How Twitter is shifting the power balance from companies to their employees

Last week, the worlds of technology and journalism were transfixed by a conflict that played out across across Instagram, Twitter, and the upstart audio-only social network Clubhouse. One reason it generated so much attention — you can read thorough accounts from varying perspectives at Vice, on Quora, or this venture capitalist’s Substack — is that you can approach the drama from so many angles. But despite the best efforts of everyone here, I still think the most clarifying way to understand the story of Steph Korey, Taylor Lorenz, Balaji Srinivasan, venture capital, and Clubhouse has mostly gone unspoken. And those who fail to see it, I think, could be in for a rude awakening of their own.

Let me start with a brief recounting of events — and acknowledge that I played a role in some of them. The conflict began with an investigation into the travel company Away in The Verge for which I served as an early editor; that story was written by Zoe Schiffer, my partner in bringing this newsletter to you every week; and the most recent controversy started after my friend Taylor Lorenz called attention to some comments that Korey, Away’s CEO and the subject of the original investigation, had made on Instagram. (Among those comments: “defamation lawsuits should be easier to pursue.”) Srinivasan, an investor and vocal media critic, took exception, and mocked Lorenz’s tweets. Lorenz, in turn, said Srinivasan had been harassing her with tweets for months, and Twitter’s native tribalism took over.

Journalists and their allies rallied to Lorenz’s side, myself included — no journalist deserves to be harassed or threatened. Other investors and those sympathetic to Srinivasan’s anti-journalism threads joined in the shouting. From a distance, it seemed like little more than the latest salvo in a conflict between journalists and Silicon Valley that has escalated significantly this year.

But what if you take the whole discussion of “tech versus journalism” and reframe it as “managers versus employees”? Then, I think, you get closer to the truth of what’s going on.

After all, this conflict started with employees. They were the people who initially described their working conditions under Korey at Away, leading her to step aside as CEO. (She later returned, only for the company to say she would step aside later this year after her comments about the media on Instagram.)

The employees made their comments at a time of increasing activism inside workplaces. Since the Google walkout in 2018, employees of venture-backed startups and public companies have become increasingly comfortable in speaking out — often using social media platforms to call out their employers. This trend has only accelerated since the Black Lives Matters protests swept the nation last month — which, among other things, led to the first-ever virtual Facebook walkout a few weeks later.

Until recently it was relatively unusual for employees to contact journalists directly with complaints about their workplaces — much less broadcast them on Twitter with no warning. But the Google walkout — which took place as much on Twitter as it did outside the company’s offices — showed workers that their stories would find a sympathetic audience on social networks.

Workers still face significant obstacles as they lobby to create more fair and equitable workplaces. But Twitter in particular has given them a place where not only can they be heard, but — crucially — employers can’t really fight back. If you tweet that you hate your manager, your manager is almost certainly not going to tweet back at you. (They can fire you, and say that it’s for unrelated reasons, and in fact they do this. But this often leads to more tweets about how bad the manager is, which means mostly they do nothing immediately.) Thus tweets have given workers an asymmetric advantage in the unrest — a one-sided argument is easy to win — and we’re seeing it play out in new ways all the time.

This dynamic, which is tilted heavily against bosses, goes a long way in explaining the disdain that the managerial class has for what they call “hit pieces.” A “hit piece,” in angry Twitter parlance, is typically a piece of journalism in which one or more employees are granted anonymity to talk about their working conditions. Journalists, myself included, would simply call that reporting. But it’s the kind of reporting that tilts the balance away from managers and toward their employees — and in ways that are difficult to fight back against.

It’s true that this dynamic raises questions of fairness. Not every person who hates their boss has been mistreated.

And yet, does anyone doubt that over the past 20 years, we’ve heard fewer accounts of the inner workings of big venture-backed companies than we would have liked to have? The inequalities that we have heard so much about in recent years took decades to build up, and during that time it has been relatively rare for a journalist to hear from employees directly on the subject. Instead for the most part they were funneled to a public relations person, whose job was primarily to contain any damage to the company.

That’s why, when I hear “hit piece,” I know I’m probably hearing from a manager. Managers liked the pre-walkout world, for obvious reasons. These recent pieces really do feel like hits, and the managerial class has no obvious way to hit back in a way that won’t harm its own reputation.

And so it shouldn’t be surprising, when a prominent reporter like Lorenz calls attention to posts like Korey’s, the managerial class rises to Korey’s defense. When CEOs can be held accountable not just for their working conditions but for social media defenses of their work, that represents a threat to the entire managerial tribe. And that explains how venture capitalists, who have millions of dollars at their disposal and could comfortably retire without ever participating in a single Twitter fight, have nonetheless come to see themselves as the underdogs in this situation. They got where they are in part because they’ve been good at winning arguments, and now they find themselves living in a world where they get punished for arguing.

Certainly, the worlds of tech and venture capital have complaints about journalism that go beyond hit pieces. Friends and sources criticize journalists for scapegoating them for larger issues — blaming Facebook alone for the election of Donald Trump, for example. And journalists often wind up criticizing tech companies from both sides of an issue — complaining that they both leave up too many bad posts and take down too many good ones, for example. The exasperation is real, even if the scrutiny is a natural consequence of starting a company that aims to change the world.

But the next time you see journalists and tech overlords going a few rounds online, ask yourself whether what you’re looking at isn’t, on some level, a labor issue. Journalists have lately been part of this story more than they are usually comfortable with. But I wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is primarily about us.

It might not be visible from the luxury Airbnbs where tech executives are riding out the pandemic, but there is a resurgent labor movement in this country. The pandemic has made clear that many of our most essential workers are also among the lowest paid — and even for the most comfortable, it’s clear that during a time of crisis neither their company nor the US government will fully protect them from disaster.

You can attribute it to the pandemic, the recession, police brutality, racism, or any number of other crises — but the result is a fire tornado of outrage that is sweeping across the country. Any number of industries are getting caught up in it, and many managers are finding themselves suddenly without jobs as a result. (It is probably not a coincidence that this is most true of the media industry, whose workers are more adept at using Twitter to air their grievances than most.)

Workers are justifiably outraged about the state of affairs in this country, and some of that outrage is being captured by journalists. I find it darkly comic that so many CEOs and tech world Twitter pundits, who never stop congratulating themselves for thinking deep thoughts, are committing the folly that goes back to Plutarch: getting some bad news, and then taking it out on the person who brought it to them.

If pundits succeed in shooting all the messengers, what else will they fail to understand before it’s too late?