Pumpkin Spice Politics

Bumble, The Skimm, and branding your audience

Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin in 2016. (Image: TechCrunch)

“Always be branded at all times,” said Bumble founder, Whitney Wolfe, sitting in front of a wall that read “Bee yourself, honey!” It was the second weekend of The Hive, Bumble’s pop-up dating and networking hub on Mercer Street. Since its launch in 2014, Bumble has made a name for itself as arguably the least creepy dating app. Wolfe was a co-founder at Tinder, but was ousted after a breakup with fellow co-founder and noted dipshit, Justin Mateen, who proceeded to send her a series of threatening text messages. She filed a lawsuit accusing Mateen and CEO Sean Rad of sexual discrimination and harassment, settled for $1 million, and Bumble was launched as a corrective. By February of 2017 it had over 12.5 million users. More recently, Bumble has expanded beyond romance and launched a sort of friend-dating counterpart, Bumble BFFs. The Hive was the latest installment in Wolfe’s planned expansion, and a test site for the app’s networking iteration, Bumble Bizz, which is set to launch this Fall.

Were Crazy Craving, the old Honeycomb cereal mascot, to come into money and open a Drybar, it would look like The Hive. The walls were divided hexagonally, with screens in the honeycomb sections displaying a rotating collection of inspirational quotes like, “Be the CEO your parents wanted you to marry,” and “No one is you and that is your power.” Everything was yellow and white.

It was nine o’clock in the morning, but there were a lot of cold-shoulder tops and TV hair. The lighting was great, but the overall effect of The Hive made everyone look both wealthy and slightly jaundiced. I was there for Wolfe’s Q&A with Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, cofounders of The Skimm, a political newsletter with over 4 million subscribers that, depending on who you ask, is either dynamic and buzzy or puerile and infantilizing. “This is such an incredible space,” said Weisberg.

According to Weisberg, she and Zakin started The Skimm because they saw a void. “We’ve loved news our whole lives. A lot of our early investors have called us ‘disruptors with love.’ We love news, [but] we saw that our friends just didn’t have time to read the news all day long. They’re real people, they’re smart, they knew everything about their industries, they’re curious, but they just didn’t have the time.” This is a party line. They told Business Insider essentially the same thing in 2015, saying that The Skimm was the newsletter for your “smart friend.”

The advice delivered during the Q&A was essentially useless — there was a lot of discussion about being “authentic,” not “plugging things in,” and “culture carrying” — the odd, vaguely fungal language of corporate feminism. “Everyone has to be a culture carrier,” Weisberg said. Wolfe nodded, vigorously, mouthing “YES.” Weisberg and Zakin both emphasized the importance of “the hustle.” When they started The Skimm, Zakin explained, “we shared an apartment.”

“In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing,” George Orwell wrote seventy-one years ago. Mercifully, he did not live to see The Skimm, which Christina Cauterucci called “the Ivanka Trump of Newsletters,” writing for Slate in May:

Every blurb is painstakingly neutered of political slant or analysis and boring (read: important) stories are loaded with conspicuous snark about how uninteresting news can be. “Don’t fall asleep,” the newsletter warned of a paragraph on Trump’s plan to cut the corporate tax rate last month. “You’re still hearing a lot about Michael Flynn. Right…who’s he again?” another entry quipped, as if women move through their days osmosing names here and there, but never turning their attention away from their Birchboxes long enough to hear the end of the sentence.

The newsletter has been defended by Foster Kamer at Mashable and Kaitlin Ugolik at Columbia Journalism Review. “The Skimm isn’t for people who work in media,” wrote Kamer. “The Skimm is for people who don’t know what an RSS feed is and don’t care.” Ugolik admits that The Skimm has released no demographic information aside from the fact that 80 percent of its readers are women, but insists that dismissing the newsletter,

plays into claims of elitism that have lost us the trust of much of the American public. Since the election, journalists have been doing a lot of soul searching, and much has been written about how reporters and editors need to work harder to connect with swaths of the country they’ve long ignored, especially the rural poor. That isn’t necessarily The Skimm’s demographic…But the newsletter is reaching out to a group, millennial women, that is underserved in other ways, regularly underestimated and written off at times as entitled and uninterested.

Since the election, the media has spent a lot of time self-flagellating over operating “in a bubble” and being out of touch with the American public (cf. HuffPost embarking on a seven-week bus tour in order to connect with small-town America.) Kamer and Ugolik both seem to be under the impression that criticizing The Skimm is indicative of the kind of elitism that handed Trump the presidency. They both mention that The Skimm links out to accurate sources — but accurate sourcing (even in 2017) is literally the lowest bar for reporting. It delivers the news in language that’s colloquial and (debatably) funny, but that is…blogging. The Skimm did not invent blogging, it’s just a particularly bad example of it.

In their Bumble Q&A, Weisberg and Zakin specifically said that when they were starting out they would work out of Starbucks wearing Skimm shirts, leave flyers in Equinox, do college campus tours and stuff flyers under dorm room doors. They were targeting college-educated women with disposable income. I dropped out of college when the recession hit and I didn’t hear about The Skimm until I went back and saw my classmates reading it.

I took an informal poll of my friends — who do not work in media and do not have four-year degrees — and none of them had ever heard it. “What the fuck are those headlines?” said Rebecca Hillman, reading an excerpt that began, “What to say when your friend starts hanging out with your ex…Cutting ties. Yesterday, the Trump administration said it’s cutting financial ties with a Chinese bank that allegedly supports North Korea.” Hillman, 25, is a bookseller at the Strand. “Is this a real website?”

Ugolik understands that working-class women aren’t the target demographic, but still claims that “we as journalists haven’t yet seemed to grasp…that to reach more people — whether in a factory in Kentucky or at a cocktail party in Manhattan — our approach may need to change.” She’s right, the approach needs to change. But if anyone is “regularly underestimat[ing]” these readers as Ugolik said, it’s the newsletter itself — which simplifies current events to such an extent that they lose all meaning.

Two of The Skimm’s main backers are venture capital firms RRE Ventures and Greycroft Partners, both of whom have ties to Pete Peterson’s “Fix the Debt” Campaign, an astroturf movement active during Obama’s second term that was essentially trying to slash Medicaid and Social Security benefits under the guise of balancing the budget. The Skimm hasn’t promoted anything along those lines, but it does seem dedicated to keeping its readers apolitically informed in a way that’s troubling, given its funding.

The media is elitist, the media has a blind spot, fine — but the problems of “Real America,” shouldn’t be used as a stand-in for whatever you, personally, are angry about at the moment. The defense of The Skimm manages to conflate legitimately disenfranchised women with a vision of “The Basic Bitch,” that verges on parody — women so wealthy they barely have to care about politics. The Skimm ultimately isn’t really about politics, it’s about a brand. Weisberg and Zakin are planning expansions into video, a book club, and a lifestyle brand.

Far from being underserved, their audience is one advertisers target most heavily. Both Kamer and Ugolik equate criticism of The Skimm with criticism of its readers — a line of defense Gwyneth Paltrow used recently to defend her questionable doctors under the guise of defending Goop acolytes. “When they go low, we go high,” she tweeted out linking to an article that read “These women are not hypochondriacs, and they should not be dismissed or marginalized.”

Not every group is equally marginalized and not all criticism is elitist. There is a long history of women’s media treating women as if they’re idiots, and any defense of The Skimm essentially accepts that as a necessary evil. Although, to be fair, especially if you are an educated, adult woman — I mean, yeah, you can do better than The Skimm, and maybe you deserve a certain amount of opprobrium. “If you went to Vassar,” said Mandy Rodriguez, when I showed her Kamer and Ugolik’s articles — Rodriguez is thirty, did not go to college, and works primarily as a caterer — “and I’m serving your food, and I think you’re an idiot, how does that make me an elitist?”

Rebecca McCarthy is on Twitter