The two 30-somethings drove the modest streets of South Bend, double-checking the microphone volume as they poked one another over their elite academic credentials and offered at times a nerdy, low-production attempt at a buddy comedy.
Behind the seatbelts: Pete Buttigieg and Mark Zuckerberg.
The driver and passenger may have known each other vaguely as Harvard undergrads, but two years ago they occupied entirely different spheres: at the wheel, a virtually unknown small-city mayor; riding shotgun, one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful CEOs.
“I’m here with my friend, Pete Buttigieg, who’s the mayor here,” Zuckerberg said as the Facebook Live video rattled along the rutted Indiana roads. He had asked Buttigieg for a tour of the town as part of his personal challenge in 2017 to visit more of the country. “One of the youngest mayors in America.”
But when Buttigieg rushes to five fundraisers across Silicon Valley on Friday — what appears to be a record for a candidate here this cycle — it is he who very well might be the more popular celebrity. The ascendant Democratic presidential aspirant has become a Silicon Valley sensation in the early stages of the primary — while Zuckerberg has been perpetually on the ropes.
That’s because Buttigieg, though always stressing his bonhomie upbringing in the industrial Midwest — such as when giving a ride-along of South Bend’s abandoned factories — is quite comfortable in elite corridors like Silicon Valley. He is not an anti-tech firebrand politically, nor a total newcomer to the land of the uber-wealthy. And as his relationship with people like Zuckerberg shows, he also brings a Rolodex that gives him tech contacts that — with the right touch and message on Friday — can become exclusive supporters and maxed-out tech donors.
“You have all these people who have spent years cultivating Silicon Valley, but yet clearly Pete is on fire,” said Joe Green, an early Facebook adviser who is the mutual friend that introduced Zuckerberg and Buttigieg in advance of the South Bend trip two years ago. “Somebody who has not been on the national fundraising circuit has really taken off.”
Among Silicon Valley donors, Buttigieg does not have the long-standing chits collected of a Kamala Harris, or the personal friendships and zeitgeisty mores of a Cory Booker. What he does have is a tech-friendly bedside manner, along with connections to the LGBT, millennial, and highly educated communities that overlap with some of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest. (Those connections, though, could certainly fuel the perception that he is too cozy with the tech industry.)
And one gets the sense that, with a few twists in his life story, Buttigieg could easily be running around Silicon Valley pitching some startup rather than begging for dollars to fund a presidential campaign.
He was one of the first several hundred people on Facebook (current user count: 2.4 billion). He calls his national finance committee of top fundraisers his “investor circle.” And he can wax eloquent about bitcoin or the risks of unfettered automation or artificial intelligence with the best of them.
“If he came in and pitched a startup at Founders Fund,” said Cyan Banister, a venture capitalist there, “he would be in the A-player category of founders.”
Banister has been impressed with Buttigieg since she met him a little over a year ago in South Bend when on a bus tour of the Midwest with a dozen other VCs. And she offers a good example of how Buttigieg has cultivated Silicon Valley relationships.
Banister was so smitten with Buttigieg that she tried pitching Founders Fund, the elite VC firm founded by Peter Thiel, to open an office in South Bend. That didn’t go anywhere, but Banister did help financially back a coding school later that year. Buttigieg would speak at the school’s pitch competition, saying he went from “being excited to being moved.”
Since then, Banister has become something of a Buttigieg evangelist, telling all her partners at Founders Fund that she was going to back him if he ended up running for president. She said she is planning to host a fundraiser for him later this year — and with some irony, possibly alongside Keith Rabois, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent conservatives (who isn’t personally backing Buttigieg but whose husband is doing so fervently).
And while Buttigieg does not have decades of goodwill in Silicon Valley, what he does have is some stacked alumni rolls from alma maters.
Buttigieg’s strongest backers in Silicon Valley are his classmates: One key associate is his roommate from their time together as Rhodes Scholars at Oxford, Robert Schiff, who now is at McKinsey in San Francisco; others come from their time at Harvard, like Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and Green, who was a roommate of Zuckerberg’s.
Buttigieg also hustles. Those friends have been offering introductions to other donors ever since Buttigieg began traveling to places like New York and Silicon Valley during his first run for Indiana state treasurer in 2010, people familiar with the outreach say.
But they only really began to pay off during his previous national run — when he bid to become chair of the Democratic National Committee — picking up checks from luminaries like Dropbox founder Drew Houston, Y Combinator chair Sam Altman, and former Zuckerberg chief lieutenant Chris Cox, thanks to introductions from friends like Green, who set up multiple lunches and dinners for Buttigieg. “I don’t think anyone knew who he was,” Green says.
And on Friday, Buttigieg will hustle again: He has five fundraising events in the Bay Area, according to invitations seen by Recode and people familiar with his schedule, which are expected to rake in thousands of dollars during his hopscotch tour of Silicon Valley.
- His day begins with a coffee klatch for in Palo Alto hosted by attorney Susie Hwang and her husband, Merced Systems founder Steve Glickman;
- Then a conference call for his top donors;
- Then to an afternoon fundraiser hosted at the offices of identity security company LiveRamp;
- And then concluding the night with three evening events — including one grassroots fundraiser, open to the public but almost sold out — with overlapping schedules, suggesting that Buttigieg will be doing a lot of shuttling between them.
The Buttigieg network goes to work
His roster of donors, perhaps unsurprisingly, trends young. But in Silicon Valley, that’s hardly inconsistent with trending rich.
“The 30-somethings should hang together,” said Adam Hundt, who works in business development at the e-commerce startup Wish and met Buttigieg nearly 20 years ago while in college — and is now hosting one of the evening fundraisers for him on Friday. “We’re really young out here, and we’re generally in favor of a new generation redefining politics. And I think he’s the guy.”
Other hosts of Buttigieg’s events this weekend include Matt Rogers, the co-founder of Nest, and his wife Swati Mylavarapu, longtime personal friends of his; Isaac Pritzker, the 37-year-old scion of the famous hotelier family; and a whole roster of the original guard at the question-and-answer startup Quora, like Marc Bodnick, who is also coincidentally Sheryl Sandberg’s brother-in-law.
The high-dollar fundraiser co-hosted by the Quora crew is expected to bring in triple its initial target, according to a person familiar with the event, and it had to move from a home to a bigger venue to accomodate the interest.
But the challenge, people close to him say, is that his support at this stage in Silicon Valley is fairly soft. To be sure, that is true of much of the big money in the Democratic primary, as donors support multiple candidates or sit it out entirely while waiting for a clearer picture of the field’s upper rungs.
And so if Buttigieg proves to be merely a flavor of the month, he could find much of that money run toward other candidates, especially given that his relationships with marquee tech donors are not rooted as deeply as are Harris’s, Booker’s, or Joe Biden’s.
For instance, Susie Tompkins Buell, one of San Francisco’s most prolific fundraisers and an establishment Democratic powerbroker, is backing Buttigieg. But that’s in addition to her long-standing support for Harris. (“I knew it would cause some bruising and confusion,” she said of her surprising decision to endorse Buttigieg as well.)
Buell said, when she hosted her first event at her house for him in March, he was an unknown. But now, she describes a clamoring to see him — out of curiosity, if nothing else.
“Nobody knew much about him at all,” she said, “and then all of a sudden everyone wanted to come see him.”
Green, for instance, says he can get as many as 10 messages a day from investors and other rich people in Silicon Valley seeking one-on-one meetings with Buttigieg.
But if you live by donor momentum, you can die by donor momentum.
Buttigieg collected about $330,000 in itemized contributions from the Bay Area last quarter, according to Recode calculations, meaning that about 13 percent of his money that includes the donor’s address came from the area. Unlike some other Democrats who are too dependent on high-dollar donors, or those who rely entirely on low-dollar donors that can evaporate when the going gets tough, Buttigieg’s surprisingly strong fundraising haul last quarter was well-balanced: About 64 percent of his money came from smaller contributors, with the remaining coming in larger, $200-plus chunks.
Prominent donors to him last quarter include Andrew Mason, the founder of Groupon; early Facebook executive and venture capitalist Matt Cohler; and Steve Silberstein, one of the country’s largest Democratic donors, who has given millions of dollars to outside groups in recent cycles.
Oddly enough, a surprisingly large number of donors in Silicon Valley, like venture capitalist Steve Dow, say they cut him max-out checks despite never meeting him — a trend that mirrors how he has gained traction with voters, too. His appeal here has not been rooted in face time but in media appearances like a podcast. With these fairly surface-level relationships, donors could flee if he fails to prove himself on bigger stages.
“He’s young. He’s really smart. He’s quick. In that sense, it’s consistent with at least the stereotype of the Silicon Valley startup entrepreneur,” Dow said. “It’s less about this policy or that policy.”
Buttigieg on policy: Big Tech is trying its best
But even if tech donors aren’t driven primarily by tech policy, Buttigieg has a middle-of-the-road message to sell them. But it’s one that opens him up to criticism from the left, which has organized around the idea that Silicon Valley needs more oversight and wouldn’t be too happy to see its leaders palling around with Buttigieg this Friday.
As mayor, Buttigieg sought to modernize his Rust Belt city of 100,000 with tech, and friends say he is as savvy as any other 37-year-old would be. But while not outwardly hostile, Buttigieg has been somewhat critical toward Big Tech specifically, along with Silicon Valley more broadly.
He says the US government has been too permitting of big mergers and that current antitrust law has failed consumers, calling on new empowerments for the FTC to help reel in the power of companies like Facebook and Amazon. He has said he “potentially” agrees with Elizabeth Warren that big tech should be broken up, such as by unwinding Facebook’s purchase of Instagram. He has also spoken favorably of Europe’s GDPR legislation to protect data privacy rights, calling the status quo in the US a “Wild West environment.”
But what he has not done is cast the industry’s leadership as intentionally evil — as some other Democrats have. He instead describes them as scrambling in good faith to catch up to new realities.
“I think he’s taking those responsibilities seriously,” Buttigieg said when asked about Zuckerberg, for instance, by NPR. “But I think he’s also confronted — and every one of these big companies — with the reality that their corporate policy decisions are now public policy decisions. And I don’t know if he’s fully been able to master that, and I don’t know that anybody in the sector has.”
The actual policy, though, isn’t driving support. Even some of Buttigieg’s supporters in tech couldn’t really recall what he thought about tech policy, exactly. But more broadly, Buttigieg’s more practical-minded sensibilities — even if more about how he carries himself than about chapter-and-verse on policy — endear him to some less-ideological Silicon Valley financial types.
Count Guy Lampard, a former banker, among them. Lampard was among a half-dozen people who spent about an hour with with Buttigieg earlier this spring around a couch at a friend’s house, and he and his wife later gave him $2,800 each. Lampard said he’s probably backed more Republicans than Democrats in his life.
Or as Google designer August de los Reyes, a self-described moderate who is fundraising for Buttigieg, put it: “We design some of the largest products in the world — it really just boils down to what kind of everyday problem are you solving?”
The other thing De los Reyes likes? That Buttigieg’s campaign’s website interface features a way for designers to mix and match the colors of his logo and craft their own campaign materials.
“Very Silicon Valley,” he says.
Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.
Twitter co-founder and Medium CEO Ev Williams on Kara Swisher podcast
Right now, it feels like social media is “in the bleakness of figuring out where it needs to go,” Twitter co-founder Ev Williams says. But it won’t be that way forever.
“I don’t have any answers as to how we get out of the current situation, but I think there’s a tendency to say, ‘Oh, social media is terrible,’ and forget all the great things about it, which I still believe are true,” Williams said on the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher.
Speaking with Swisher at the 2019 Collision conference in Toronto, Williams said his recent departure from the board of Twitter was a choice to focus more on his work as CEO of the blogging platform Medium — and not a Chris Hughes-style protest. He said it’s worth remembering all the goodness that social media can amplify, even though right now it feels like it’s favoring things like racism, vitriol, and Donald Trump.
“It amplifies a lot of bad aspects of humanity,” Williams said. “It’s very powerful at that and very powerful at connecting people with terrible ideas and amplifying those and making them seem like they’re good ideas. On the other hand, it does the opposite.
“I think there is a better version of social media to be invented and I don’t know if that will happen incrementally, because there’s lots of smart people trying to evolve these systems at these massive companies,” he added. “Or if it will happen with just completely new paradigms and new ideas that come along.”
You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast. On the new episode, you’ll also hear a live interview with Facebook’s former chief security officer Alex Stamos.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Ev.
Kara Swisher: We’re here with Ev, who I’ve known for forever.
Seems like it.
Seems like it, and I want to talk about a lot of things, but let’s start first of all, [this session is] called “Life After Twitter,” which, you’ve had quite a life after Twitter. You left the board this year.
Yeah, a couple of months ago. Recently.
Can you talk about, a little bit, why you did that?
Yeah, it’s not very dramatic. I’ve been on the board since there was a board, so approximately 12-13 years, and only on the board for the last 10 or so, so it’s … Or however many, nine?
So I stayed on the board as long as I thought I could be helpful, mostly, and the company is in a really good place now compared to some of the time it’s been before and I just felt like I want to spend my time and energy on other things.
Was it overwhelming for you, like the issues you all faced there around hate, around President Trump, around … mostly President Trump, really.
Well, I mean, being on the board is not being at the company.
And so, while this is called “Life After Twitter,” I kind of laugh because it’s kind of been life after Twitter for me for a long time.
And I’ll always be associated with the company, I’ll always be rooting for it, I’m still a shareholder of the company so there’s … a certain part of my year is no longer spent in Twitter board meetings, but I’ve been focusing my time on other things for a long time.
All right, I want to get to the things you’re doing. But where do you think it is right now as a medium, the whole social media space? It’s obviously been under attack quite heavily. I don’t assume you’re going to write a Chris Hughes-like document for the New York Times, correct?
Calling Jack un-American or anything like that?
No. No. No.
Sorry, I didn’t hear the question.
Where do you think social media is right now?
Where do I think it is?
And what it needs to do to fix itself.
It’s in the bleakness of figuring out where it needs to go. I think the … I don’t have any answers as to how we get out of the current situation, but I think there’s a tendency to say, “Oh, social media is terrible,” and forget all the great things about it, which I still believe are true. And I believe the terrible things are true because social media is humanity and it amplifies … unfortunately, it amplifies a lot of bad aspects of humanity. It’s very powerful at that and very powerful at connecting people with terrible ideas and amplifying those and making them seem like they’re good ideas.
On the other hand, it does the opposite. And I think we are … I think there is a better version of social media to be invented and I don’t know if that will happen incrementally, because there’s lots of smart people trying to evolve these systems at these massive companies. Or if it will happen with just completely new paradigms and new ideas that come along. I’m confident it will remain around but I think, also, people’s relationship and sort of the novelty and some of the excitement that brought it — brought us, too — is wearing off.
It seems lost in some way.
It’s like a sugar high and now we’re like, “Oh, do we need this in our life in the same way?”
And do you imagine … Let’s get to new companies, because you’re an investor with Obvious Ventures. You’re not really investing in that space …
We don’t really, no.
Why is that?
It’s not that we wouldn’t, but at Obvious Ventures we focus on what we call “world-positive investing,” which is things that we think address big systemic problems we face as a society. We haven’t seen something come along … and we don’t do, actually, very many internet or media things. We do a little bit, but we do things more in health and wellness and sustainability.
So “world-positive,” that’s a very techie word. What does that mean?
Well, it’s just our term …
Because I’m wary of it.
Before things like, we have a lens. We’re not an impact investor, we’re a for-profit investor that doesn’t compromise on financial returns because … But we’re very genuinely focused on things that we think are big ideas and big solutions.
So, why don’t you want to call it “impact investing?”
Because that’s what it’s called. I mean …
Impact investing can be great. But impact investing, historically, is a view that we will take a lesser financial return in order to have some sort of other impact. Which, there’s investments that make sense for that. Our view is that the biggest companies that scale the most are not going to have … They’re going to have big returns.
And so rather than say, “We’re going to compromise return,” we feel like that can be a failure mode and say, “Actually it’s not that healthy of a company,” or, “It doesn’t have great product-market fit.” We’re saying, “No, it has to be great.” So, an example — well, one of our companies is Beyond Meat which is …
Which you’ve done really well on.
Which has done phenomenal and it’s not an impact investment, it’s a phenomenally lucrative, profitable investment that addresses this massive need of lowering our carbon footprint when it comes to meat.
What’s really interesting is that Beyond Meat is doing great in the stock market and Uber is tanking, and Lyft is tanking, also.
I wouldn’t have predicted that necessarily.
I would not have predicted that.
A few years ago.
So talk about how you got into this, the Beyond Meat, because there’s also Impossible Foods. There’s a lot of food-tech investing, I guess, if you want …
Beyond Meat was one of the first investments we did, we actually rolled into Obvious Ventures. Biz [Stone] and I, my longtime partner Biz, was a vegan for a long time. Kleiner Perkins did the Series A in Beyond Meat, I think, because they knew he was a vegan and they were like, “Hey, are you interested in this company?” And so he brought it to us and we are very excited about it, we love the products. I’ve been vegan and pescatarian for a long time and …
Wait, which one are you?
I was vegan, now I’m pescatarian. So …
But, I haven’t eaten a land animal for a very long time, so I enjoyed the products. Biz enjoyed the products. We’re …
You just draw the line at fish?
I draw the line at fish.
All right. Okay.
Yeah. And Ethan Brown, the CEO and founder of Beyond Meat, is just an incredible human, and so we backed him fairly early on.
At the time you did it, there wasn’t a lot of people interested in that sector. And there was investments, but it was more on the research side, a lot of the research stuff, and this is a small market. What did you hope — I’ll get to the stock thing — why did you go public with it and what did you hope for? That it would be in every supermarket? Or you’re aiming at people who eat meat?
Yeah, the goal with it, and the company’s been around for a few years, and the goal with it was always to penetrate the meat market. And, I mean, not in the actual … in the grocery store sense, this massive trillion dollar market that we thought there’s a better alternative to. So we didn’t have the plan for that. Ethan and his team had the plan, but it’s going well so far.
So where do you imagine … there’s a world positive. How much pushback have you had from meat companies? I know they don’t want you to call it “meat.” Because just the way the milk distributors don’t want oat milk to be called oat milk or cashew milk or …
I think some of them see it as an opportunity and some of them see it as a threat, I would imagine.
Because Tyson is in it? Right?
Tyson was actually a big investor and shareholder and they got out just before the IPO.
Because they’re making their own version.
Yeah. I would assume any meat company … The response to the Beyond Meat IPO, which has been so gratifying, is that people are paying attention to this plant protein company that most people wouldn’t have predicted would make such a big blip. And I think it’s a lot of people seeing the potential.
And in terms of when you think about these world-positive things, talk about what your theories are of venture investing because that’s changed a lot. You know, you have the advent of giant investors like SoftBank, which of course has gotten a bath in the Uber investment. How do you look at investing, then, as a venture? How do you distinguish yourself?
So we kind of play a different game, I think, than most Silicon Valley investors. And first of all, it’s our lens, of filtering out a lot of things that could be great investments, but if we don’t think really are going to address some need for society we’ll say, “That’s okay, there’s lots of others we’ll focus on.” Which eliminates most of enterprise software.
And then also the message that entrepreneurs really appreciate is that we are mission-aligned and we will support an entrepreneur who is mission-focused. People come to us because they really like hearing that, because as an entrepreneur you can be — and I’ve been in this position — where you’re aligned with your investors in terms of wanting to build something really big, but you can get misaligned in terms of really the purpose of that thing.
So what does that bring you to? What areas are you excited about, in that regard?
So we do a lot of stuff in sustainability from solar and solar software. We’re investors in Proterra, the electric bus company. There’s some other … Another exit we just had was Olly, which was a supplement company. And so we tend to do things that are outside of the traditional Silicon Valley world that I know. Which, of course, Silicon Valley’s expanding greatly in terms of what they invest in, but it’s not a lot of software or media.
All right. When you — I’m going to get to Medium in a second — but when you think about venture, I just interviewed Mark Cuban and Steve Case, and they were talking about the efforts they’re making to get all around the world, to try to get more talent from elsewhere. Right now, 80 percent of venture capital goes to three states.
I didn’t know that.
And most of it to California, and most of it to Silicon Valley, continues to be all white, all male, not very geographically diverse, not very globally diverse. Why does that continue, from your perspective?
I think it’s habit. It’s definitely not the lack of viable investments that are outside the geography or demographics of that traditional set and so we aren’t internationally focused. And one thing is that so much of the money is in Silicon Valley and the firms are there because they come out of, you know, it’s historic. And it is hard to invest in other places where you’re not … There’s just a time in the day problem.
We have a couple investments in Europe, but not a lot. And we have some in New York and throughout the country, but part of that … I certainly celebrate expanding the ethos and the formula of Silicon Valley to other places, but it’s pretty massive and there’s this perpetuating cycle. People come out of companies, and they go back in, and they invest in their friends …
I get that, but why doesn’t it happen? You’re a very well-meaning person, you have a broad attitude toward diversity, but most people just talk about it and nothing happens in that regard. It seems like you’re, 1) missing the boat, meaning there’s lots of investments you’re missing, and 2) perpetuating something like this is not an excuse for doing that.
Yeah, I agree. I don’t see any excuse for doing it. We try very hard to invest … I don’t have the data off the top of my head about our portfolio.
I know it is something that comes up in every partner meeting and every conversation I’m in about how we both hire in the firm — both women and people from underrepresented backgrounds and how we get that into our portfolio. And we work on it daily, and my partner is very focused on that. But I don’t have an excuse …
Do you think Silicon Valley has changed in attitude, given this sort of techlash that’s happening?
I think it has, dramatically. I mean, in my 20 years of building companies in Silicon Valley, the intensity of focus on diversity and inclusion in the last five years is dramatically higher. It’s an order of magnitude higher. And it’s changing how … Definitely how we invest, how we run companies, how we hire. It’s changed all those things, in my experience. And we have a long way to go.
Yeah, and the numbers still don’t bear it out. It’s really …
I totally agree.
It’s the strangest thing. So when you think about where the biggest, most interesting innovations are happening, where do you tend towards right now? You’re obviously in food tech. There’s a lot of mobility stuff going on — and that’s not mobile phones. Where do you think that the hottest place to look at is? And where do you think the hype, the worst place right now is?
Well, I don’t spend that much time looking at investments, to tell you the truth. I spend more of my time on Medium, which maybe we should talk about that!
Yes, I’m going to talk about that. I’m going to get to that right now.
But, I mean, I think obviously AI is infiltrating everything we do and there’s very interesting things we’re … actually there’s an overlap of AI and material and molecule discovery, which, I’ll probably butcher this if I try to even explain it. One of our companies is Zymergen, which is based on … which is just doing mind-blowing things in inventing new … discovering new materials and new chemicals through AI.
And so that’s a field that I barely understand, and I think every time I learn more about it, it’s doing incredible things. And there’s a number of companies like that.
All right. Medium.
What’s happening with Medium now? When last we talked, you were … You’ve changed it about 63 times. Like, in the way you’re looking about it. How do you look at it right now? What do you think of it as?
I would argue I have not changed it 63 times, although …
I do defend my need to change my mind.
I don’t mind it. I don’t care if you change it.
We haven’t changed that many things about Medium. Medium’s been around for about seven years.
The entire time, it’s been an open publishing platform that has grown that entire time. So, more people write, more people read. Two years ago, we started building a subscription business on top of that. That’s been going very well.
And so in the last two years, the main thing we’ve done is built this premium consumer subscription business on top of the open publishing platform. So it’s really a mesh of those two things that allows anyone to publish, have a voice, potentially get paid. We pay thousands of writers from all over the world, every week, and that’s a growing amount. And then we have a professional editorial team and then we also work with third-party publishers. So we do all that …
Would it be right to say that you’ve pushed off of the professional stuff more and tended more towards different writers? Has that not worked as well? Or what part has worked the best?
Everything’s growing. The bulk of Medium is still self-published authors and we have our partner program where we pay them through. Most people writing on Medium don’t opt in to get paid, they’re looking to find audience. We also have a growing editorial team that is publishing … The latest thing we’ve been doing is starting these little publications or mini magazines around a variety of topics. We’ve been doing that both in-house and through partners like Mark Bittman and Roxanne Gay. We just launched something a couple weeks ago.
And so all that is working and it’s really the combination of things that are working, because it’s very clear to me that advertising isn’t working, peer advertising for publishing, for quality information. People still want good things to read and to inform their view of the world, and so every publisher that, as you know, is putting up paywalls and subscriptions, and it seems very clear that people aren’t going to subscribe to dozens of sites.
Just like they don’t subscribe to every TV show they watch or every musician. They’re going to look for a lot of value under one subscription that’s personalized, that’s high quality, that’s, I think, ad-free is tremendously different.
Well, they’re doing that with podcasts. They’re trying to bring together podcasts …
They are. And we’re much farther along than anyone doing that in podcasts.
Do you consider yourself a network then? And how would you describe yourself as a media company?
We’re … You could call it a network, and Medium’s always been a network, it’s really a platform and the subscription part is a bundle. It’s a bundle of thousands of writers, of dozens of publications, for one price. Some of that is licensed, by the way, from third-party publishers. So we include New York Times, Financial Times, Bloomberg. A lot of these, part of … Just a few stories from them are in there. And so really our goal is to build the best content subscription product that there is.
Do you think, yourself, of buying big media companies? All the others … A lot of … Laurene Powell Jobs, Marc Benioff, obviously Jeff Bezos, and others with some money have been purchasing things. There was a rumor you were looking at New York magazine? Is that true?
It’s true, there was a rumor about that. And…
You got me there.
I love New York magazine, I think they do a great job. And look, I think it is something I’ve thought about.
Because I think there’s a lot of those organizations that do great work and they need a new model, frankly. And a lot of them I think will be fine, but a lot of them are going through more difficult times. The difference between myself and most of the people you mentioned is, if we were to do that it would plug into the business and building.
So what do you imagine — finishing up — the modern media company looks like? What’s been the thing that you’ve done and you’ve thought, “Ah, that’s not the way it should go”? What do you think a modern media company looks like? Because you could go and buy old media companies …
And try to …
Yeah. I don’t think that’s … I think a modern media company … I think the idea of being open to some degree is important, and this is where we’re really trying to capture the best of what you get from the internet and from social media in many ways, which is giving a lot of people the chance to be heard. But it’s not guaranteeing … It’s not just let the machines and algorithms and people fight it out for attention, it’s really blending openness …
So not Twitter, right?
Not Twitter, but it’s … We just serve a very different purpose. So the modern media company, if you’re building a publisher today, given the internet, I think it’d be crazy to limit yourself to the people in the building or the people who you know. And so we have the good fortune of getting tens of thousands of people every single day saying, “Here’s my story. Here’s my idea. Here’s my perspective.” And we curate that and sometimes we edit it and we put it in front of more people, and then we also get the benefit of working with people who are well-established.
And so a modern media company, I think, taps the world’s brains and really builds the best … And a big part of what we do and our philosophy is blending humans and machines. So we’ve seen the pure, open platform, what that gives us in terms of content. And we’ve seen the traditional world and how that can be limited in terms of scale and efficiency. And so I think the next version’s going to blend those things and that’s what we’re trying to do.
And are you positive about media? Because it’s still in its long death swoon. Which, they still haven’t killed off media. It’s been more … Reading is more popular. Television’s more popular. Are you worried about media?
In general, do you think the changes that are being made are …
I’m very optimistic. It’s interesting that the written word and publishing, which we’re currently focused on though not limited to, is kind of the last to be … There’s a time when it was going to be the death of the music industry and there was a time … It was never, as I recall, the death of the TV industry, but there’s a time when reality TV dominated and that’s what we kind of thought the future was. And both of those are tremendously better, both as businesses and as consumer products. And I think the same thing, for the same reason, can happen with the information we read, and nonfiction educational content as well.
So you imagine that there will be great media brands, not … Like, you have Game of Thrones, for example, which just finished, which we’re not sure what we’re going to do after that. But you, still, are positive that media can morph into this in this noisy, angry…
Absolutely. The reason it sucks is because of advertising. Full stop. That is the game that we’ve been playing for 20 years, and it wasn’t so bad at first, and now? Attention wins. Period. The cheapest way you can generate attention, which is the same reason that reality TV dominated, change the business model, you change the content.
To me, people talk about saving publishing or saving news. How about we create something way better? And I think we can do that, in the same way other industries do, by changing the incentive structure.
So that would make, kind of, Twitter and Facebook reality television in a weird way? Because that’s where a lot of people get their news.
The reality TV version of the internet will exist for a long time, just as a reality TV version. I think Facebook and Twitter are distribution systems for content more than they are content themselves and social media is a whole ‘nother thing. But I’m talking about publishing, and even when people are talking about where they get their news and information, most things people read are on other sites that are commercially published and driven by advertising.
All right. Last question. Do you think you’ll go public with Medium?
It’s too soon to say, but if we do I would like to go on the Long-Term Stock Exchange, another Obvious investment.
All right. All right. We’ll talk about that later. Thank you, Ev.
Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.
Alexa Chung ELLE Cover Star March 2012
Lil Nas X and Wrangler’s “Old Town Road” clothing line inspires country music fan backlash
“Old Town Road” star Lil Nas X’s latest move is into fashion, courtesy of a collaboration with Wrangler, the legacy denim and apparel brand that’s become a signature element of the Western aesthetic.
The chart-topping rapper has partnered with the company to launch a capsule clothing collection inspired by his hit song and featuring graphic T-shirts, jeans, and other denim apparel. The collaboration is essentially an extension of one of the most memorable lyrics in “Old Town Road,” which shouts out Wrangler by name: “Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty.”
Wrangler describes the capsule collection, which launched May 20, as “fresh remixes of classic Wrangler styles for the kind of modern cowboy that can’t be put in a box.”
That’s a cheeky reference to “Old Town Road” itself, which sparked an intense debate over whether the song counts as country music when it debuted on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in March, and was subsequently removed. Despite its references to established Western themes and imagery — the song’s lyrics revolve around a lone cowboy riding his horse into the sunset, after all — Billboard said the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
Some country music fans and industry observers agreed, arguing that “Old Town Road” qualifies more as hip-hop than country. Others criticized Billboard for feeding rigid ideas about who or what qualifies as country enough, and suggested that Lil Nas X’s race played a part in the song’s reclassification; the fact that Lil Nas X is a black teenager from Atlanta and country is a predominantly white genre did not go unnoticed.
The song quickly became the catalyst for an industry-wide discussion about the definition of country music and racially tinged gatekeeping within the genre. It also became the top song in the country, and has now been No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks straight.
Just like the song itself riled some country music fans amid an outpouring of support for Lil Nas X from his own expansive fanbase, the rapper’s collaboration with Wrangler has met with a polarized response.
The Lil Nas X capsule collection is clearly intended to celebrate and capitalize on the success of “Old Town Road.” Although many Lil Nas X fans have expressed interest in buying the collection, Wrangler is also facing criticism from some consumers, many of whom are threatening to boycott.
Much of the backlash is playing out on social media, where Wrangler has received thousands of comments from customers expressing anger and “disappointment.” (It is unclear if customers have also been contacting the company via other, less public methods; Vox has reached out to Wrangler for comment.) And much of the current conversation revolves around how Wrangler seems to be promoting inclusivity by branching out from its reputation as a brand worn by cowboys and farmers.
Two recent Instagram posts from Wrangler showcasing items from its Lil Nas X collection have received more than 1,000 comments each. While plenty of people have commented on how awesome it looks or asking questions about where to buy, several have declared that the “Old Town Road” items are “ruining the cowboy name that y’all have.”
“Wranglers are to be worn by cowboys and farmers not rappers this is very disappointing,” reads one representative Instagram comment.
Some commenters have more explicitly mentioned race — or called out others’ racism.
“This is the dumbest thing i have seen all day,” one user wrote. “Wtf @wrangler? Why is it about diversity and equality ? There jeans. Quit playin politics.”
WRANGLER JUST PARTNERED WITH LIL NAS X AND THE RACIST ARE MAD GO BUY UP ALL THE WRANGLER LIL NAS X COLLAB JEANS YOU CAN PEOPLE SUPPORT DIVERSITY pic.twitter.com/gwH2G7dULj
— tyler (@tylerujhazy) May 21, 2019
Lil Nas X, for his part, seemed mildly surprised by the response.
i mean honestly white people act like they are the only ones who are cowboys. come to my town in louisiana, we pull up to mcdonalds on horses and have rodeos every weekend.
— Blair Waldorf (@teonnyspears) May 21, 2019
These comments are in the same vein as those used by some country music fans to describe “Old Town Road” when the song made its chart debut, arguing that rappers have no place in the genre (often while neglecting to acknowledge modern country’s own hip-hop influences). Lingering over this debate is race, which many Instagram users have called out in the comments on Wrangler’s posts. Country music is perceived as an insular, predominantly white genre, while Lil Nas X is a black rapper who draws influences from black artists and musical styles.
But Wrangler’s continued support of Lil Nas X is clear; the brand has been actively responding to its detractors on social media, simply repeating on that is devoted to creating high-quality products for all of its customers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the drama over the Lil Nas X collection has only served to draw more attention to it. Some pieces have already sold out, like a pair of shorts that say “Wrangler” on the booty, in keeping with the lyrics of “Old Town Road.” Considering that items in the collection cost between $39 for a graphic T-shirt and $129 for a pair of jeans, the outcry, at least from Wrangler’s perspective, seems to have paid off.
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