Tab: Startup To Shutdown

The mistakes an angel and accelerator-backed startup made and what we learned along the way.

Tab (previously Subscrib) was a web-based prepaid loyalty app that started in the basement of Campus London in late September 2012 by Shawn Zvinis, Christoph Sassenberg and Gary Luce.

The idea was simple: customers would open prepaid accounts at local shops and earn bonus credit by doing so. We would eliminate payment fragmentation and use the transactional data to automate retention and marketing for these shops. Best of all, customers did not need a smartphone, as we used their mobile number to create their account.

We raised seed money from a local angel investor early on, joined an accelerator and started to grow the team. We encountered a lot of issues that on their own we could have tackled, but together set us on a path to failure that we struggled with.

Our final metrics (at the time of writing this article)

Shops = 25
Customers =
Average Purchase =
£4.13 ($6.61)
Average Cash Topup =
£16.21 ($26.06)
Average Credit Card Topup =
£29.06 ($46.64)
Total Topups =
£53,811 ($86,571)
Total Transactions =

1. Building a Random Team

My previous startup did not see the light of day, even though I spent almost six months working on it, because I did not build a team. I thought I was a master of my trade and that I could do everything myself. It turned out that I was wrong about that.

This time around, I was adamant that I would build a team from day one — and that is exactly what I did. I found someone that I could work with, that had similar experience as me and most importantly was able to commit all of their time right away. Not long after that, I persuaded a German developer I knew to stay in London and not return home (after working at another failed startup), but to join us on our journey, as we felt we were executing quickly.

It was not until we started talking to institutional investors several months later, that we realised they viewed us as having no credibility in the space we were attacking and that no early traction, innovative approach or growing metrics would save us.

Investors wanted to see former payments, daily deal and retail executives as the team behind Tab—not three random guys trying their hand at “disrupting a crowded space”. It was not that this was a deal breaker for investors, but because of some of the other mistakes we made, it played a major part in the slow demise of Tab.

Key learning: be from the space or build a team of experts in the space you are attacking; if you can not find anyone to join you, your vision and plan may need rethinking or you need metrics that just can not be ignored.

2. Raising Too Little Too Early

As co-founders, we all had different (short) personal runways, which made money a real concern. Early on, we were lucky enough to meet an angel investor from the finance space that wanted to put the first money in to Tab. We thought this initial seed money would not only solve our cash-flow issues, but would also be a great signal for other investors and would allow us to build our first product.

It was clear that if we did not take this money, Tab would have never been more than a paper prototype — so we took the money. This started a proverbial time bomb that we would never be able to stop: we started taking small salaries that we relied on each month and exhausted our personal savings for anything else we needed. It also made fundraising and cash-flow a priority from day one.

Looking back, we should have continued working part-time until we had a simple digital prototype and early revenue before we raised any external funds. Further, the funds should have only been used for running experiments, marketing expenses and outsourcing the development of things we could not do ourselves.

While our first angel investor helped us get started, it was not a good enough signal for institutional investors, as they were looking for industry experts putting money in. It was also evident that we either needed to be a killer team that has done it before and raise a lot early and quickly, or have crazy traction and growth to get their attention.

Key learning: try to avoid raising a single penny until you have built a working prototype and have some (any) early revenue — and in a best case, revenue that can at least pay your overheads, so you can have the upper hand when negotiating with early investors. Also, raise more money than you think you’ll need and pinch pennies the whole way.

3. Building a Not So Minimum Viable Product

In September of last year, we had lunch with a friend. He suggested that we should find a way to test our idea without writing any code. We were always talking “lean” and this was the opportunity for us to walk the walk. We took their advice and instead of building an app, we printed numbered business cards that we used to identify customers in shop and we printed a simple ledger that our first pilot locations used to keep track of balances and transactions—our paper prototype.

It went very well and in a few weeks we had more than 30 consumers using Tab to prepay for their coffees and pastries, and they used their identification card to pay for future purchases. It became apparent that it was very hard for shops to handle transactions this way and they almost begged us to build a digital version to make it quicker at the point of sale and reduce human error (which was appallingly high).

The problem was that we wanted all the bells and whistles from day one: payment processing, account profiles, multiple locations, transaction histories, email receipts and more. The result was that we ended up building something completely different than what we tested and we built too many features without validating they were needed. We had to quickly start customer development again and ended up rebuilding Tab from the ground-up, which took us another 8 weeks.

We should have quickly turned our paper prototype into a simple digital prototype — nothing more, nothing less. We could have then quickly iterated, skipping features that were not needed and building features that shops actually wanted (and would pay for).

Key learning: build early and as little as possible initially; talk to your customers and iterate your product. Each iteration should be the minimum input needed to generate the minimum output needed.

4. Focusing On an Accelerator Too Early

One of the General Partners at Seedcamp happened to be the first consumer to use Tab at our very first pilot location, the cafe at Google Campus in Shoreditch, East London. We got excited about the idea of being a part of Seedcamp and what it could do for us as a company: open doors, keep our ticking time bomb going and provide us with a stamp of approval for future fundraising.

We tried to join to Seedcamp twice (once traveling all the way to Portugal and once on home turf in London) and we were accepted the second time around. Each event needed our attention for around three weeks: one week to get prepared, one week of mentoring and investor demos, and another week following-up with everyone we met. In total, we spent at least 6 weeks of time devoted to getting in to Seedcamp that could have been used to talk to our customers and iterate our product (or lack of product in the first case).

We launched our first product the day we finally got accepted into Seedcamp, so we had no product validation at this point; we were not ready to start scaling in any shape or form. In hindsight, we should have spent those weeks solely on product development and iteration and applied to an accelerator only when we felt we were close to product-market fit and were ready to start scaling.

Seedcamp has changed me as an individual, and for that I am ever grateful for participating, but as a company we were not ready to reap the full benefits the programme had to offer.

Key learning: being in an accelerator is a full-time job. You should apply when you think you have product-market fit, you have early revenue and you are ready to put fuel on your startup’s fire.

5. Going to The USA at the Wrong Time

One of the biggest opportunities Seedcamp offers new portfolio companies is to go on a 3-week long trip to New York, Boston, San Francisco and Silicon Valley. We visited some of the biggest names in technology including Google, Facebook and Foursquare, and pitched some of the best venture capitalists around. This trip really opened my eyes as to how different American founders/investors are compared with the more relaxed and timid European counterparts we were.

This trip came a couple weeks after we joined Seedcamp and released our first product — so it was not the best timing. During my time away on the trip, product and business development dropped to a glacial pace. At a time when we should have been solely focused on talking to customers and iterating the product (this is a common thing you will hear in this post), I was half-way around the world schmoozing with VCs and the tech community trying to build some hype.

It turns out that hype does not build successful companies — successful teams and products do. As tensions started to rise and shortly after my return to London we parted ways with one of our co-founders (whom we luckily remain good friends with today). We should have postponed this trip to save time (and money) so that we could have had a clear objective and reason to travel halfway around the world at time when our product needed our full attention. It is great to see how our experience and other learnings are already being integrated at Seedcamp: new companies now have two opportunities a year to go to the USA, so they can make the trip when it is best for their companies.

Key learning: stay where your market is and only go abroad when you have a valid reason to do so: such as entering that new market or you are ready to play with big boys and are fundraising and ready to scale.

6. Starting Scaling Too Early

As we had already raised some funding and joined Seedcamp, we started regularly interacting with investors as they came in to the office and at other events. The majority of the investors we spoke with warned us that they would need to see proof that we could scale Tab beyond a couple pilot locations. They wanted us to prove that we could execute our ambitious plans on a smaller scale.

Our biggest mistake was listening to these investors too much, and we started focusing our efforts on how we could make Tab more investable rather than talking to customers and iterating the product. If we spent more time working on the product, the product itself would have made the company investible, rather than us jumping the gun. Seedcamp has since started their Academy to help those teams that have not yet achieved product-market fit, which is a great idea.

Once we started scaling-up shops and building a sales team, we were no longer raising money on a vision — we were raising money on our metrics. As we only had several months of runway left, we did not have the cash to keep our early growth levels and quickly picked all the low hanging fruit we could. We should have resisted investor pressure to start scaling, especially as our product was so young and untested.

Key learning: once you start scaling you can not put on the brakes and everyone will be looking at your metrics—your grand vision goes out the door at that point. If you do not have the money to continue growing at the rate you need to, do not start until you have that cash and enough runway to raise your next round if needed.

7. Overvaluing Qualitative vs. Quantitative

At the end of the day, shops wanted two things from Tab: to make more money and to save more money. Anecdotally, Tab did just that and increased the spending of customers and saved shops money by bundling card payments. The problem was that we were not able to show this to shops.

We spent a lot of time building features that made Tab qualitatively better than incumbents, but that were not necessarily quantitatively helping shops. This made it extremely hard to convince shops to pay for Tab, even if they had processed several thousand transactions and had hundreds of customers using the service.

For example, we required no app to download or barcode to scan for customers to open an account and we passed the transaction onus on to the shop, which meant customers did not need to show anything to pay. As much as both shops and customers loved this, shops could not put a price on the value.

There were potential features that we knew could provide quantifiable value, such as the ability to communicate with customers, to view analytical information and to send rewards or perks to customers to bring them back in the door. All of these features could present a quantifiable return for shops, but we were late to deliver them.

Key learning: find out early on what your customer values the most and is able to quantify, and deliver that single thing. When you have done that, find out the second, the third and so on. If it does not make a dent to their bottom line, save it until later.

8. Not Generating Any Revenue

As we were using shops as guinea pigs for customer and product development, we offered Tab for free to shops. This made it very easy for us to sign up new shops, especially when they saw their competitors in the local area were using Tab.

We assumed that if shops piloted Tab, they would see the value and would convert later on when we had a fully-baked product. This hurt us in a few ways: we did not have any revenue being generated, which was a red flag for investors and the feedback we were getting from shops was different than if they were paying.

We should have charged shops a small flat fee from the beginning. This would have not only extended our runway by a few months, but would have allowed us to iterate the financial model, just as we were iterating the product.

Key learning: if no one wants to pay you, it is not a business. Do whatever you can to get your customers to pay you from day one—whether it is 0.99 or 99.99, find out what they will pay now, so you can up-sell as you add more value for them or charge new customers more.

9. Not Building a Financial Model Early Enough

We did not build any real financial models until one of our existing investor asked us for one. I mean, we wrote on the back of napkins and that sort of thing, but nothing that looked at how the company would scale in the coming years.

It was a shocking experience when we realised how much capital we really needed to scale Tab and how little the return was after subtracting acquisition, support costs and other overheads.

If we had built a simple financial model earlier on, we would have seen the flaws in our business model and we could have attempted to fix them before it was too late; we could have easily shifted focus to features that could have generated more revenue for us.

Key learning: as you build the product, build a simple financial model that you can iterate as the product changes. This will help you make product decisions that make a difference to your bottom line.

10. Putting All Our Eggs in One Basket

We quickly realised that direct sales was the best approach to convert shops in to piloting Tab, so we put all of our eggs in one basket and focused solely on direct sales. This meant that we never really tested online sales or teaming up with a distribution partner.

This was a big mistake, as when it came time to fundraise, we could not show that one or the other would help lower our blended acquisition costs or that is was viable for us to pivot from direct sales to online sales if needed—and potential raise money for this pivot.

Key learning: your assumptions will not always be right. You should have a Plan B ready to go, in case Plan A fails at the last minute.

What’s Next For Us?

Tab will be turned off on December 31st, 2013—until then shops will be able to debit accounts, but not accept new top ups or new signups.

We want to to thank Abdul Nusrat, Daniel Siemaszkiewicz and Gabor Valuch for helping build Tab from the early days. We are extremely grateful that James Phillips at Dose Espresso and David Abramovich at Shoreditch Grind helped kickstart Tab by allowing us to work with them and pilot Tab at their busy coffee shops.

We also want to thank Nishul Saperia for believing in us as our first angel investor, and Carlos Espinal, Reshma Sohoni & Philipp Moehring at Seedcamp for giving us a chance. Last, but not least, we want to thank all the mentors, advisors and investors that met with us along our journey—your feedback and advice gave us a real fighting chance.

P.S. Talk to your customers and iterate your product. :)

Shawn Zvinis
Co-Founder & CEO, Tab

Further Reading

Say ‘No’ to product ideas systematically

 — by proactively categorizing what you don’t want to build.

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The Post About Love I Never Thought I’d Write

If you had to, how would you define love?

Some say love is grandiose and romantic. Others say it’s adventurous and chaotic or companionship and togetherness.

Maybe it’s all of those things. Maybe it’s not. But to me…

Love is when I bring you coffee in bed just to make your morning a little happier.

Love is choosing to laugh at your messy side of the bed, instead of getting annoyed.

Love is valuing our long-term serenity over our short-term joy.

Love is dancing to terrible songs in the kitchen.

Love is when I flew across the Atlantic and back to see you for three wonderful days.

Love is how, every once in a while, we hold hands while we sleep.

Love is how you speak to my parents, to my brothers, and even to my grandmothers.

Love is sitting in a golf cart for an entire round of 18 holes. You’re lucky I like to read.

Love is you letting me sing at the top of my lungs and play the air-drums every time we go on a road trip.

Love is when I left to New York City for a conference and you showed up the very next day, just so we could spend Valentine’s Day together.

Love is watching you from the upstairs window as you get in your car and drive away, wishing you safety wherever you may go.

Love is how you listen to me rambling on and on about technology and marketing and whatever else is the flavor of the month. You even let me teach you HTML.

Love is how hugging you gives me the strongest feeling of home I’ve ever had.

Love is how I feel when I hear people say how awesome you are. It happens way more than you think.

Love is how you’ll sit and edit my emails to make sure they’re not too mean. What can I say, I’m a warrior.

Love is the food you make because I can’t cook. And the wine bottles you open. And the million other things you do for us.

Love is the fact that it feels easier than they say it is.

Love is how embarrassed I know you’ll be when you read this post. I’m a bit embarrassed, too. Love is why I’m publishing it anyways.

To my dude, I’m grateful for these most amazing years together. Happy anniversary.

— Marcella

More of my thoughts here:

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Live awesomely via writing & tech entrepreneurship at

Published October 23, 2013

I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot

I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot

Hello. My name is Chris Kluwe, and for eight years I was the punter for the Minnesota Vikings. In May 2013, the Vikings released me from the team. At the time, quite a few people asked me if I thought it was because of my recent activism for same-sex marriage rights, and I was very careful in how I answered the question. My answer, verbatim, was always, “I honestly don’t know, because I’m not in those meetings with the coaches and administrative people.”

This is a true answer. I honestly don’t know if my activism was the reason I got fired.

However, I’m pretty confident it was.

Allow myself to tell you a story about … myself. The following is a record of what happened to me during my 2012 season with the Minnesota Vikings, written down immediately after the 2013 draft in April, when I realized what was happening, and revised recently only for clarity. I tried to keep things as objective as possible, and anything you see in quotes are words that I directly recall being said to me.

This is a story about how actions have consequences, no matter how just or moral you think your cause happens to be, and it’s a story about the price people all too often pay for speaking out.

Today, April 30, 2013, I am writing an account of events that transpired during my time with the Minnesota Vikings during the 2012 NFL season and leading into the 2013 season (so I don’t forget them in case it is necessary to recall what happened).

During the summer of 2012, I was approached by a group called Minnesotans for Marriage Equality, which asked if I would be interested in helping defeat what was known as the Minnesota Gay Marriage Amendment. The proposed amendment would have defined marriage as “only a union of one man and one woman.” (It was voted down, and same-sex marriage is now legal in Minnesota.) I said yes, but that I would have to clear it with the team first. After talking to the Vikings legal department, I was given the go-ahead to speak on the issue as long as I made it clear I was acting as a private citizen, not as a spokesman for the Vikings, which I felt was fair and complied with. I did several radio advertisements and a dinner appearance for Minnesotans for Marriage Equality. No one from the Vikings’ legal department told me I was doing anything wrong or that I had to stop.

On Sept. 7, 2012, this website published a letter I had written to Maryland delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. chastising him for trampling the free-speech rights of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. The letter also detailed why I supported the rights of same-sex couples to get married. It quickly went viral.

On Sept. 8, the head coach of the Vikings, Leslie Frazier, called me into his office after our morning special-teams meeting. I anticipated it would be about the letter (punters aren’t generally called into the principal’s office). Once inside, Coach Frazier immediately told me that I “needed to be quiet, and stop speaking out on this stuff” (referring to my support for same-sex marriage rights). I told Coach Frazier that I felt it was the right thing to do (what with supporting equality and all), and I also told him that one of his main coaching points to us was to be “good men” and to “do the right thing.” He reiterated his fervent desire for me to cease speaking on the subject, stating that “a wise coach once told me there are two things you don’t talk about in the NFL, politics and religion.” I repeated my stance that this was the right thing to do, that equality is not something to be denied anyone, and that I would not promise to cease speaking out. At that point, Coach Frazier told me in a flat voice, “If that’s what you feel you have to do,” and the meeting ended. The atmosphere was tense as I left the room.

On Sept. 9, before our game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the owner of the team, Zygi Wilf, came up to me, shook my hand, and told me: “Chris, I’m proud of what you’ve done. Please feel free to keep speaking out. I just came from my son’s best friend’s wedding to his partner in New York, and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

On Sept. 10, I was once again called into Leslie Frazier’s office. Coach Frazier asked me if I was going to keep speaking out on the matter of same-sex marriage and equality. I responded that I was, and I related what Zygi Wilf had said to me at the game the day before. Coach Frazier looked stunned and put his hand across his face. He then told me: “Well, he writes the checks. It looks like I’ve been overruled.” At that point, he got his personal public relations assistant on a conference call to ask her what to do. She outlined some strategies, mainly centered around talking only with large national media groups and ignoring the smaller market stations (radio, television, print). I said that I would be sure not to say anything to denigrate the team, but that I would like to talk with anyone who was interested. Both Coach Frazier and his PR person attempted to dissuade me from this course of action, saying that the message would be more effective if presented properly. I suspected this was another attempt to keep me from speaking out. I did not agree to any course of action they suggested, and I left the meeting once it concluded.

On or around Sept. 17 (could have possibly been Sept. 19), I approached our head of public relations, Bob Hagan. It had come to my attention via Twitter that multiple news sources were attempting to contact me through the Vikings and had been unable to reach me (I learned this via those same agencies asking me on Twitter if I was available for interviews, to which I responded affirmatively). I told Bob Hagan that from this point on, any media requests he received were to be forwarded immediately to me. I would take care of them. He told me that he was trying to protect me from being overwhelmed. I repeated my request that he forward all media requests to me, as I could handle them. He assented, and later that day I found three media requests in my locker (to which I had already responded via Twitter), two of which were dated from four to six days earlier.

Throughout the months of September, October, and November, Minnesota Vikings special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer would use homophobic language in my presence. He had not done so during minicamps or fall camp that year, nor had he done so during the 2011 season. He would ask me if I had written any letters defending “the gays” recently and denounce as disgusting the idea that two men would kiss, and he would constantly belittle or demean any idea of acceptance or tolerance. I tried to laugh these off while also responding with the notion that perhaps they were human beings who deserved to be treated as human beings. Mike Priefer also said on multiple occasions that I would wind up burning in hell with the gays, and that the only truth was Jesus Christ and the Bible. He said all this in a semi-joking tone, and I responded in kind, as I felt a yelling match with my coach over human rights would greatly diminish my chances of remaining employed. I felt uncomfortable each time Mike Priefer said these things. After all, he was directly responsible for reviewing my job performance, but I hoped that after the vote concluded in Minnesota his behavior would taper off and eventually stop.

On Oct. 25, I had a poor game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Vikings brought in several punters for a workout to potentially replace me. I do not believe this was motivated by my speaking out on same-sex equality, though I do not know for sure. During the special-teams meeting the following day, Mike Priefer berated me in an incredibly harsh tone the likes of which I’ve never heard a coach use about my abilities as a punter (and I have been berated before). The room went silent after he finished speaking, in a way that normally does not happen during meetings when someone is being called out. The Vikings kept me on as their punter.

I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot

Near the end of November, several teammates and I were walking into a specialist meeting with Coach Priefer. We were laughing over one of the recent articles I had written supporting same-sex marriage rights, and one of my teammates made a joking remark about me leading the Pride parade. As we sat down in our chairs, Mike Priefer, in one of the meanest voices I can ever recall hearing, said: “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.” The room grew intensely quiet, and none of the players said a word for the rest of the meeting. The atmosphere was decidedly tense. I had never had an interaction that hostile with any of my teammates on this issue—some didn’t agree with me, but our conversations were always civil and respectful. Afterward, several told me that what Mike Priefer had said was “messed up.”

After this point, Mike Priefer began saying less and less to me, and our interactions were stilted. I grew increasingly concerned that my job would be in jeopardy. I had seen the same pattern of behavior directed at our former placekicker, Ryan Longwell, whom Mike Priefer began to ignore during the 2011 season and who was cut after rookie minicamps in early May 2012.

On Dec. 9, I wore on my jersey a small patch made out of athletic tape on which I’d written, “Vote Ray Guy”—a small protest against punter Ray Guy’s exclusion from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At no point in the game did Coach Priefer instruct me to take off the patch, nor did he appear even to notice it. The only person who talked to me about it was Les Pico, our executive director of player development, who told me that the league office would fine me if I didn’t take it off. I told him it was worth it, and we both laughed.

On Dec. 13, during his weekly media session, Mike Priefer was asked about the patch in a joking manner. He responded tersely: “I don’t even want to talk about it. Those distractions are getting old for me, to be honest with you.” When asked if he had talked to me about the distractions, he said: “No. He won’t listen.” At no time during the season had Coach Priefer ever approached me about my actions, nor had he ever made any intimation that I was a distraction to the team. He also said: “To me, it’s getting old. He’s got to focus on punting and holding.” Up to that point I had not dropped a single hold on field goals, and despite a shaky game against Tampa Bay and several substandard punts against other teams, both my net- and gross-punting marks were nearly in line with my career averages, which remain the best in Vikings history. I had also been repeatedly instructed by Mike Priefer to dial back the distance of my kicks to give our coverage team a better chance at getting down the field, a request I did my best to follow despite knowing it would mean sacrificing my own averages and allowing people to fashion an argument against me based on those numbers. His exact words were: “Chris, we need you to kick it higher and shorter, because our coverage team sucks. We need to force fair catches as much as possible.” I complied, as I had always been taught to put the team before myself.

In November and December, I was frequently marked for negative scores by Mike Priefer on our “Production Point” sheet for punts that earlier had been marked positive, despite the numbers being almost exactly the same in terms of hangtime and distance. I do not know if these “Production Point” sheets were ever shown to our general manager or head coach, nor do I know if they were used to evaluate my job performance, though I suspect they were. I often laughed with other players about how the points seemed to be arbitrarily assigned, and we all agreed that there was no way to succeed as far as the “Production Point” charts were concerned. The vast majority of special-teams players already had negative point totals for the year.

After the season concluded in early January 2013, I had my end-of-year meeting with Coach Priefer. It was brief, and he told me that the team would probably be exploring options for competition. Several days later, the team signed T.J. Conley to a futures contract, which I saw as legitimate competition or a backup plan in case my knee surgery did not go well. I had been playing the past five years on a torn meniscus in my left knee, and the discomfort had gotten to the point where surgery was a necessity. Recovery time was anticipated to be two to four weeks, and my surgery was scheduled for Jan. 31. The surgery went smoothly, as did rehab, and I began kicking again in late February. At no point did Mike Priefer, Leslie Frazier, or Vikings general manager Rick Spielman contact me, nor did they ever ask how the surgery had gone, nor did they ever ask how my return to kicking was progressing.

On Feb. 11, I received a message saying, “Please fly under radar please,” from a phone number I would later learn belonged to Rick Spielman. The text message presumably concerned several things I had tweeted that day regarding Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down. Spielman later called me and asked me to stop tweeting about the pope because angry people were ringing up team headquarters in Winter Park, Minn. It should be noted that my tweets concerned the lack of transparency and endemic institutional corruption of the Catholic Church, which among other things allowed child abuse to flourish. I also pointed out how that applied equally to financial and government institutions, and reiterated that I had nothing against anyone’s religion, only against the abuses of power that institutions allow. Nonetheless, I complied with Spielman’s request and did not tweet anything else about the pope that day, or in the future.

In March and early April, I spent three to four days a week kicking at the local sports complex near my house in Huntington Beach, Calif., where I lived with my family during the offseason. I felt that I had returned to my in-season form and was quite pleased with my progress. I was confident that in a fair competition with T.J. Conley I would prevail.

On April 21, I arrived back in Minnesota for the start of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), which commenced the following day. When I arrived at the facility, I went through my normal workouts and then went upstairs to talk to Mike Priefer. He hadn’t contacted me since our year-end meeting in early January. We had a brief talk, and he mentioned that I would only have to attend the punt-special-team meetings. In previous years, I had attended all the special-teams meetings, as was expected of me. At no point was the draft mentioned.

On April 27, I spent an hour at the Metrodome signing autographs for the Vikings draft party, an event for which the team requested my attendance, and then left to record some music with my band. My phone rang, and a local reporter from the Star Tribune asked me, “Chris, what are your thoughts on the Vikings taking a punter in the fifth round of the draft?” At this point I knew for certain the Vikings were replacing me. I hadn’t been informed that drafting a punter was a possibility, and historically punters do not get drafted unless the team figures he’ll be a starter. Multiple pundits questioned the Vikings’ decision to draft a punter in the fifth round, as there were still several positions of need, and several players at those positions still available to be drafted. No one from the team called me on April 27 or 28.

On April 29, my first day back in the facility after the draft, I met with Rick Spielman after Mike Priefer had told me Rick wanted to see me. Rick told me that this was solely about competition and had nothing to do with my views. I do not believe he was telling the truth. I had not been approached about reducing my contract for cap-space purposes, nor was my punting average poor enough to justify spending a fifth-round pick on a punter for competition. (My gross average in 2012 was almost exactly my career average, and I had a career-best net average. Statistically speaking, I am also the best punter in Vikings history, despite seven years of coaches asking me to deliberately sacrifice my own numbers to help the team, a request with which I always complied.) Rick said he would speak with me again after the rookie minicamp from May 3-5. I then spoke with Coach Priefer. He reiterated that this was about competition, which I suspect was also a lie, and then he started talking about me in the past tense, about how professional I had been, and how it had been a pleasure working with me. The meeting concluded several minutes later. I also learned that T.J. Conley had been cut that day.

At no point from the end of the season, on Jan. 9, 2013, to my arrival at OTAs, on April 21, was I contacted by Leslie Frazier or by any of the other coaches. Rick Spielman called me once, as stated earlier, to insist I stop tweeting about the pope.

On May 6, I had a meeting with Rick Spielman. He told me that the team was releasing me, and he thanked me for the great work I had done for the Vikings, and also said he would tell other teams how professionally and competently I had executed my duties over the years. I then had a meeting with Leslie Frazier, who repeated that I had been “a fantastic player for this organization” and who also told me, “Don’t close any doors behind you—you never know when things will come full circle.” He thanked me for my services as well, and said I was a great football player. Then I was escorted from the premises and was no longer a Viking.

So there you have it. It’s my belief, based on everything that happened over the course of 2012, that I was fired by Mike Priefer, a bigot who didn’t agree with the cause I was working for, and two cowards, Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman, both of whom knew I was a good punter and would remain a good punter for the foreseeable future, as my numbers over my eight-year career had shown, but who lacked the fortitude to disagree with Mike Priefer on a touchy subject matter. (Frazier was fired on Monday, at the conclusion of a 5-10-1 season.) One of the main coaching points I’ve heard throughout my entire life is, “How you respond to difficult situations defines your character,” and I think it’s a good saying. I also think it applies to more than just the players.

If there’s one thing I hope to achieve from sharing this story, it’s to make sure that Mike Priefer never holds a coaching position again in the NFL, and ideally never coaches at any level. (According to the Pioneer Press, he is “the only in-house candidate with a chance” at the head-coaching job.) It’s inexcusable that someone would use his status as a teacher and a role model to proselytize on behalf of his own doctrine of intolerance, and I hope he never gets another opportunity to pass his example along to anyone else. I also hope that Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman take a good look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are the people they truly profess themselves to be.

Some will ask why I waited so long to tell this story. It’s a fair question, and I have two answers. The first is that I still have friends on the Vikings, and opening up something like this during the season would not help them focus on their jobs. By doing it now, I hope they don’t have to answer questions about an issue that concerns only four people, and I hope the issue will have died down before next season starts.

The second is that I wanted to prove I still had the physical ability to compete in the NFL. I can still hit the ball 45 yards outside the numbers with good hangtime, and at the tryouts I’ve had this year I’ve gotten praise from the scouts and personnel people on hand, but for whatever reason I cannot find a job. (Side note: My numbers from last year would put me right in the middle of the pack for this year, and I’ve traditionally been in the middle to top third of punters each year).

However, it’s clear to me that no matter how much I want to prove I can play, I will no longer punt in the NFL, especially now that I’ve written this account. Whether it’s my age, my minimum veteran salary, my habit of speaking my mind, or (most likely) a combination of all three, my time as a football player is done. Punters are always replaceable, at least in the minds of those in charge, and I realize that in advocating noisily for social change I only made it easier for them to justify not having me around. So it goes.

Some will ask if the NFL has a problem with institutionalized homophobia. I don’t think it does. I think there are homophobic people in the NFL, in all positions, but that’s true for society as well, and those people eventually get replaced. All we can do is try to expose their behavior when we see it and call them to account for their actions.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. Never be afraid to do what’s right. If no one ever says anything, nothing ever changes.

—Chris Kluwe, former NFL player

tl;dr—It’s been a fun eight years; sometimes people do crappy things to each other.

Evgeny vs. the internet

Evgeny Morozov wants to convince us that digital technology can’t save the world, and he’s willing to burn every bridge from Cambridge to Silicon Valley to do it

By Michael Meyer

(Philip Habib)

Depending on whom you ask, Evgeny Morozov is either the most astute, feared, loathed, or useless writer about digital technology working today. Just 29 years old, from an industrial town in Belarus, he appeared as if out of nowhere in the late aughts, amid the conference-goers and problem solvers working to shape our digital futures, a hostile messenger from a faraway land brashly declaring the age of big ideas and interconnected bliss to be, well, bullshit.

To say that Morozov has gone out of his way to irritate powerful and influential people in the tech world doesn’t quite capture it. Doing so is his primary occupation. In the Morozovian worldview, New York University professor and social-media theorist Clay Shirky is a “consultant-cum-intellectual”; Google’s mission is to “monetize all of the world’s information and make it universally inaccessible and profitable”; and Tim O’Reilly, the Silicon Valley publisher and venture capitalist who coined “Web 2.0,” is an Orwellian “meme hustler” and the main culprit behind “the enduring emptiness of our technology debates.” To millions of viewers, TED talks are inspirational speeches about “ideas worth spreading” in science and technology. To Morozov they are a “sinister” hyping of “ideas no footnotes can support.”

Or try this passage. It’s a takedown of a work of technological triumphalism called Hybrid Reality, but it doubles as a summary of his thinking about the entirety of the tech discourse: “[P]erhaps this is what the Hybrid Age is all about: marketing masquerading as theory, charlatans masquerading as philosophers, a New Age cult masquerading as a university, business masquerading as redemption, slogans masquerading as truths.”

The entire Morozov aesthetic is in this sentence: the venom, the derision, the reverse jujitsu of his opponents’ sanctimony, the bald accusation that all the talk about a new age of human flourishing is nothing but an attempt to vamp the speaker’s consulting business. Tech enthusiasts channel hope. Tech skeptics channel worry. Morozov channels anger, and this can be a very satisfying emotion to anyone unconvinced that everything is getting better. Leon Wieseltier, who has published some of Morozov’s most acid criticism at The New Republic, compares him to the ferocious jazz musician Charles Mingus, who once responded to an interviewer who accused him of “hollerin’ ” by saying, “I feel like hollerin’.” I asked Morozov if he considers his Twitter feed, which spews a constant stream of invective and absurdist satire, to be performative. This was a bit like asking Mingus if he considers jazz performative. “Absolutely,” he said. “I consider it art.”

At some point, though, the hollerin’ ends, everyone’s feelings are hurt, and it’s time to talk about what we’ve learned. Because Morozov isn’t just an “intellectual hit man,” as one writer put it. He wants to be taken seriously, and he has the output to demand it. He’s written two New York Times Notable Books of the year, and his influence is global and growing. He’s published dozens of essays in some of the world’s most prestigious publications, and his monthly column, besides appearing in Slate, is translated for leading newspapers in Germany, Spain, Italy, China, and several other countries. In Morozov’s estimation, if Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt pays attention to him at all it’s not because he can publish an op-ed in The New York Times, but because he can publish an op-ed across Europe.

Many of Morozov’s opponents dismiss him as a spoiled child, someone who sits in the corner refusing, as Tim O’Reilly once said, to be “useful,” shouting insults at the adults as they roll up their sleeves and solve the world’s problems. Reviewing Morozov’s second book in The Washington Post, Columbia law professor Tim Wu spoke of Morozov’s “promise” as a thinker before lamenting, “One suspects he aspires to be a Bill O’Reilly for intellectuals.” Morozov faces similar criticism even among his supporters. He once defended his style by saying, “We’ve got too many priests and not enough jesters,” an explanation Joshua Cohen, the Stanford professor who brought Morozov to Palo Alto on a fellowship and published some of his earliest long-form work in Boston Review, told me is “bullshit. There’s a vast open field between priests and jesters.”

Morozov insists that his refusal to be useful is its own kind of usefulness—and even, as he recently wrote in one of his essays for German newspapers, an intellectual duty. Traditionally, this is an uncontroversial definition of the role of the critic in intellectual life. But not in the relentlessly sunny realm of the tech gurus, where such obstinance must be baffling, even perverse. The current discourse around digital technology is more nuanced than the caricature Morozov often presents, but its defining idea is that we are living through a benevolent revolution, and that we’re all united by good intentions as we search for new models for our economy and our lives. In this culture of mutual validation, Morozov’s targets are the makers, the innovators, and the disruptors—the people doing, as frequent Morozov punching bag Jeff Jarvis put it, “God’s work.”

Morozov is a heretic in this world. Whether he’s a heretic worth listening to is an open question, despite the fact that many of the most influential shapers of our digital lives have already concluded he is not.
Talking nonsense

Engaging with Morozov, in person and on the page, produces a kind of culture shock. The most benignly progressive ideas can, in Morozov’s hands, become gloomy and confounding—for instance, he believes that people trying to lose weight with fitness-tracking apps are setting a dangerous precedent that could foster abusive practices by health insurers. There are many aspects of his biography and personality that don’t add up in a way that an outside observer would find coherent or justifiable, or even meaningful. Neither technophile nor technophobe, he’s frequently described as “Silicon Valley’s fiercest critic.” But like the rest of us, he checks his late-model iPhone during pauses in conversation. He cultivates a strident and confident public persona, but, in August 2012, made the humble decision to subject himself to a history of science PhD program and is now working toward his general examination at Harvard. Both in conversation and in his writing, he shifts freely between serious argument and absurdist jokes; it’s a point of pride that his audience must sort out the difference. When talking about his professional ambitions, for instance, he says: “It might be that in five years I’ll realize that what I need to be doing is running a revolutionary high school somewhere in Denmark. I don’t entirely exclude that possibility.”

He’s decidedly not American, but doesn’t identify as a Belarusian, either. He doesn’t even like visiting Belarus, and of all the reasons he might use to justify that attitude, the one he chooses to relate is that he is far too picky about his diet. (He recently lost nearly 100 pounds by working out on a rowing machine in his apartment while watching European art-house cinema.) He says with a smirk that he likes his coffee made just so, and that he needs to eat sushi at least once a week. He hates Palo Alto (“a horrible place”) but loves Stanford’s Green Library so much that, in an ideal world, he would spend winters in Palo Alto and summers in Berlin. When writing or reading about matters digital, he stashes his phone and router cable in a time-locked safe to prevent distractions. When he was mocked online about this he responded: “Believe me, I’ve gone through all the necessary literature in moral philosophy and I still don’t see a problem.”

Morozov’s friend Leonard Benardo, who directs the fellowship program at the Open Society Foundations, offered this advice when I interviewed him: “If a musician were to apply a time signature to Morozov, it wouldn’t be 4/4, it would be some crazy 11/5 time signature, sort of Steely Dan meets Stockhausen. Imputing rationality to someone who works at that time signature is a bit of a fool’s errand.”

Growing up in the potassium-mining town of Soligorsk, where half the city’s population works for the government-owned mine, Morozov says he made the calculation at age 6 or 7 that he would have to work his way to a life abroad. When he was an adolescent, his parents, who both worked in professional positions at the mine until they retired, hired a friend of the family to tutor Morozov in English. In addition to working with her daily for five years, he practiced several hours a day on his own, essentially devoting the period of his life from ages 12 to 17 to preparing for the SAT. His reward was a full scholarship from the Open Society Foundations to attend American University in Bulgaria, where he joined a collection of strivers from throughout the former Soviet bloc. The default major for that crowd was either business administration or economics, so Morozov double majored just to be safe. “These were hungry students, and Evgeny was certainly one of the more hungry, ” says Aernout van Lynden, who began teaching at the university after 23 years as a war correspondent in the Middle East and the Balkans.

Morozov met van Lynden when he asked the professor for help finding funds to attend a conference, and van Lynden offered to cover the cost himself. After that, Morozov audited several of van Lynden’s journalism courses, hoping to improve his writing, and became fatefully immersed in the world of criticism when, at van Lynden’s suggestion, he started reading The New York Review of Books. One can sense in Morozov’s attraction to van Lynden a desire to model himself on courageous figures, and, in fact, he dedicated his first book to his professor, saying that he “showed me what courage and decency look like.” It also is clear that van Lynden represented a new and important presence in Morozov’s life. In the acknowledgments of that same book, Morozov thanks his family this way: “Despite the fact that they don’t fully grasp what it is that I do, my family back in Belarus have all been very supportive of my intellectual quest.”

In summer 2004, Morozov underwent a quintessentially Morozovian life transition—that is to say, he encountered something he thought was “crap” and made a vigorous effort to escape it. In this case, he spent what he calls “the 10 worst weeks of my life” as an intern for J.P. Morgan in England, something considered the height of achievement by most of his peers at university. To Morozov, though, it was confirmation that he had no future in finance. He finished his degree anyway, then, unsure what new direction his life might take, made his way to a non-degree liberal arts program in Berlin.

Morozov read widely on international affairs, and during this period he encountered the excitement that was growing in America about blogs as a political tool. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, in particular, had brought ideas about online organizing and fundraising into the mainstream. Meanwhile, the role of new media in politics was playing out in a much messier and less well-documented way in pro-democratic uprisings across Eastern Europe—the so-called Color Revolutions. According to news reports, new tools such as text messaging, blogs, and even video games had played an important and poorly understood role in this new strain of democratic movement. Morozov started to connect the dots between the American blogosphere and events on the ground in his home region. “Howard Dean lost, but in Eastern Europe you had regimes overthrown,” Morozov says. “Milosevic was headed to the Hague, Shevardnadze was overthrown in Georgia, Yushchenko was coming to power in Ukraine. You could actually see that things might change.”

He began writing about the political situation in Belarus for Transitions, a Prague-based NGO that encouraged the adoption of new media by independent journalists in the former Soviet bloc. In 2006, Transitions hired Morozov as its first director of new media, a job that had him traveling widely—at age 22—to train journalists and bloggers throughout Eastern Europe.

“Thinking that you are living through a revolution and hold the key to how it will unfold is, I confess, rather intoxicating,” Morozov would later write. Much of his work from this period is preserved, and it’s fascinating to watch a YouTube video from 2007 that shows a chubby kid holding forth in a thick accent about how digital media might transform the sclerotic and indecent politics of his region. Asked by a peppy interviewer what he sees as the “most innovative” development of recent years, the young Evgeny rattles off a list of possibilities that makes him sound a lot like the “cyber-utopians” he would soon make a career out of skewering. “Definitely crowdsourcing,” he says. “Definitely applying the logic of the open-source software movement to broader ideas, to broader processes.” Another video from the same conference shows him giving a buzzword-filled presentation called “Putting Community at the Core of Innovation in New Media.”

Here’s Morozov today, talking about the guy in that video: “I was 23 and in a room with people in their 40s and 50s, all of them editors and journalists, and I was talking some nonsense and they were all buying it. The degree to which both sides were unaware of just how stupid the entire setup was just makes you very scared.”

A critic evolves

Morozov obsessively, compulsively, sees the flaws in everything, including his own work. This trait has led him to burn numerous bridges with former allies, most notably with Ethan Zuckerman, who now directs the Center for Civic Media at MIT. An advocate of the Web’s ability to connect a global citizenry, Zuckerman brought Morozov to the board of the Open Society Foundations’ Information Program in 2008, an important step in Morozov’s rise that eventually helped him land a fellowship in New York. Two years later, Morozov began slamming Zuckerman publicly for, among other things, taking research money from the State Department, and the two haven’t spoken since 2011. Zuckerman declined to be interviewed for this piece. “I’ve alienated so many people that whatever conference invitation I get I look who’s there and say, ‘No, I don’t want to be there,’ ” Morozov says. “It gets awkward for me. It gets awkward for them. So screw it. It saves me a lot of time for reading and writing.”

By mid-2008, Morozov had grown frustrated with his work at Transitions. Many of the projects, he says, “didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to turn out. I also saw that, in places where they worked, the governments were far more sophisticated than we thought. They were engaging in new types of surveillance. They were hiring bloggers. There was nothing about this set of tools that magically made them beneficial only to one side.”

His sense of failure in these high-stakes battles is not enough, by itself, to explain Morozov’s next transformation—into a world-famous technology skeptic. When he started at Transitions, he and his colleagues had to work hard to convince wary funders that new-media training was a prudent investment in countries with low online connectivity and long histories of crushing dissent. Eventually, though, the narrative shifted, and a range of powerful players—from the media to the State Department—were suddenly touting these digital strategies as the world’s best hope for building democracy. Morozov found himself, really for the first time, outside the intellectual mainstream—a place where he would feel increasingly at home.

Jeremy Druker, Morozov’s boss at Transitions, describes it this way: “I think in many ways what Evgeny has become is a response, not to those early wonder years when we were all confused but enthusiastic about figuring out what could be done, but to everyone getting on the bandwagon and it becoming a real fad.”

This “fad” is extensively documented (and derided) in Morozov’s first book, The Net Delusion, which was published in January 2011. In it he calls the idea that technology is the key ingredient to the promotion of democracy “cyber-utopianism,” and shows just how thoroughly this idea has pervaded both the public and political consciousness.

As Morozov watched the cyber-utopian fad grow, his distrust of it began to harden into a cyber-pessimism that could at times be just as dogmatic. After leaving Transitions, Morozov eventually ended up as a fellow at OSF (a funder of Transitions), which brought him to New York in August 2008. The following year Morozov gave—wait for it—a TED talk in Oxford called, “How the Net Aids Dictatorships.” This was sort of a coming-out party for Evgeny the skeptic, and an important step in turning that skepticism into a brand. It’s another video worth watching and quite a contrast to his enthusing about crowdsourcing just two years before. In the video, he stands in the middle of the stage wearing a wrinkled blue shirt open at the neck. There is a humble, self-effacing air about him, as if he barely expects to be listened to. His only gesture is to move his hands up and down, often in unison, as he emphasizes his points about how all the digital tools and ideas the audience is so excited about are enabling surveillance and targeting of dissidents by thugs and autocrats worldwide.

“Evgeny becomes attached to particular ideas that he believes, for the good of the thinking public, need to be debunked,” says OSF’s Benardo. He compares Morozov to social critics like Karl Kraus and Dwight MacDonald, professional buzzkills who “felt almost divinely anointed” in their efforts to tear down false hopes and received wisdom.

When his OSF fellowship ended in 2009, Morozov began another one at Georgetown University, where his innate critical temperament once again homed in on his own work. He says at Georgetown he was frequently the “internet guy” in a room full of foreign-policy experts. “People didn’t want my take on the future of the Middle East; they wanted my take on the future of the internet in the Middle East,” he says. “It’s a bizarre way to compartmentalize the issues.”

Morozov wasn’t an expert on the Middle East. And he now realized that his usefulness as an “internet expert” (or, as the business-administration major was dubbed in his TED bio, an “internet scientist”) depended entirely on the largely unexamined assumption that new media had a coherent and predictable effect on each country (or industry) it touched—and that he and the rest of the “internet scientists” understood these effects and the internal logic that produced them. It was an assumption he had begun to seriously doubt. Without this assumed coherence, neither he nor any other internet expert could be much use to the Middle East analysts or anyone else.

It’s worth noting that the assumption of a coherent and benevolent internet is much more pervasive than just a conviction among policy and tech elites who stand to benefit from the idea. The belief that technology can solve some of our thorniest problems taps into deep-rooted American notions about the nature of progress and national destiny—notions that Morozov himself had helped to export during the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. Morozov’s anxiety about his role as an “internet expert” made him less interested in arguing about whether Twitter benefits autocrats more than revolutionaries, and more interested in parsing the cultural zeitgeist that, for instance, led Ronald Reagan to say in 1989 that, “the Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” Morozov’s work as a skeptic attacked the surface of this phenomenon, but he wanted to attack the core—the way we think and talk about technology. He wasn’t immediately sure how to do it.

When his fellowship at Georgetown ended, Joshua Cohen offered Morozov a fellowship at Stanford. He spent his time in Palo Alto trying to find a new intellectual footing. “Throughout most of 2011 and possibly early 2012, I had no idea what to do intellectually,” Morozov says. “It was becoming clear to me that I could no longer just go on making proclamations about the internet. But it wasn’t clear to me what other possible framework could take its place. I didn’t have enough theoretical background to figure out what to do.”

Published simultaneously with the onset of the Arab Spring, Net Delusion pushed an intellectually confused 26-year-old into the international spotlight. Yet this is when Morozov wrote some of his most pungent work. Rather than give rise to ambivalence, as one might expect, the doubts Morozov had about his own qualifications made him more determined to question the expertise of others.

Throughout 2011, he wrote harsh takedowns of every “internet expert” in sight. The most notable was Kevin Kelly, the revered Wired writer who, as someone who helped launch the early online community The WELL, played an important role in shaping the modern internet. Morozov dubbed Kelly the “éminence grise of Silicon Valley,” then dismissed his book, What Technology Wants, as little more than a work of promotional literature for the tech industry. This is typical of Morozov’s writing during this stretch, which emphasized the idea that both the industry and its enthusiasts were motivated more by profits than public service.

I asked Morozov how he managed to be so confident in his criticism of others while going through period after period of self-doubt: “It’s very easy,” he said. “You get your facts and you revise your opinions. I write things. I hear from people. I read more. I figure out that some of my earlier frameworks were probably incoherent and theoretically unsound. I remember those and move somewhere else.”

Cohen, who Morozov says is one of a handful of people who read his work in draft form, has a harsher take on the same concept: “He reads other people’s stuff and thinks on very close inspection it doesn’t add up. And, of course, on very close inspection his stuff doesn’t always add up. I don’t think he has written anything yet that withstands the kind of close critical scrutiny that he gives to other people’s work.”
The cost of bullshit

My first conversation with Morozov took place on a weekday morning in a busy coffee shop near Harvard Square. He enrolled in Harvard’s history of science program after determining, over many 15-hour days spent reading in the Green Library, that the history of science offered him the intellectual grounding he lacked in his effort to find a new framework to talk about technology and its role in society. He moved to Cambridge in August 2012. Anyone thinking this might signal the emergence of a quieter, more tenure track-minded Evgeny would be mistaken. On this morning Morozov was talking about bullshit—specifically the fight against bullshit as an organizing principle in his work.

“Part of my job is to raise the cost of producing bullshit in this area, and to make sure people pay for that with shame, with being ridiculed, with harsh reviews, whatever,” he says.

He finished his second book, To Save Everything, Click Here, just before arriving at Harvard, and it was published in March 2013. Displaying a near-maniacal obsession with bullshit, the book dismantles two -isms Morozov perceives in our technology debate that he considers dangerous. The first is “solutionism,” the idea that we should recast our problems, from political gridlock to weight loss, as things to be solved primarily through technological efficiency. The second is “internet-centrism,” which he describes as the “firm conviction that we are living through unique, revolutionary times, in which the previous truths no longer hold.”

At bottom, Morozov says his work is an attempt to integrate the debates about technology into the broader debates about politics, economics, history, and culture—areas of study with much richer traditions and far greater intellectual resources for tackling the many challenges that technology presents. Such a shift in discourse, he feels, would limit the influence of those advocating narrow technological solutions to what are essentially non-technological problems—like spreading democracy—and would rob a word like “disruption” of the positive connotation it has acquired as a force for progress, allowing it to be seen instead as a painful example of neoliberal economics. When discussed in purely digital terms, for instance, letting a company like Uber transform a city’s taxi service is a no-brainer. When the digital is integrated into the political, however, this becomes a more complicated debate about regulation and infrastructure and the rights of cab drivers.

Most radically, he’s used the phrase “the internet” exclusively in scare quotes since To Save Everything was published. It’s not that he denies the existence of transformative networked technologies. It’s just that he considers the larger notions of innate goodness and inevitability that “the internet” has been consciously imbued with to be bullshit. “You think about Big Pharma, Big Oil,” he says. “The mere fact that we use the term ‘big’ to talk about them means we’ve figured out that they probably have interests that diverge from those of the public. Nobody uses the term ‘big data’ in that sense.”

He’s devoting his time at Harvard, and several years thereafter, to writing a kind of pre-history of the internet that, he thinks, will uncover the origins of the current intellectual framework we use to make sense of all things digital, tracing the roots of the discourse about “discontinuities” and “revolutions” and showing how this discourse limits our thinking. Take the privacy debate, for example. It’s tempting to think of the data-collection abilities of Facebook, Google—and even the NSA—as purely a consequence of our digital age, and therefore as an inevitable feature of progress to which we must adapt. But Morozov notes the many ways of thinking about privacy that are made invisible by this assumption. Privacy, he wrote in a recent essay, is something democracies have always had to grapple with, and even a “means of achieving a certain ideal of democratic politics, where citizens are trusted to be more than just self-contented suppliers of information to all-seeing and all-optimizing technocrats.”

Farrar, Straus and Giroux is scheduled to publish the pre-history book and, if Morozov’s hyping of it is to be believed, it will be the contribution that Joshua Cohen and others expect from him. And that Morozov expects of himself. Soon after To Save Everything was published, he tweeted: “The right way to think about [the book] is that it’s a grenade thrown to test the waters. In 5 years, I am returning in a tank.”

People apparently didn’t read much into this bombast other than to make fun of his rare slip into mixed metaphor. The “tank” is very much a work in progress, and for now is mostly just Morozov’s familiar hollerin’. Still, the tweet is notable for its insecurity about his previous work, its ambition about what’s to come, and its casting of technology debates in the terms of battle—almost, one might say, as a fight against tyranny.

“He really is a kind of political intellectual without a party,” says John Summers, the editor of The Baffler who published Morozov’s 16,000-word destruction of Tim O’Reilly, noting that there isn’t a clear constituency ready to act on any of the ideas posited in Morozov’s writing. “There’s a history of this in the United States, exactly these kinds of figures, and we don’t have them as much anymore. We have public intellectuals, but we don’t have a lot of political intellectuals, because most people make the early calculation that they’re not going to get very far doing that.”

Morozov, in contrast, seems to have made the early calculation that he would get far, and has fought himself into a position of influence in order to advance an argument about the people and ideas and industries he believes we should trust less. Whether you find this useful depends on what you have at stake. But with Morozov, the audience is always left to sort out where the critique ends and the joke begins. “I’m very conscious of what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m destroying the internet-centric world that has produced me. If I’m truly successful, I should become irrelevant.”

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer.

Growing up as a redhead.

A story about being a shy kid and trying to blend in.

My entire life, I’ve had flaming red hair. The tangles of curly, wiry locks refused to adhere to any style other than how they naturally formed: poofy.

This kind of hair was the worst kind of hair to own if you grew up as a quiet kid like me. When all you want to do is blur into the background, red hair made it impossible.

Every mother, every grandmother, every aunt, checkout clerk, garbage man, priest and every single passerby stopped to comment on my hair.

And hairdressers? Forget hairdressers. The moment I walked into any kind of salon the women flocked over like a gaggle of geese nipping at a child’s hand full of stale crackers.

Each nightfall, I’d lay my head down on my pillow with a willingness to trade a lifetime of wishes if I could only be granted the ability to transform my hair into mousey brown, straight, boring hair like other girls had — the kind that swings up into a ponytail in 1.5 seconds and bounces beautifully up and down as one runs onto the playground at recess.

But instead, I woke up with the same head of hair. Every. Morning.

As Sally Hogshead says, there’s one point in every child’s life when she learns how to be boring. My moment happened on May 21, 1982.

On that day, a new movie released entitled, “Annie.”

The world fell in love with this flick, not only because of its fairy tale story of an orphan that landed in a rich man’s mansion, but also because of the adorable little actress’s “unique” short, red, curly hair.

Suddenly, the entire population of Central New Jersey quit stopping me to comment on my hair. Instead, they’d grab my tiny little six-year-old shoulder, gasp and proceed to shout, “oh look! It’s a real life orphan Annie!”

Just a slight resemblance.

Approximately one out of every two people would follow that up with an encore that Hannibal Lector couldn’t have butchered as badly as these people did.

They’d streak, “the sun’ll come out…TOMORROW!” Not one person could ever quite hit that final note the right way. Instead, it usually had a horrific squeaking tone — the kind that devastatingly embarrasses most mid-pubescent teenage boys.

My desperation to magically acquire boring hair went from severe to off-the-charts.

If there was a chemical that could make my hair straight, I was begging my mom to let us try it. Those chemicals typically smelled like decay and singed scalps, but if they worked, I was willing to accept the modest torture. And if a bouncy ponytail required sitting under the hooded hairdryer with 1950’s style curlers for two hours per week, I was happy to spend the time doing it.

While most extraverted girls would have felt like they hit the lottery on May 21st, to me it felt as if the hair gods had played the meanest trick possible.

I dove into books where I had the ability to stand side-by-side with a character, but never be noticed nor actually part of the story. I bought issues of Seventeen Magazine years in advance of the age 17 and spent hours ripping out tutorials on hair, makeup, clothing and trends—basically anything that leaned on “fitting in” and, more specifically, “blending in.”

As the years went on, the fanatical Annie-fans calmed their singing voices and the chemicals and hair rollers worked an acceptable level of magic. My hair remained enflamed in red, but morphed ever-so-desperately closer to “boring.”

I wanted my positive to be a negative.

In Youngme Moon’s business book, “Different,” she encourages brands that have seemingly negative features to figure out a way to turn those negative features into positives, instead. She talks about how Mini Cooper launched a teeny tiny car in a country in love with SUV’s by embracing (and not hiding) their negatives.

I’m betting there are some of you reading that fought an entire childhood trying to hide something negative or figure out a way to turn it into an advantage just so that you could fit in and have more friends.

But, maybe not.

Maybe you were more like me. Maybe you also had an advantage card. One that droves of women would “kill for” (their words—often times I felt they meant it) but that you passionately wanted to hide.

Maybe you also desperately wanted to turn that advantage card in.

As an INFJ, I felt grateful for my small, loving family and thought I already had plenty of close friends. Friends I adored and felt incredibly safe with. I didn’t crave attention nor acceptance from outside of my small world.

Unlike all venomous marketers pimping blatantly boring brands, my brand — my most unique selling proposition—was a positive. However, I didn’t want the fan attention. I had nothing to gain for it. No extra sales. No quarterly earnings. I just desperately wanted it to go unnoticed.

Until, after many, many years, I didn’t anymore.

Seventeen years, four months and fifteen days later, my red hair became my advantage.

It was November 5th and the year was 1999. The evening boasted an unseasonable chill and my favorite band was playing an indie show in the basement of a Philadelphia-based community center. As my friend and I arrived at the venue, we looked up to see the line of show-goers nearly wrapped around the block.

We decided take our chances at getting in and walked toward the end of the line. The temperature outside continued dropping and more of the shivering bodies grew anxious about getting (or possibly not getting) inside.

And that’s when I saw him.

About eight people ahead of us in line was a strikingly good-looking guy. Over time, the people between us aborted mission and left the line to find entertainment elsewhere that night. After mere minutes, we found ourselves standing together, with no other people in between.

“Hi,” I said coolly.

“Hi,” he replied. “I like your hair.”

Two years later we stood shoulder-to-shoulder and exchanged wedding vows, and we’re still married to this day.

Not blending isn’t such a bad thing, after all.

We have two boys, and one of them has red hair. Everywhere we go, ladies young and old make comments about it.

Lucky for him, his personality is nothing like mine. He’s outgoing, craves attention and feels most alive when he can entertain an audience.

The hair gods finally got it right this time.

However, I’m still hopelessly praying a movie starring a redheaded boy doesn’t release to blockbuster success during his childhood. But if a such movie does get made, may it be graced with a song that offers notes that the vast majority of the public can easily hit.

Written by

Photographer that also helps other creative entrepreneurs market better. @steeltoeimages

Published January 2, 2014

Starting Sucks

Back in High School, I was leaning over a vast strip of paper with a shard of charcoal in my hand. I remember the black Martin portfolio propped up behind me, which I found abandoned after a life drawing course the year before. I’d filled it with gestures, paintings and studies throughout the semester in an effort to make it appealing to college art programs. I already had two dozen charcoal drawings in there that I loved. In that moment, though, I had a wide-open assignment. No prompt. No requirements. I could draw anything I wanted.

And I had no idea what to do.

I stared and stared and stared. Ideas came and went; I derided each for being terrible. The blank page stared back at me, radiating possibility and teasing me for my ineptitude.

Five minutes passed before my teacher noticed my hesitation. She knew exactly why.

Starting is hard

Wanting to start is easy. Planning to start is easy. Fantasizing to start is easy. But actually getting started? My room’s a mess. I should definitely go ahead and clean it first instead.

Writers fall into this trap all the time. We wait to be inspired, and fall victim to the trap of “I don’t feel like writing today.” Inspiration provides such an endorphin rush that you forget that writing, like most things, involves long, unglamorous work. It transforms a dozen excuses into full-on roadblocks.

  • “I don’t have any good story ideas right now.”
  • “Somebody else already did this.”
  • “I don’t have time.”

At the start of any new project, you see a million possibilities and challenges arrayed in front of you. And, a few thousand tasks that need to be done. What’s worse, you imagine a near-perfect, completed state for your novel, your app, your handmade bookcase, but this imagined thing lacks details of how to get it there. So you don’t start.

Lowering the Barrier of Entry

Many people, consciously or unconsciously, find workarounds to the overpowering blank page.

GTD maestros swear by the two-minute rule, which commands:

  1. If it takes less than two minutes, do it now.
  2. If you’re starting a new habit, start with a task that takes two minutes or less.

This gets you past the blank slate and straight into work, putting you in a position to gain momentum.

Another trick is to hack a way to start in the middle. Instead of writing your story from the beginning, jump straight to that middle scene you thought about in the shower. Often you’ll find that what you thought was the beginning was just throat clearing. You’re better off without it.

Good design hides blank slates

Just today, I swiped a fantastic UX design book from my friend’s coffee table. I opened to a random page and discovered the writer’s secret for user experience:

For most people, a completely blank slate is a difficult starting point. It’s so much easier to begin where someone has already left off. A user can easily fine-tune an approximation provided by the application into precisely what he desires with less risk of exposure and mental effort than he would have from drafting it from nothing.

Infinite possibilities cripple the imagination. But if you give someone a glob to work with, the juices start flowing.

You have a thing to build on. UX designers work around the blank slate by giving you something to work with right off the bat.

Take Facebook’s status bar: rather than an empty field, the Facebook designers give you a meaty prompt.

Just like that, your brain starts thinking about ways to answer the question. The box’s use is clear even to someone who’s never used Facebook before. I’d love to see the A/B test numbers when they first rolled this out, and how just having a prompt increased usage.

Shut Up and Ruin It

I prefer one final trick. It’s the one my teacher taught me that day in High School.

As I stood there with a blank page bullying me, she walked over and wrested the charcoal from my hand. Leaning over the table, she made one long and noisy swipe, gashing the paper with a thick vein of black that stretched from corner to corner.

“Now go,” she said, and left to help another student.

It worked. With the pristine paper already ruined, I got started. I whittled away the gash, erasing it in parts and adding in others. The thick line drove my composition and lead to idea after idea. The final piece ended up looking nothing like it, but that hardly mattered.

Later on, my teacher expanded on her philosophy.

“I always start with a diagonal line,” she said. “Students get intimidated by the page. You can’t let it do that! Show it who’s boss and rough it up a little.”

Sometimes all you need to get going on a project is to ruin it.

Written by

Vigilante writer, occasional gamer, and Director of Community at TinyCo. [Obligatory: opinions are my own.]

Accepting what comes to us without judgement

I’m currently reading Autobiography of a Yogi after discovering that it was one of Steve Jobs’ favorite books. In fact, the book was apparently Jobs’ final gift to family and friends. The book is about self realization.

I’ve only read a few pages so far, but this line really caught my attention:

“The one who pursues a goal of evenmindedness is neither jubilant with gain nor depressed by loss. He knows that man arrives penniless in this world, and departs without a single rupee.”

I’m fascinated by this idea that we should be unaffected by perceived positive or negative, and should instead accept what comes to us.

Another book I recently read is Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching which has some teachings very in line with this.

Here is Chapter 44:

Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

I particularly like this explanation of Chapter 44 in the appendix of commentary:

“the Master accepts whatever comes to him. If fame comes, he uses it with integrity. If money comes, he uses it as pure energy. Success and failure are equally irrelevant to him”

Similarly, here is Chapter 74:

If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren’t afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can’t achieve.

Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
chances are that you’ll cut yourself.

In the commentary for Chapter 74, Huai Nan Tzu has a great story which illustrates this further:

A poor farmer’s horse ran off into the country of the barbarians. All his neighbors offered their condolences, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t good fortune?” After a few months the horse returned with a barbarian horse of excellent stock. All his neighbors offered their congratulations, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t a disaster?” The two horses bred, and the family became rich in fine horses. The farmer’s son spent much of his time riding them; one day he fell off and broke his hipbone. All his neighbors offered the farmer their condolences, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t good fortune?” Another year passed, and the barbarians invaded the frontier. All the able-bodied young men were conscripted, and nine-tenths of them died in the war. Thus good fortune can be disaster and vice versa. Who can tell how events will be transformed?

I think non-judgement of people and situations is a key way to increase happiness, and so it’s something I’m trying to work on.

Written by

Founder/CEO & Product at @buffer, a smarter way to share. Focused on the lean startup approach and customer happiness. Say hello on Twitter @joelgascoigne.