The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Clubhouse illuminates the stark cultural divide between journalists and tech people

The icon for the social media app Clubhouse on a smartphone screen in Beijing on Feb. 9. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing around with a new invitation-only iPhone app called Clubhouse. It might best be described as the world’s first all-audio crowdsourced convention hall, where users can create open “rooms” to discuss whatever strikes their fancy, and others can listen or, if the moderators allow, speak.

It’s still too early to answer a question that gets asked a lot on Clubhouse: “What is Clubhouse good for?” My most striking discovery so far is how well it illuminates the stark cultural divide between journalists and tech people, though both cohorts seem very attracted to the app’s odd combination of podcast, in-person conference panel and social media platform. That’s an explosive mixture, since some of their interactions keep erupting into semipublic feuds, on Clubhouse and off, with mutual allegations of unfair personal attacks and abuses of their considerable powers.

I know these are generalizations, but I do detect a pattern: Most noticeably, journalists — whose geographic and psychological heartland mostly seems to be the East Coast — come across as reflexively negative, while the West Coast-centric entrepreneurial culture oftenseems positive-bordering-on-grandiose. Mention a product to the journalists, and they immediately fixate on potential dangers. Entrepreneur-types tend toward improbable speculations about how blockchains or software-as-a-service might cure social problems that have been plaguing humanity since we lost our tails.

Naturally, from the Silicon Valley vantage, the journalists may sound bitter and toxic. From the newsroom, the entrepreneurs seem fake, or oblivious. No wonder neither side trusts each other. But I suspect there are good reasons for those differences, rooted in the kind of work they do.

An entrepreneur who doesn’t accentuate the positive isn’t an entrepreneur; they’re someone who assessed the risks and decided to take a salaried position instead. A journalist who is naturally optimistic is apt to shy away from some important stories about bad things done by bad people.

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Of course, journalists like puppies and cancer-cure stories, too, and entrepreneurs aren’t actually terminally naive, or all start-ups would end in predictable disasters. But the emphasis differs greatly — and, arguably, that emphasis is what makes each of them good at their jobs.

Inarguably, society needs both of those jobs done well.

But it’s hard to admit that when you have conflicting interests at stake: Many of Silicon Valley’s products have put journalists out of jobs, and not a few journalists have returned the favor. But their natural mutual wariness is often aggravated because the other side refuses to acknowledge the downsides of its approach.

I wish the many journalists who’ve never had to meet a payroll, build a product, gamble their life savings on a venture, or please customers who aren’t their demographic clones would be more in awe of how difficult and rare it is to do those things well. We also ought to acknowledge that our stories can end careers and wreck lives, and that this is a fearsome power, easily abused.

But of course people in tech world also play down their own very real power — to destabilize livelihoods, invade privacy, upend civic culture — even as the fortunes some of the most successful have insulate them from the consequences, or from justifiable criticism. If they refuse to count the costs, they should not be surprised or hurt when others start the tally.

There are also systematic, and irritating, ways that these groups overestimate their own power. The media’s pronouncements about fighting “misinformation” often sound perilously close to declaring that the common presumptions of a handful of major media outlets should define the bounds of accepted truth for everyone. That’s both arrogant and impossible, and I don’t blame anyone for recoiling. But I do question those who have reacted by casually (and publicly!) suggesting that they’ll use their entrepreneurial mojo to destroy journalism and replace it with something better.

I don’t say that we can’t be disrupted; the Internet has already done just that, good and hard. I do say that if you think there’s some obvious way to outcompete the dogged fighters who are still standing after 20 years of disruption, you are underestimating your opponents, and overestimating how easy you’d find it to overcome our challenges. I also note that a true strategic genius who came up with a surefire plan to destroy another business would probably hatch their plot quietly, lest their target get the wind up and move first.

But here I am being a negative journalist, instead of a positive visionary, so let me close with a hope: that tech and journalism could think of themselves as partners in building a smarter, better-informed society, instead of cutthroat rivals for control of it. I suppose that sounds naive, but I like to think it’s possible. Or maybe I’ve just been spending too much time on Clubhouse.

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