I was employee #1 at Basecamp. Here's my take on the recent blowup there.
Talking politics was banned leading to 1/3rd of the company leaving. A look at what happens when partisanship, remote work, and the Pyramid of Hate collide.
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In what feels like a former life, I was employee #1 at Basecamp. True story. It was called 37signals back then and I worked there over a decade. I co-wrote the book REWORK along with the company’s founders (Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson) and worked alongside Ryan Singer as a web designer/writer/media guy. You may have been hearing those names ring out in tech circles (and beyond) the past week or so since Basecamp is, well, going through it. If you’re unfamiliar:
DeepSeaProctologist summed it up like this on Reddit. (Yes, I’m giving you DeepSeaProctologist’s take. Deal.)
Company realizes it might need to reflect what the founders of the company preach in regards to diversity and inclusion. Let employees internally try to have a say. Employees find what might be the most ridiculous instance of people being racially insensitive but at least they had a plan to use it as a point of action. Someone posts a "pyramid of hate" in response to them having contributed to the list in the past and apologies. This in turn leads to some people including DHH to voice the feeling like maybe a list of funny names might not be the beginning of genocide. People then say that he doesn't get it. They decide this whole thing is just unproductive and ban political discussions at work. They then have a meeting because employees are upset about that. Then one of the more senior people at the company decides to chime in an already volatile situation with the background and baggage of having shared "conservative" views in the past. Which then leads to him getting fired/ resigning and 1/3 of the company leaving.
In response to all this, there’s been a schadenfreude-fueled pile-on. (Turns out when you write books about how to run a company, the mob gleefully lines up to take shots at you when things go sideways.)
I get the backlash, but it’s still weird to see people I’ve known for decades be dragged online and attacked as anti-woke crusaders by one side and authoritarian white supremacists by the other. It’s like watching a Thanksgiving Day balloon float get inflated by stranger hate.
Please don’t make me say the phrase “lived experience”
I should caveat all this: I don’t really know what went down other than reports I’ve read. And I don’t know the new crop of Basecampers who were upset.
That said, I can explain what it was like working with Jason, David, and Ryan on a daily basis. (We all used to work out of the company’s office in Chicago.) They’re very different individuals, but they share some common traits. Stubborn? Sure. Opinionated? Definitely. Antagonistic? Sometimes. Fans of the status quo? No way.
But racist, white supremacists, Nazis, or any of the other nasty labels being thrown their way by the Twitter mob? I never saw anything like that. We had occasional disagreements, but nothing that resulted in screaming and crying. In my experience, each was a kindhearted person and a deep thinker who cared immensely about their work and the company. As for Jason and David’s role, they hired smart people and mostly left them alone; they wanted to build, not manage.
Perhaps that’s a seed of the current friction. We were a small team back then, but as a company grows, a founder’s job becomes less about coding/design and more about managing people. Cruise control managing is easier when there’s less traffic on the highway.
From a managerial perspective, I think everyone involved agrees there was a better way to handle this. Jason just offered an apology:
Last week was terrible. We started with policy changes that felt simple, reasonable, and principled, and it blew things up culturally in ways we never anticipated. David and I completely own the consequences, and we're sorry. We have a lot to learn and reflect on, and we will.
It’s certainly easy to see why employees wound up frustrated and felt unheard. It sucks that people wound up in tears over all this. There’s a thoughtful critique from Baldur Bjarnason about the whole scenario. And this thread from YK Hong explains how easily white dudes can fail to read the room on this stuff.
Privilege is when you believe you can somehow check "politics" at the door. When you don't have to think about it. When you are the default. When you are BIPOC, trans, intersex, queer, poor, an immigrant, disabled, when you experience what it means to have power wielded over you, there is no separation between politics and life. Politics is life, whether you want it or not.
Rhetorically speaking, I keep thinking how much clear definitions would have helped throughout this process:
“You can’t talk about politics.”
“Wait, how are you defining politics?”
“Does white supremacy exist at this company?”
“Wait, how are you defining white supremacy?”
When we don’t agree on definitions, we wind up having different conversations – a surefire path to conflict.
Remote loss of control
This also seems like a too-long-in-lockdown story. Even if you’re a company that wrote the book (literally) about working remote, it’s problematic to go over a year seeing only pixels instead of pores. As we all zoom to a world of remote working, I fear we’ll see more stories like this; it’s inevitable when co-workers become more avatar than human. In the same room, we empathize. But when the exchange is all digital, it’s easy to assume the worst and skew toward outrage.
Recently, a company in Utah made a new rule: employees who want to post a link to the company Slack must first make a video explaining their thoughts about the link; and anyone who wants to respond must record a video of their own. As a result, the CEO says hardly anyone is fighting on Slack anymore.
It’s a healthy reminder: The human face is incredibly efficient communication software.
Heroes and villains?
It’s easy to accept social media’s simplistic hero/villain framing rather than deal with the complexity of a situation like this. But reality is slippery; public opinion online and offline can feel like two different universes.
"You know what's weird? Everyone on the internet hates me, but I walk down the street and everybody loves me. So what's really going on there? What's really going on is the small percentage that don't like you is being shown to be the majority."
Most of what I’ve seen online is angry woke folks piling on, but I think it’s also worth examining how the upset employees bear some responsibility here too. Keeping a list of funny sounding names is dumb; but claiming it’s the first step toward genocide via a Pyramid of Hate seems like quite a leap. (I do think Pyramid of Hate is a great name for a death metal band though.) Personally, I’ve been anti-pyramid charts ever since they showed weed as the gateway drug to crack.
There’s also a question of privilege vs. marginalization here. I keep imagining what it would be like if someone at a construction site wanted to spend all day discussing any of this stuff. How long would the foreman put up with that?
As for the Twitter hecklers, enough with the Nazinflation (especially when the person you’re referring to as a Nazi is Jewish). An old improv class lesson: Never heighten to Hitler or Jesus. It’s the easy way out and just comes off as cliché.
And zooming out a bit, I highly recommend those on the far left adopt a spectrum of evilness for their enemies on the right (maybe it can be a Rhombus of Nastiness?); lumping together Klan members, the Aryan Brotherhood, and software managers trying to put the kibosh on workplace disputes really starts to take the sting out of a term like “white supremacist.”
Similarly, when one puts Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and Jordan Peterson (prickly yet mostly reasonables you happen to disagree with) in the same basket as Tucker Carlson, Ted Cruz, and Steve Bannon (immoral deplorables who are undermining society), it reveals an inability to parse those who are engaging mindfully in a debate of ideas from vote-suppressing demons attacking our democracy in exchange for ratings/power. If you use up all your outrage on the not-quite-left-enoughs, you may run out of artillery when the real enemy shows up.
Also, maybe those of us who critique predatory capitalism endlessly need to look a bit less to employers as agents of social change. Companies care about profits and it’s naive to pretend otherwise. Nike lauds Colin Kaepernick, but has slaves making its sneakers. Sure, corporate overlords can churn out feelgood mission statements and BS pledges to do more work. But I’m pretty sure real change comes through elections and grassroots activism. You want social impact? Pay more attention to Stacy Abrams and less to tech CEOs.
Conflict vs. abuse
I guess now is when I have to insert the usual caveat about me being a straight white man of a certain age. If the views mentioned above are offputting coming from someone who fits that description, I encourage you to check out Sarah Schulman, a queer woman, activist, and author of Conflict Is Not Abuse.
She writes eloquently about how frequently people inflate discomfort, declare themselves victims, and overstate the harm done to them. Check out how similar this scenario she gives seems to what played out at Basecamp:
A misplaced sense of danger, an overreaction, then a rift that came to seem impossible to repair. Two friends would have a fight, then one would persuade the rest of their clique to turn on the other. Someone would express a dissenting opinion, then face accusations of violence and calls for punishment. Schulman saw people turning away from the challenges of conflict and instead asking some larger body — a group of friends, a college bureaucracy, the state — to ratify their status as victims and intervene on their behalf.
What I like about Schulman’s work is she breaks out of the left/right framing around all of this and takes a more humanist view.
She looks askance at trigger warnings; she also looks askance at Zionism. She considers the way accusations of sexual threat have been used against Black and queer people and then uses that understanding to extend empathy to those accused of sexual harassment. She tries to dissect the internal logic of police brutality and domestic abuse. Her ideas’ appeal lies in offering a new way to consider seemingly intractable problems and in drawing lines between our political ideals and the way we behave in daily life. (“There are a lot of progressive people who are very petty,” Schulman told me. “So what kind of progressive world can they build?”)
Feels like a breath of fresh air compared to the hot air that dominates online. Some more takeaways from her work:
Overstating harm itself can cause harm, whether it leads to social shunning or physical violence.
People rush to see themselves as victims for a variety of reasons: because they’re accustomed to being unopposed, because they’re accustomed to being oppressed, because it’s a quick escape from discomfort — from criticism, disagreement, confusion, and conflict. But when we avoid those uncomfortable feelings, we avoid the possibility of change.
Overstatement of harm happens everywhere: People in power who face criticism can overstate harm, but people who have previously suffered — who have lived through real harm — can do it too. For those in positions of dominance, opposition feels like an attack. Meanwhile, for those who have survived trauma, it’s sometimes so hard to just keep it together that being asked to be self-critical can feel like your whole world is going to fall apart. We live in a culture of underreaction to abuse and overreaction to conflict.
No one has ever asked for a trigger warning. It’s a very entitled position to believe that you have the right and the ability to control other people.
I like when movements have reasonable, winnable, and doable demands and build campaigns toward them.
The fact that something could go wrong does not mean we are in danger. It means that we are alive.
As everything around us incentives us towards fear and anxiety, it’s a good reminder: We’re not in danger, we’re just alive.
I might have the ultimate hot take on what happened: Maybe it’s all for the best and there are no losers here. Those who found Basecamp an oppressive workplace are now getting six months of pay to not work there (even if you’re a non-disgruntled employee, that’s a tempting offer); they can use that time to find new jobs at places more aligned with their belief system. And the remaining Basecamp team can reset and move forward focusing on software instead of politics. And it sounds like the management team will be more mindful about its approach moving forward.
As for the rest of us? We can take Schulman’s advice and strive to react more to abuse and less to conflict. I guess you could say we all have (ahem) more work to do.
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“Comedians talking science are probably as right as scientists discussing comedy are funny. And that’s just a scientific fact.”
-Me talking to another comedian
Will always remember comedian Jared Logan telling me "the worst part about being a warmup comic is realizing no matter what you say you'll never be as exciting as a t-shirt gun."
TV in the 80's was a bunch of adults on blow telling kids to "Just say no."
We need to give more credit to Ze Frank and "Sh*t Girls Say." 80% of comedy videos on the internet now are riffing off frameworks/editing styles they were doing online years ago.
Heard about the latest vaccine to drop? 💉 Click to watch.
Bill and Melinda. Jeff and Mackenzie. Niles and Daphne. Also: Singles, Sleepless in Seattle, Say Anything. Conclusion: LOVE IN SEATTLE IS HARD!
I only trust CEOs who have at least three rocket emojis in their bio
Sales is from Mars and Engineering is from Venus
I wish all the people who think Bitcoin is silly would explain to me why US Dollars are worth what they're worth.
"But does it scale?" Yes, and that's the problem. When it was small, it was good. And then it scaled. And now it sucks.
Crazy how much we believe the Constitution is infallible when the very first thing they did after it came out is amend it 10 times.
The weird thing is Libertarian philosophy is how I learned about self-regarding vs. other-regarding actions and now I constantly feel the urge to explain the difference between those things to Libertarians. You keep talking about you, but sometimes it’s about us.
Somehow the two things every President in my lifetime has agreed on is 1) the American military is the best in the world and 2) it desperately needs more money.
Facts people: "It's time to be logical."
Feelings people: "Not now, this is a time to be emotional."
Facts people: "OK, when do we get to be logical?"
Feelings people: "Stop being violent towards me!"
I feel like the thanks 🙏 emoji is too thirsty.
Too much music nowadays is copy and pasted. It’s the opposite of soul.
Life lesson: Never trust someone who has an overly fussy hairstyle. Think how much time they spend each day, before they even leave the house, trying to fool the world.
It's ok to stop reading about stuff you know well. Don't get tips. Don't keep up with the Joneses. Don't try to stay relevant. Do what you do. The things you ignore are a big part of what make you unique and interesting.
1) Robert Smigel's fave sketch he ever wrote on SNL: Cluckin Chicken.
2) If you like poker tells and/or tennis, this Andre Agassi story about how he knew where Boris Becker was going to serve is up your alley.
3) ‘Jackpot’ Looks at How Inequality Is Experienced by the Very, Very Rich. Interesting to hear about the “disadvantage” of being super rich (bold emphasis mine)….
The first third of “Jackpot” is devoted to the goodies that money can buy: a $400,000 car, a $21,000 bathtub, a bespoke watch so intricate that its price is a secret. At times the parade of opulence is so garish that I started feeling numb. Mechanic might say that I, like the people who can actually afford such things, had hit my “satiation point.” A psychologist who specializes in the mental health of the rich says that they are actually at a disadvantage when it comes to happiness. The less moneyed among us can still hold out the hope, even if it gets constantly frustrated, that more money would solve all our problems, while “his clients don’t have that fallacy to cling to.”
…Sounds like it could be dialogue from Arrested Development: "You're so lucky to be poor. You can cling to the fantasy that you'll get rich someday and it'll makes things better. But sadly, I'm already fabulously wealthy. There's nowhere left for me to go but down. Sigh. (Pause) Waiter, bring me more champagne!"
4) Why Your Kid Is Such a Tattletale. Discusses the developmental reason behind children’s obsession with rules. It also discusses approaches to letting go of moral certitude and trying to see shades of gray.
“Everything is very black-and-white, and they may struggle to distinguish what is a minor rule-breaking situation and what is a major rule-breaking situation,” said Sally Beville Hunter, a clinical associate professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville…
Dr. Tina Malti, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, describes the next steps of moral development as a “lifelong process” of developing empathy and weighing intention in complicated situations, which is known as post-conventional moral thinking. Even as adults, she said, we deal with ethical dilemmas, in which doing something to help one person may hurt another person, and there’s no clear right answer.
In moments when children are running to tell you about every little problem, Dr. Thompson recommends reminding them that they probably wouldn’t like it if their friends were telling them what to do, and saying something like, “It can be risky to be a full-time hall monitor if your goal is to make and keep friends.”
5) NASA logo evolution: meatball vs worm. Fun exchange between NASA’s administrator, Dr James Fletcher, and deputy administrator, Dr George Low:
Fletcher: “I’m simply not comfortable with those letters, something is missing.”
Low: “Well, yes, the cross stroke is gone from the letter A.”
Fletcher: “Yes, and that bothers me.”
Fletcher: (long pause) “I just don’t feel we are getting our money’s worth!”
The end credits
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