Farhad’s and Mike’s Week in Tech: Thiel, Tech Companies and Trump

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Mike: Which, speaking as an employee of a news company, is something I think is a bad thing. But hey, I guess we just have to think of better ad products or value propositions to customers as times change. (Click below to subscribe!)

Farhad: Now Facebook says it wants to help. Among other things, it plans to work with news companies to develop new kinds of products, like new article formats. It is also trying to develop ways to improve users’ “news literacy,” though how that will happen isn’t quite clear. To me the announcement sounded a bit vague, but there seemed to be a real earnestness to it. Facebook seems to slowly be coming around to recognizing people’s concerns about its role in the news. Or am I being too kind?

Mike: I will cautiously half agree with you. Facebook is in a real bind here. They clearly understand, at least now, how influential they are in the distribution of mass media. And from indications I’ve been getting from people inside the company who aren’t in public relations, there is at least some genuine concern that they need to balance their power with a series of checks.

That said, try getting anyone at Facebook to say “yes, we’re a media company.” It won’t happen, partly because they really don’t believe it — media company is far more boring than tech and innovation hub — and partially because it comes with many more strings and responsibilities. Also, who knows what that could mean in terms of regulation or governmental interference.

So anyway, this is kind of a half-measure, which I guess I can get on board with until someone figures out a better way.

Farhad: Speaking of Facebook, Peter Thiel — a Facebook director — sat down for a revealing and strange interview with our colleague Maureen Dowd. Thiel, the venture capitalist who was Donald Trump’s only big-name backer in Silicon Valley, told Dowd that people in tech were far too apocalyptic about Trump’s presidency. Thiel said a lot of troll-ish things — he was obviously trying to get a rise out of people when he said that Trump’s “Access Hollywood” comments bothered people in the tech industry only because “people there just don’t have that much sex.”

Mike: He’s like a living, breathing Twitter egg. You two might get along!

Farhad: But what was really surprising about the interview was Thiel’s lack of imagination about how the world could change in big ways under Trump. Thiel is famously bold — he invests in crazy ideas, he favors huge social, political and economic change. He is Disruption Man.

And yet when asked about what might happen to gay rights or abortion rights under Trump’s Supreme Court, or whether Trump’s Twitter musings could spark global conflicts, Thiel only kind of shrugged, saying big things won’t happen because they just won’t, O.K.?

It reminded me of the famous Onion point-counterpoint: “This War Will Destabilize The Entire Mideast Region And Set Off A Global Shockwave Of Anti-Americanism vs. No It Won’t.

Mike: My suspicion is that he’s keeping his cards close to his chest on making pronouncements on any sweeping social change. Thiel clearly made the right move backing Trump when all others in the Valley did not, and now he has the president’s ear. That’s invaluable.

My point is, he doesn’t really believe in that shrug. He just wants to keep quiet on contentious issues and not upset the president. All the while, he’ll work on his actual agenda in private. Remember his secrecy around funding the Gawker lawsuits for years? He’s calculating; he’s strategic. He is very, very smart.

Farhad: Just like us! Or me, at least.

Finally, Amazon put out a statement promising to create 100,000 new full-time jobs in the United States over the next year and a half. The company did not mention Trump, but the statement seemed as if it was part of a pattern of corporations sending out good news to the incoming president. A half-dozen companies, including Ford and SoftBank, have promised to hire more American workers. As with the others, though, it’s not quite clear if Amazon’s promises are a deviation from its plans, or if it’s just pre-announcing growth that was already baked in.

Mike: Is it cynical for me to say “the latter”? Seems like a pretty obvious way to curry favor with the new boss while just doing what you were already planning to do.

Farhad: Well, analysts also believe it’s the latter — Trump or no Trump, Amazon is growing really quickly, so it most likely had plans to hire all these people anyway. But Trump has had Amazon in his sights for a while; during the campaign he frequently threatened the company with antitrust action, often in response to critical coverage from The Washington Post, which Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns. In that light, Amazon’s job announcement is a savvy defense: Come after us and you’ll come after all these new jobs.

Do you think it’s going to work?

Mike: Honestly, I’m not sure, but if experience tells us anything about Trump’s actions, it is this: Compliment the guy or win him over, and he’ll be your new best friend. Cross him, and prepare for a gnarly tweetstorm. He’s about as mercurial as a thermometer, so there’s no real road map for predicting his actions outside of seeing who has wooed him most recently.

Farhad: Agreed. O.K., great to chat. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a luxurious soak under my new golden showerhead.

Mike: No comment. Have a good weekend!

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