Sean Parker and Silicon Valley’s noxious taste for narcissism
Or why no one wants to hear about your wedding…again.
It’s the latest disruptive innovation from Silicon Valley: Sean Parker has found something more awful than having to sit through a slideshow of someone else’s wedding photos – the 9,666-word self-justifying wedding essay.
The exegesis on his nuptials, privacy, the press and other boo-hoo-hoo-worthy topics isn’t confined to a personal blog. Parker – lately of Founder’s Fund but formerly of Napster, Plaxo and Facebook – has been given a berth by TechCrunch, a site so ready to bend over backwards for Valley royalty that it has had its spine surgically removed.
The impetus for Parker’s lengthy self-aggrandising, self-justifying and self-pitying essay was a series of press stories that alleged that his fairytale Tolkien-inspired wedding resulted in damage to the forest where it was held.
Seemingly unsatisfied with a previous lengthy rebuttal published by The Atlantic, the source of one of the most critical pieces, Parker clearly felt unsatisfied with his right to reply. He’s serious about setting the record straight. So serious, that he can say things like this with a straight face: “We wanted our wedding to be spiritual, though not overtly religious. Everyone is familiar with man-made cathedrals, but there is another kind of cathedral, built by God.”
Going into exhaustive detail about how he and his now wife hiked through the redwood forests of California to find the perfect site, Parker is the internet equivalent of that really boring person you’ve been stuck next to at a dinner party. They’re desperate to tell you about the minutiae of their DIY project or their trip to Tibet and absolutely nothing you do or say will deter them from droning on about it while you try to enjoy the homemade Creme Brûlée and wish you were at home watching TV instead.
What makes Parker’s essay even more laughable is that one of its central points is that he is “cursed with celebrity”. What better way to deal with that curse than to prolong a negative story about your wedding with a long diatribe about that very celebrity, speaking in detail about what should be one of life’s most intimate events?
Let’s take Parker’s argument at face value, though he contradicts himself repeatedly – the wedding didn’t damage the forest and some press reports erroneously claimed that it did, commenters were cruel to him and his wife. That’s a shame but continuing to perpetuate the coverage with a huge essay is like Z-list celebrities wailing about intrusion before tipping off the paparazzi about their shopping trips and street corner arguments.
Parker himself admits there’s no small irony in a man who contributed immensely to Facebook’s success and its erosion of traditional standards of privacy is under fire on those platforms: “I have also witnessed these mediums used to form massive digital lynch mobs, which I have been at the mercy of more than once. I guess it’s only fitting that I would be; the universe has a funny way of returning these things in kind.” Parker made his money by ignoring laws, ownership and privacy. That he later goes on to call for stricter privacy laws in the US made me laugh so much it was nearly a medical emergency.
It might be possible to feel sorry for Parker were it not for the astronomical lack of self-awareness at play. One sub-heading declares not at hyperbolically “this was the sort of angry invective normally reserved for genocidal dictators”. Later, the hugely wealthy entrepreneur and investor crows: “I have made, quite literally, ‘a billion dollars’, which, as I’m constantly reminded by the media, is ‘cool’.” He’d like us to agree that being wealthy is terribly tough.
Parker discusses, at length, what he considers to be the decline of traditional media and a horrific addiction to link-baiting and scandal-chasing. He’s right. The problem is, he makes his case from the homepage of a site that is utterly addicted to those practices itself. On its worst day, TechCrunch is the National Enquirer of the startup world. When it’s not muckraking, it is, as with running Parker’s rebuttal, bowing and scraping to Silicon Valley’s software caesars.
Why does Parker’s post matter? Because it is an epic example of a terrible tendency among this tech entrepreneur class. They live not just within investment bubbles but hermetic worlds where their net worth leads them to over value their personal worth and lose perspective on the world outside the cult of disruption, of places where burbling about your innovation, your personal brand and “changing the world” wouldn’t play so well. Parker’s article is a ziggurat to narcissism but it is by no means an isolated case in tech journalism.
The tech press, especially American outlets who have an incredibly symbiotic relationship with the industry (there’s a growing trend for hacks to go in-house as “content specialists” at investment firms), constantly carves out little idols dedicated to incredibly banal figures. Just before reading the Parker diatribe, I saw a gushing feature by Fast Company in honour of Brit Morin, founder of Brit+Co, a glorified scrapbook of craft ideas you could find free on Pinterest. It’s a puff piece so breathless I suspect the writer required an iron lung to get to the finish line.
There is not a scintilla of criticism in Fast Company article. Why would there be? Morin, married to Dave Morin, formerly of Facebook and now the founder of the spectacularly over-hyped social network Path, has just raised $6.3m in investment. Why harsh the buzz by asking where the business model is and what makes the site special beyond Morin’s excellent Silicon Valley connections (her former boss, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer is an investor)?
Earlier this year, Dave Morin himself offered a master class in the superhuman levels of self-obsession Silicon Valley ‘stars’ can ascend to in an already infamous interview with Vanity Fair. The fluffy piece about the apps on his phone – a standard bit of filler – revealed him as the Derek Zoolander of technology, Blue Steel pout included. He boasted tautologically of a “custom-designed, one-of-a-kind bespoke app” for communicating with assistant and revealed that he has “two iPhones, one for day and one for the night”.
It’s by no means the case that all entrepreneurs are afflicted with the toxic narcissism that seems to stream from figures like Parker and Morin but the tech press is painfully tolerant of this errant foolishness. Just as celebrity magazines are willing to indulge the most ridiculous statements of kooks such as Gwyneth Paltrow (“I’d rather smoke crack than eat cheese from a tin”), a lot of reporters writing about the superstars of Silicon Valley turn a blind eye to the excesses, arrogance and lies to maintain closeness.
TechCrunch’s co-editor, Alexia Tsotsis, tweeted after publishing Parker’s piece: “Is it the oblivious sense of self-importance that is so grating? Is that it? Is that what bugs outsiders the most about the Valley?” In those 131 characters, she showed more self-awareness than Sean Parker managed in 57,768. For all that talk of “disruption”, the tech community’s collective ego and the press’s willingness to bow to it are desperately in need of an overhaul.