The tech apology tour

By Brad Stone

An artist was brandishing this sign outside of the first building Snapchat acquired in Venice. Photographer: Graham Walzer/Bloomberg

Last week was as rare as a solar eclipse here at Bloomberg Technology headquarters. It was a three-apology week.

In response to my colleague Gerrit De Vynck’s story that Canadian ad management company Hootsuite Media Inc. may not actually be worth $1 billion, apparently testy Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes took to Twitter, asking Gerrit to call him directly and posting an 800-number. It was a phone sex line. Under a barrage of criticism, Holmes apologized. “Ryan took offense to a headline that inferred a valuation more than 25% below independent 3rd party estimates,” the company later said in a statement. “He let his pride for what the Hootsuite team has built get the better of him and responded to the journalist with an offside comment.”

Then there was Uber’s already famous mea culpa, in response to Eric Newcomer’s story last week about a dashcam video of CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver over decreasing fares. “To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement,” Kalanick wrote in response. “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”

Rounding out the trio, my colleague Sarah Frier highlighted the tensions between the congenitally secretive Snap Inc. and its neighbors in Los Angeles’ Venice Beach. After the story drew attention to the strained relations, Snap was dogged by protesters at its Venice offices during its IPO week and promised the community that it would take its concerns into account. “No one could have anticipated how quickly we’ve grown and we have already begun focusing our future growth outside of Venice,” the company wrote.

And these are just the recent tech mea culpas that we were directly involved in. Amazon also apologized for the AWS outage last Tuesday that slowed down websites across the east coast. Google apologized for the widespread failure of its home wireless routers and then for mishandling the resulting outcry from customers. And Facebook apologized for shutting down the official page of the Palestinian Fatah Party of President Mahmoud Abbas, after misclassifying a classic photo of former leader Yasser Arafat holding a rifle.

If you’re not apologizing for something in Silicon Valley right now, you’ve got to be asking yourself: do I even matter?

Kidding aside, what’s behind this sudden rash of regret? I have a few thoughts and would love to hear yours as well. Since the election, the public and the press have clearly been in a feisty, combative mood. Instead of alleviating anti-establishment sentiment, the elevation of President Trump seems to have exacerbated it.

Tech companies of course are very much the establishment. Their (mostly male) chieftains can be easy villains, particularly at a time of widening economic inequality. Kalanick is worth more than $6 billion on paper, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Snap co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy are now worth about $5.9 billion each. They minted these fortunes inside a decade. Unfairly or not, the larger the net worth, the bigger a target.

We also have Silicon Valley culture to blame, with all of its imperiousness and hubris. The tech giants like to move fast and break things — which are increasingly our laws, the websites we use at work or the devices they sell us for our homes. Technology can never be perfect, of course, but as it plays an ever-larger role in our lives and comes to be responsible for the elimination of more and more jobs, its shortcomings and failures become harder to excuse.

But they can always say they’re sorry.

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