, and I think the above excerpt — do read all of Brian’s post here, for fuller context — tells us quite a lot about how the Coinbase chief views himself, and the place he thinks that he and his fellow billionaires should hold in the world.

(Pausing for a moment: Brian’s entire piece is built from his personal politics, ironically. I also find it humorous that the putatively-libertarian leaders of the tech world are essentially conservative monarchs, serving their own claim to a crown.)

If Brian is morally content with arrogating to one’s bank account and grudge reserve the right to kill off troublesome publications, it’s not surprising that his argument against such activities is not that it’s wrong to do so. Instead, he writes that it’s “time-consuming [and can take away] your energy away from building.”

He closes this part of his larger riff by comparing the media to mud-and-shit-encrusted pork:

You need to be prepared to go all the way, and it needs to be in line with your brand. There is an old quote which says “never wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty and the pig likes it”.

What’s the solution? In Brian’s view, for corporations to become the source of truth:

I believe there is a reasonable middle ground between these first two options [pacifism, war], which is to simply publish the truth, in a thoughtful and respectful way, and build a direct relationship with your audience. Companies no longer need to go through biased intermediaries to communicate with their customers and stakeholders. They often have equal or greater reach via their blog, podcast, or YouTube channel. In many cases, the only organization that knows what really happened is the company itself.

He goes on to cite a 2013 Tesla post arguing that a review was unfair. Never mind that that company has a history of losing in court on the matter of lying — here’s a 2020 example from Germany — from Coinbase’s perspective, Tesla offers a positive example of how to deal with the media.

Anyone who has ever had more than a passing chat with a company’s communications team should have a pretty averse reaction to the idea corporations deciding what is true. Brian may have felt some of that tension, perhaps leading to the following attempt at finding middle-ground:

This “fact check” approach is not about antagonizing or embarrassing others, but simply sharing what happened through your own channels. It also means sharing the good along with the bad, with radical transparency. Companies are often reticent to share negative facts, in their inherent desire to look good, and therefore also have a conflict. To become a source of truth, companies will increasingly need to be comfortable sharing facts which paint them in a negative light as well. There is nothing like sharing mistakes, to build trust.

To which we can reply, like hell.

The expectation that companies will be able, let alone willing to regularly self-police is silly. We know this because we have legion history of companies doing precisely the opposite. It is nearly never in the interest of a corporation to be entirely honest even internally, let alone externally.

Still, it’s what Brian wants:

Companies are now emerging as a third source of truth, and can create accountability when misinformation is spread via other channels.

Amazon and Netflix built their own studios, Hubspot acquired the Hustle, a16z is going direct, Stripe has Stripe Press, and many more tech companies are quickly ascending the stack from mere “content marketing” to full-on media arms, complete with editors-in-chief and original content. As Balaji Srinivasan points out, this is the mirror image of legacy media corporations hiring engineers and declaring their aspiration to become world-class tech companies. There is no distinction anymore between app, distribution, and content — everyone is going full stack.

Wishful thinking is my most generous read of what Brian is arguing for.1

But it’s not up to me. Readers, broadly, will decide what to consume, whom to trust, and where to place their time and attention. And judging by the growth we’ve seen at publications like The Block and others, it appears that even the crytpo world understands the value of journalism despite what some of its more towering figures want you to think.

Regardless, all hail our new corporate truth overlords.

Let’s see if they can convince more folks that reading coverage from people without a financial stake in what they are covering is worse than listening to folks who have a direct incentive to paint their own activities in the best possible light.

1

I won’t detour on the Balaji citation for the sake of time, but media companies trying to build better tooling to stay alive in a digital world is not the same thing as deciding that your company is the correct source of truth. How you view this particular false equivalence will depend on your politics and place in the larger corporate world, but I don’t buy it.