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No, Your Company Is Not Becoming A Media Company
Every so often, my toddler will get mad, throwing himself on the ground dramatically when he doesn’t get his way. For the most part, the result of said tantrum is not him getting his own way, and he eventually realizes whatever it is he wanted to happen isn’t going to happen and he’ll move on. He may try again, and the tantrum session will repeat, but he will eventually learn that we are not going to give him Cheerios for every meal, or let him grab something dangerous from a countertop, or somesuch business. He learns, despite being only a few years old, and recognizes on some level that there are structures that exist, and that no amount of crying will change how the world works.
Brian Armstrong, a billionaire at the tender age of 38, has yet to learn the same lesson. In another entry into TIME Magazine’s Least Mad Person 2021, Armstrong and Coinbase published “Announcing Coinbase Fact check: Decentralizing truth in the age of misinformation,” a decentralized source of truth that was posted on their own blog that nobody else can post on, a blog owned by a company with a stock sold on the stock exchange. He does the usual cancelee’s handwaving of how much of a problem misinformation is, and that as crypto has grown, it has faced “frustrating” levels of “misinformation.”
He begins by suggesting there are only three ways to deal with misinformation (which I am generously going along with, despite not thinking misinformation has occurred outside of him speaking), but his three ways are the following:
Turning the other cheek: Working with reporters to correct misinformation, internal comms, what he calls a “pacifist’s approach…” where you’re “taking regular beatings from a bully, but don’t fight back.” Other than how funny it is to call reporters “bullies” considering how Coinbase appears to have been quite a big bully themselves, Armstrong cites the negative coverage of Facebook as an example of how Facebook “turned the other cheek” and didn’t respond to the “conflict” of reporters, which can be disproven if you use Google exactly once.
Fight: This one’s obvious. He cites FedEx’s CEO responding to a story they found inaccurate (note: this is something Facebook has done a lot), and then says that “Peter Thiel’s takedown of Gawker” is a canonical example. The irony here is that his central problem with the media is that they use misinformed opinions and overwhelming force to do damage to people unfairly - an accurate description of Peter Thiel’s assault on Gawker.
“Publish The Truth”: His third posit is that the only source of truth there is for the company to say stuff publicly, and that companies “no longer need to go through biased intermediaries to communicate with their customers and stakeholders,” which I assume doesn’t involve the biased intermediary known as “Coinbase.”
In the case of Publishing The Truth, Armstrong mostly refers to big companies posting their defense when negative press comes out, something that they have been able to do forever, and cites his own company blog “correcting facts” about the New York Times investigation into Coinbase. His central posit here is that the “middle ground” between fighting and turning the other cheek is to just post your own thing and ignore the haters, which is certainly a strategy that he is not taking considering how much he loves to talk about how mean the media is.
The rest of his blog is the usual thing that guys with too much money who, somehow, got there without being able to take a single ounce of criticism - that the media is mean and biased and that the single source of truth is the poor multi-billion dollar company being viciously attacked. And, of course, the only solution to the problem is for companies to use their power and influence to build a new media, which…has happened before, but let’s dig into it anyway.
If you are not a media company you are not a media company
Importantly, Brian’s justification of Coinbase’s new “fact check” section" begins with several examples of companies that have totally failed to prove his core thesis, as well as a totally empty quote from Balaji Srinivasan, a man who has Scoblesque levels of “nobody can actually tell you what his job is”:
Amazon and Netflix built their own studios, Hubspot acquired the Hustle, a16z is going direct, Stripe has Stripe Press, and many more tech companies are quickly ascending the stack from mere “content marketing” to full-on media arms, complete with editors-in-chief and original content. As Balaji Srinivasan points out, this is the mirror image of legacy media corporations hiring engineers and declaring their aspiration to become world-class tech companies. There is no distinction anymore between app, distribution, and content — everyone is going full stack.
Amazon and Netflix built their own studios for their media companies, so that they could sell media to people via them, which was part of their product. Hubspot acquired The Hustle, a media outlet I have not heard of that appears to be a newsletter for brain genius entrepreneurs, and while Stripe Press seems to be certainly uh, something about “ideas for progress,” much like the Hustle I have never seen it linked in the wild. A16Z is making their own direct thing, sure, and seriously, who cares? Brian, you’re describing content marketing! You’re describing an early-to-mid 2010s thing that PR firms used to hock that they had to massively draw back on for one specific reason - it’s difficult to put out continually good content, and even more difficult to do so when you’re doing so at the behest of a corporate entity.
And guess what - that’s all Coinbase's “fact check” is. It’s a series of blogs about subjects that Coinbase cares about, that are of course framed in such a way that is advantageous to Coinbase. Three of the posts that he links to are Coinbase having little hissy fits about “false statements,” that they correctly describe as “reactive.”
Armstrong or Srinivasan’s nonsense statement (it is poorly-written and not obvious whom is being credit with it) that “there is no distinction anymore between app, distribution, and content” means nothing, there are absolutely distinctions between those, that’s why Armstrong has to post that he’s not mad and actually very smart on his little blog on his company’s website, specifically to set a distinction between the content and its means of distribution. Jesus christ. I am not the smartest person in the world, but if you eat up what this man is serving you, you are going to end up dying after stepping on the same rake 10,000,000 times in a row!
What’s equally funny about all of this is that Armstrong is positioning Coinbase’s fact check as something new and daring, versus what many, many companies have done to address things they perceive as wrong in the past. Back in 2019, Apple took to their own website to address Spotify’s claims around the app store. Companies love posting. on their blog when they’re mad, and companies have been hiring reporters to write about their stuff on their website for a long time.
As I’ve said before, the reason that not every company is a media company is because media is hard, even for media companies. Even for a huge company like Coinbase, it is tough to build an audience that will read and share your content, and actually engage with it on a meaningful level beyond saying “this is good” and nodding. Even in the era of parasocial relationships where people are convinced that companies love them, getting people to come back to your blog and read it and share it and want more of it is so, so difficult, and creating The Coinbase Truth Zone is one of the more polarizing ways to begin your content development.
Think about it - why do you read the websites you read? Are there any of them that are company blogs? If your favourite company started writing a blog every day, would you read it if it was mediocre but the company wrote it? Probably not. People have a limited amount of time in their day, and the reason they keep coming back to media entities is that they enjoy the content they’re putting out.
There’s also clearly the classic problem of assuming that if you build it, they will come. Coinbase put out a blog - their first “FACT CHECK” (all caps) about Bitcoin mining being environmentally unfriendly. I follow no less than 50 crypto people, and I did not see one share, not even from the guys who share literally anything that they see on Uniswap that has a marketcap of under $1 million. I didn’t see it cited in any articles about the subject - hell, I just didn’t see it discussed. Why? Probably because it’s boring as shit. It’s overly-long, it’s only from Coinbase (people want to read people, not from companies), and it’s written to seem objective but clearly has the bias of a company that is pro-mining, and also cites Elon Musk meeting with mining companies to form a consortium to “accelerate the adoption of sustainable-energy mining worldwide,” which is generous because it assumes consortiums will do anything quickly, or, well, anything.
But, seriously, it’s just boring and bad to read (don’t say “just like your blog” I swear to god), it isn’t good content, it is just content put out there on the false assumption that every company is a content company.
The reason that the vast majority of company blogs do not take off as solo media entities is that they are not media companies. They are optimized, at best, for clicks, but for the most part just put stuff out that they like and don’t really pay attention to what people reading like. Companies like Mint grew their content because they used their own proprietary data and hired personal finance writers, and even then fueling that fire is tiresome - and basically requires having a media company inside of another company.
And the reason that we will all forget about TruthCoin: FactFinancier is because it is literally a company blog put on Medium, written in an empty, self-serving corporate parlance that nobody cares about and nobody will remember. Armstrong is throwing his toys around the room, screaming and crying about how unfair these large, powerful media entities are because he knows that deep down, he and his company can control many things, but they can’t bend the truth to their will. We will see many startups put time and energy into trying to create their own “unbiased” media outlets that are ultimately incredibly biased, before realizing exactly how difficult, boring and annoying it is to create something that people will read, and how being self-promotional doesn’t actually help in any way, shape or form.
In the meantime, Brian and Coinbase will likely spin their wheels posting arduous “fact check” posts on Medium until they realize that it does nothing, and then probably give up on the whole thing entirely.