Look Who's Gawking: Inside Nick Denton's phony, hypocritical class war against tech workers
“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” - Warren Buffett
“Hypocrisy is the only modern sin.” - Nick Denton
Last Friday morning, a shuttle bus transporting Google workers from Oakland to Mountain View was surrounded by a mob. A banner was unfurled - "Fuck off Google" — and several of the protesters began hurling rocks at the bus, smashing a side window. Later reports suggested the bus had its tires slashed before police arrived to break up the violence.
The attack coincided with a similar protest in San Francisco, which remained peaceful, although afterwards Erin Mcelroy of Eviction-Free San Francisco told Pando she was "excited" that her Oakland colleagues were "mobilizing in different ways."
And so this is what it’s come to.
The technology industry in San Francisco continues to grow, and its highly paid workers continue to force up housing rents, pricing out local blue collar workers. Then there's the Ellis Act which, critics say, makes it easier for landlords to force out long-time tenants with almost no oversight (defenders of the act argue that, in most cases, homeowners have to financially compensate evicted tenants). What’s not in doubt is that multi-billion-dollar companies like Twitter are being offered tax breaks to remain in San Francisco, while many regular folks can’t afford to stay even if they want to.
Setting aside the irony that, without those tax breaks, companies like Twitter had threatened to move out of San Francisco to nearby cities like Oakland, it's not hard to understand why many workers in the Bay Area are angry at Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Marissa Mayer, Jack Dorsey and any of the other tech billionaires who have caused average one bedroom rents in San Francisco to rise close to $3000, and are likely to cause similar price hikes in Oakland.
And yet. Larry Page doesn't take a shuttle bus to work, nor does Jack Dorsey. We can tell ourselves that the senior software engineer at Google earning $149,224 or the Facebook user operations analyst on $43,518 is infinitely more privileged than the BART driver taking home $155,308 or the station janitor who gets $82,752 -- and certainly most Googlers wouldn't swap places with even their higher paid blue collar colleagues. But the fact remains that the people on that Google bus -- the dozen or so junior employees and one terrified bus driver -- played absolutely no part in creating the policies that have caused so much anger. One group of workers, scaring the shit out of another group of workers achieves almost nothing except turning public opinion against the protesters, like pissing in the lobby of a Bank of America succeeds only in ruining a janitor's morning and giving the cops an excuse to sling you in jail.
Telling self-defeating protesters to stop making the same mistakes that self-defeating protesters have made for generations is not my game here — not least because I can't imagine that anyone throwing a rock at a Google bus reads Pando, edited as it is by a free market monster, and staffed by such anti-labor zealots as… David Sirota and Mark Ames.
Also, the vast majority of the protesters seem sincere in their violent anger. Misguided, perhaps, but sincere. God knows it’s refreshing to see the blunt rage of a “Fuck Off Google” banner or the naked violence of a thrown rock in this maddeningly ironic, nod-and-a-snarky-wink world. Put a bird on this, you hipster fuck.
All of it which makes it twice as disgusting to see a putrid, but highly visible subset of the technology press trying to co-opt the sincere anger of Bay Area workers and spin it into disingenuous, smug faux-classbaiting horseshit, for pageviews and cash bonuses.
CENTCOM for this fake-class-war-by-drone is Nick Denton's Valleywag gossip blog which, despite its name, is safely situated in Manhattan, thousands of miles from the battlefront. Having regenerated more times than Doctor Who (but without the likable main character or crisp writing), the current incarnation of Valleywag has one clear mission: to grab hundreds of millions of monetizable clicks through an endless barrage of outraged posts about the entitled jerks who work in the technology industry.
This all-new Valleywag was conceived during the Occupy protests, when Gawker’s editors discovered that stories about a class war were just catnip for pageviews. And most of the Wall Streeters were mere millionaires -- just imagine how much Gawker's hipster readers would hate billionaires. Or billionaire nerds!
By the end of 2012, Occupy stories had all but fizzled out. So, in January of 2013, Denton announced -- via Wall Street trade blog, Business Insider -- the imminent return of Valleywag. The relaunched site came out swinging, with posts taking aim at the genuinely rich and powerful in Silicon Valley -- skewering Marissa Mayer for buying her child an expensive playhouse and Sean Parker whose wedding was responsible for killing wildlife and protected trees in a Big Sur forest (never mind that it was later revealed that Mayer bought the house at an auction, for a $33,000 donation to a local charity which restores old homes for families in need, and that Parker didn't, er, actually kill any wildlife or protected trees).
But something was off. Valleywag's editor Sam Biddle was following his boss’ orders to the letter -- but the stories weren’t sticking. No one was taking to the streets to demand Mayer's or Parker’s head. It was as if Gawker readers didn’t care that Sheryl Sandberg once had a meeting with Jennifer Lawrence.
In fact, the usually infallible Denton had misjudged his audience. Specifically, he had forgotten the rule that we humans aren't easily angered by those infinitely richer or more successful than us — the super wealthy have lives so remote from our own that we can’t muster genuine jealousy for something we could never have. No, what really drives us viscerally nuts are those who are just a bit wealthier, a fraction more successful. Those fuckers who are living the lives that we could be living, were we willing to lie just a little, or cheat just a little.
And so, Biddle was given new marching orders: go after the tech workers, not their bosses.
Today a Valleywag search for, let's say, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, garners precisely one result: a post which says almost nothing about the eBay founder's wealth or what he's spending it on. Contrast that with the eight results for the word "cafeteria," reflecting Valleywag’s current obsession with the subsidized lunches supplied to "coddled" tech workers, or the 25 results for "asshole" an epithet that Biddle has applied to a programmer who offered to teach a homeless man to code, and a seven year old child who washes cars for pocket money.
Writing at Slate, Farhad Manjoo explains the current rules of the Valleywag game:
"My primary beef with Valleywag is the way it spins the smallest bits of tech gossip or punditry into a larger, stereotypically skewed narrative about the tech industry. The narrative is generally about the amoral politics of techies or, as Biddle calls them, the “techno-libertarian goon squad.” In Valleywag’s worldview, every civic confrontation in Silicon Valley is a Manichean choice between the interests of techies and nontechies, and the techies are always cast as rich, tax-and-government-hating baddies who want to pull one over on the rest of us. Not only is this simplistic; often, it’s just wrong on the facts."
Speaking of facts: While presenting itself as the champion of the working classes, the fact is Denton’s Gawker empire is guilty of almost every crime it accuses the tech industry of committing, and several it doesn’t. Denton, who now encourages others to sneer at Silicon Valley’s elite social clubs, made his own millions as co-founder of “First Tuesday,” an elite social club which spanned Europe during the first dot com boom. While crying foul at the off-shore tax dodging of San Francisco tech companies, Gawker Media is registered in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying US taxes, an arrangement which the New Yorker described as “like an international money-laundering operation.” As Valleywag howls that “Google interns earn more than you,” Gawker Media is currently the subject of a class action lawsuit over its earlier refusal to pay its own interns a dime for their labour. And how about Valleywag’s mockery of lavish Silicon Valley workplaces? Why not ask Denton about that when you visit his “steampunk” office, featuring “a lounge area that looks like it's straight out of the blue pill/red pill scene in The Matrix,” an “office surfboard” and a rooftop party deck? Business Insider claims it’s one of the 15 coolest offices in tech. And while you're there, make sure to also ask him about Gawker's "Privilege Tournament," a smug little contest in which Gawker readers were invited to vote on which "underprivileged" group (choices include: black, blind, transgender, people with AIDS, the homeless, "overeducated," and fat...) should "win" by virtue of its "sweet, sweet moral superiority" -- or as Salon's Katrina Richardson called the tournament: "a shamefully racist, sexist, homophobic and classist attempt to silence large swaths of people."
Even Denton’s choice of Valleywag editor reeks of hypocrisy. Which is to say, if you’re going to wage a fake class war, then, Sam Faulkner Biddle is the perfect fake class warrior for the job. Long before he got his gig wailing about "spoiled brat" tech founders who owe their success to their fathers, Biddle gained entry to the prestigious Johns Hopkins university with no help whatsoever from his own father, the Pulitzer prize winning journalist — and Johns Hopkins lecturer — Wayne Biddle. In case the nepotism wasn’t obnoxious enough for his classmates, Biddle promptly joined the Delta Phi fraternity at which, Wikipedia tells us…
"Controversy exists to a perceived exclusivity in the selection criteria. It is generally regarded that wealth is a factor as almost all members are from affluent backgrounds."
One of Biddle’s former classmates put it in simpler terms: Delta Phi is a club you could only join if you have rich parents. After college, Biddle moved to New York where, fancying himself a novelist — (“I gingerly unpack the same three books I've been carrying along with me each day and lay them down at carefully calculated angles so that their titles will be visible to those at the table. Every afternoon I create this same still life, a diorama of the aspiring writer at work…”) — he wrote a series called “Diary of an Unemployed Class of '10 Philosophy Major in New York City” for the Awl, including this revealing paragraph…
"Is it petty to not share in the happiness of someone else's success? Is it petty to wish-to beg, even, knuckles blistering, eyes bloodshot, beseeching each god-for their horrific downfall? Is it immature to consider another's achievement, to imagine them doing the job you wish you had-walking around in your fancy pants, sleeping with your wife in your own bedroom, eating your Frosted Mini Wheats, loudly slurping the milk-and sink into despair? Is this unfair? Should this be beneath me?"
Finally Biddle made it to Gawker Media, where, before finding his groove as the guy who calls out the tech industry's obsession with expensive toys and its condescension towards minimum wage workers, he wrote about $2500 record turntables for Gizmodo and was recorded patronizing two "booth babes" while lip-syncing to "Niggaz in Paris" at grotesque industry junket, CES. (Disclosure: the only time I have ever met Biddle was at CES, at a lavish dinner hosted by a tech PR agency at Mario Batali’s
Carne Vino B&B Ristorante where a rib-eye steak costs $120 — or thirteen times the San Francisco minimum wage, plus tax and gratuities.)
And so it came to pass that wealthy, privileged, Sam Biddle became Nick Denton’s pick to lead Gawker’s phony, hypocritical, long-distance class war against San Francisco’s wealthy, privileged tech workers. And why not? Per David Sirota's recent exposé of Ed Schultz, Nick and Sam wouldn't be the first journalists to deny their privileged background in order to make bank as born-again class warriors.
Today, Biddle spends his days searching the social media accounts of junior startup employees, looking for any Tweet, blog post or YouTube video that might fit his narrative of arrogant rich kids gone wild. And with an estimated 250,000 tech workers in the bay area alone, it's easy for him to find one each day who is monstrously, entitledly struggling to transport a Christmas tree, or twelve techies packed into a “luxury” shared house, or a guy with a car that Biddle hopes will soon be vandalised. Or at least it should be easy.
One recent post was prompted by a Twitter employee commenting on the quality of restaurants surrounding the company's Market Street office. To most readers, the Tweet was innocuous enough, but Biddle tortured and twisted it so disingenuously (into a narrative about how outsiders weren't welcome at Twitter) that he was attacked in the comments by none other than former Valleywag editor Owen Thomas.
“You're completely misreading the tweet," wrote Thomas. "You may well still find the tweet obnoxious, but please evaluate it for its actual meaning, not some overworked misconstruing of it." Biddle did not respond to his former colleague.
Even when Biddle is “right,” he can’t catch a break. Late last Friday afternoon, Valleywag “broke” yet another “story” -- which is to say, posted yet another tweet -- about a tech worker behaving badly. This time, the monster in question was IAC PR flack Justine Sacco who Tweeted to her 200 followers: “Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white.” You likely know what happened next: the Tweet was picked up by BuzzFeed and Sacco was hounded across the globe like a modern day Dr Crippen, until the mob finally tracked her down in South Africa. But despite his success in having Sacco threatened with rape and murder, Biddle wasn’t satisfied…
"Can't believe the entire internet is talking about something I found and my post only has 30k clicks smh," he Tweeted.
At least the recent anti-gentrification protests have been traffic gold for Valleywag which gleefully posted a video from the first protest, apparently showing a Google worker yelling at protesters: "You can't afford it? You can leave. I'm sorry, get a better job." Lest his readers be forced to form their own opinion, Biddle helpfully categorized the post as "assholes." That did the trick…
"If anyone is begging for some mob-style retribution it's this piece of shit," wrote one commenter.
"Who is this ass? Name, address, background, etc .... Someone please Dox this entitled jerk," demanded another.
"It would have been better if someone would have hit him in the face," said a third.
Of course that story too was promptly revealed as a hoax. The Google employee was actually a union organizer posing as a tech worker in a piece of "improv political theater." Rather than apologizing for the error, Biddle simply struck through the first two lines of the posted and added a four word update: "This was probably staged." The rest of the post remained, as did the violent comments, alongside the growing number of responses demanding to know why Gawker didn't delete the entire post.
The answer: Gawker writers are paid bonuses for attracting large numbers of unique visitors to the site, and its community platform — and the only thing that drives more responses than an accurate story is an inaccurate one. No wonder Biddle was “smh” at Buzzfeed stealing his traffic, and his cash reward, over the Sacco post.
Still, while Valleywag’s hypocrisy is certainly rank, for a while it wasn't clear whether it was actually dangerous. Last week, though, we saw the first flash of violence in the bay area class war when a real bus, filled with real tech workers was hit by a real rock, showering real glass shards onto real flesh.
Even if we can’t blame Valleywag directly for the attack, the escalation might have been a good time for Biddle, were he to possess an ounce of human decency, to stop and think about whether his rhetoric might be contributing to a narrative in which ordinary tech workers, not their bosses, are the legitimate targets of violent protest.
But Biddle is not so much a normal human being as a grotesque hypocrite, employed by a huge, even more grotesquely hypocritical, media corporation. A corporation which thinks nothing of posting photographs of Trayvon Martin’s corpse on its front page and whose most senior editor believes media ethics to be “part of a process of trying to exclude the hoi polloi from the process of reporting.”
And so, despite being in possession of a metric ton more smug, entitled privilege than every man, woman and nerd on the Google bus, Sam Faulkner Biddle once again perched in his steampunk SoHo office and puked out another post mocking the members of the "coddled, gurgling startup scene" for their "pronounced horror" when an "anti-Google protest turns slightly violent."
"There was a time when shocking people in positions of apparently unimpeachable power and influence to attain some political goal was considered "disruption," but that was long, long ago," Biddle wrote.
Yes, the "unimpeachable power" of an entry-level tech worker whose crime is paying inflated rent on an apartment in Oakland and whose just punishment is the "slight violence" of hurled rocks and broken glass.
Hopefully next time the mob will turn really violent and one of these tech assholes will actually be killed. Just think of the traffic surge when that happens, just think how great that Googler's corpse will look on the front page of Gawker. You can be sure Nick Denton already is.