On Shutting the Fuck Up

Breaking my self-imposed social media hiatus to declare disgust w media/blogger treatment of Chris Hughes. stfu & build something.

— Jason Goldberg (@betashop) December 10, 2014

Jason Goldberg is a startup guy. He founded Fab, which has had trouble, and is now focusing on a venture called Hem. He is upset with the media’s treatment of Chris Hughes, the young owner of The New Republic, who made his money from Facebook.

It is a perfect post. Not because of its subject, which is boring, or because of its writer, who could be any frustrated vc/startup person, really. It’s perfect because it is an unforced, pure expression of one of the most irritating arguments in tech, or anywhere.

stfu & build something.

This one has been cropping up a lot lately! Sometimes it is employed more softly:

14/Sixth: Anyone who thinks SV can be doing more/better/different, come join us and participate in building new things, products, companies!

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) July 7, 2014

15/Jump in, the water’s warm! SV draws talent from all over the world & all walks of life; nothing preventing any critic from contributing.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) July 7, 2014

But always comes from the same place:

1/I really never like to criticize any startup, and I won’t in this thread by name, but there is an important topic that must be discussed.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) March 15, 2014

(This refers to anonymous posting app Secret.)

The number of critics of Twitter (the company) who have built $25B+ companies that double revenue each year is remarkably low.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) November 7, 2014

“Stfu & build something” is probably great advice to engineers or prospective startup founders. All it means, in that context, from boss to employee, or peer to peer, or even competitor to competitor, is “ok, cool, now shut the fuck up and do your job.”

But somewhere in the internalization process “stfu & build something” gets turned into a default pose: a mindset, an ethos, and an answer to all criticism; a hybrid of the authoritarian’s “you wouldn’t understand” and the financier’s “you couldn’t do what I do.”

It’s intoxicatingly effective — how can you respond, really, in a few words? — which is just another way of saying it’s fallacious. It’s an appeal to accomplishment, and applying it in other domains can lead in dark directions — has led in dark directions. What do you know about running the CIA? ETCETERA.

Artists, and even self-identified critics, do this all the time too: What do you know, have you written a book? “Stfu & build something” is sort of like a younger, richer cousin of “snarking from the sidelines.”

This line of thinking has flourished in tech, because startup people love talking to startup people, and because, among peers who also see the world as a set of logistical arrangements in dire but mysterious need of optimization, it’s not unreasonable: With venture capital at your back, criticism without investment is just waste. Problems without accompanying investment opportunities are therefore somehow flawed — not quagmires, exactly, or paradoxes, but certainly not worth your time — and should therefore be totally ignored.

But if you stop privileging venture capital as your moral context — or, harder, stop privileging capital in general as an all-consuming intellectual context — “stfu & build something” sounds different. It sounds very stupid! Imagine arguing like that with your partner. (Or maybe you do, in which case you are a sociopath.) It is a rejection of criticism unless that criticism takes the specific form of action, which is in this case investment or software; it betrays a bizarre and heroic self-image, and delusional ideas about what it is, exactly, that a startup founder does. It also ignores a crucial (and actually kind of flattering!) fact: That all startups are criticism, rendered in money and work. Uber was condemnation of the taxi industry and treatise on logistics; Facebook was a criticism of the social networking sites that came before it, as well as their advertising models. Successful startups begin with critical ideas about problems that are best addressable by a particular type of resource, and then grow by addressing them.

To say “stfu & build something,” or some variation thereof, is to demand that a critic engage you on your own narrow terms — terms which may well be a subject of the criticism in the first place. Uber critics, for example, might be worried about the future of public transit, which will be affected by the company, but which operates according to a set of principles incompatible with pure market values. Andreessen occasionally bumps up against the limits of his worldview with weird tautological tweets (which, to his credit, he then discusses).

“I hate that Technology X is killing Technology Y.” = “I hate that customers are choosing Technology X over Technology Y.” (In most cases!)

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) December 9, 2014

There’s victor-writes-history asymmetry to this sentiment, which is common in the tech world. Consumer choice is a reflection of rightful destiny when referring to the present or the past; when looking forward, however, the operating assumption is that consumers don’t yet know what they want, and must be shown.

ANYWAY: I’m with Goldberg on his first point, for what it’s worth: shutting the fuck up about The New Republic is very good advice. But still, criticism is creation! Even the endless horrible moans about TNR, which were bad in terms that a startup founder could understand: they convinced nobody of anything, they reached nobody new, they were functionally flawed. They were bad investments, I guess, but god, what an empty, depressing way to see the world.

All I ask for is consistency. If building something is more virtuous than talking, then shouldn’t the builders shut the fuck up too?