For a long time I told the same basic joke about Silicon Valley, just updating as some new walled garden network replicated long-existing technology in a format better able to attract VC cash and, presumably, get them ad dollars.
2002, Friendster: At last, a way to connect with friends on the internet!2003, Photobucket: At last, a way to post pictures on the internet!2003, Myspace: At last, a way to connect with friends on the internet!2004, Flickr: At last, a way to post pictures on the internet!2004, Facebook: At last, a way to connect with friends on the internet!2005, YouTube: At last, a way to post video on the internet!2006, Twitter: At last, a way to post text on the internet!2010, Instagram: At last, a way to post pictures on the internet!2013, Vine: At last, a way to post video on the internet!2013, YikYak: At last, a way to post text on the internet!
You get the idea. An industry that never stops lauding itself for its creativity and innovation has built its own success mythology by endlessly repackaging the same banal functions that have existed for about as long as the Web.
It seems, though, that SnapChat will be the last big new player in social for awhile, at least until the kids get their dander up for something new. Whats the new hotness in an industry that exemplifies 21st American capitalism, in that its a cannibalistic hustle where only the most shameless hucksters survive? As someone who rides the New York subway every day and is forced to look at its ads, let me take you on a journey.
Give Away the Razors, Make Your Money on DRM-Infected Blades
Juicero deserved all of the attention it got and moreit was so pure, so impossibly telling about the pre-apocalyptic American wasteland. It was also just one of a whole constellation of companies that now operate under an ingenious model: take some banal product that has been sold forever at low margins, attach the disposable part to a proprietary system that pretends to improve it but really just locks pepole into a particular vendor, add a touch screen manufactured by Chinese tweens, call it Smart, and sell it to schlubby dads too indebted to buy a midlife crisis car and too unattractive to have an affair. As the Juicero saga shows us, you dont even really have to honor the whole make the initial purchase cheap stage. Just ensure that you market your boondoggle to the kind of person who stood in line to buy an $800 smartwatch that poorly duplicates a tenth of the functions already present in the phone in their pocket. (You know, those dead inside.) Then get them locked into your ecosystem, which means get their credit card number and automatically charge them every month for your version of a product that can be purchased at the supermarket for a third of the price. Profit, baby, profit.
Are you the kind of person who is so worn down by the numbing drudgery of late capitalism that you cant summon the energy to drag a 2 ounce toothbrush across your gums for 90 seconds a day? Well, the electric toothbrush has been a thing for a long time. And that means that its not good enough. After years of deadening your limbic system through psychotropic medication, video games, and increasingly-extreme internet pornography, you need something new. Enter Quip, the company disrupting the toothbrush. Quip wants you to know that its product is inexpensive, despite the fact that it will charge you $40/year for for its refill plan and I just bought 5 perfectly functional regular toothbrushes for $1 in the most expensive city in the country. Of course, youre also buying the convenience of automationwho wants to run down stairs to the bodega for a toothbrush when you can hand over your banking info to a toothbrush company? Bonus points to Quip for emphasizing simplicity while hawking a product that employs an engineering team to innovate the concept of a brush.
Ive got one word for you, Benjamin, just one word: rents.
Ah yes, all those 1,000 square foot sunny 2 bedroom pet-friendly apartments for $2k in San Francisco
Its one thing to take a product that is already cheap and just fine and replace it with a vastly more expensive version that locks people into exploitative proprietary systems for years in exchange for giving them a 15 second hit of dopamine derived from Going Digital. I mean, Quip and Juicero and whatever Silicon Valley dildo company is selling dongs with DRM-equipped replaceable heads are actually fundamentally selling you a product. Its a horribly, uselessly expensive product that could only be embraced by chumps, but its a tangible thing. The real next level is just inserting yourself into someone elses transaction and collecting a % while offering nothing. (When this is a job, we call it consulting.) Why charge a lot for the blades when you can charge a lot for literally nothing?
RentBerry is useful here because the word rent is literally in the name. Heres the value proposition that RentBerry offers. For landlords who are already raking in record profits, RentBerry provides a chance at making even more, as potential tenants must set upon each other in a dystopian nightmare auction system that compels them to ask, how much am I willing to pay to avoid sleeping in the park, really? For tenants, RentBerry offers well, the opportunity to pay more in a pre-existing housing crisis, the chance to make the process of finding an apartment an even more horrific exercise in stress and disappointment, a reason to hate faceless strangers with even more intensity, and more reason to view city life as a ceaseless Nietzschean struggle from which they will never escape. What RentBerry gets in return is, eventually, a % of your already hideously overpriced rent, for the duration of the lease. I bet you cant wait to know a portion of your rent check is going not just to the landlord you hate but also to a company that did nothing beyond giving him the ability to take more of your money! Of course, if you live in New York, your landlord might very well be a hedge fund that also funded RentBerry! Sweet, right?
RentBerry will tell you that tenants might get a deal thanks to the auction system. Of course, its landlords who chose to use RentBerry, not tenants, and if landlords thought they were losing money on the deal theyd never use it, meaning the services very reason for being necessarily entails grabbing more and more tenant money. Details!
Why is everything so expensive? Because Silicon Valley and Wall Street are taking huge percentages out of transactions they once didnt. Thats why. The Juiceros make inexpensive and functional products far more expensive and often less functional; the RentBerrys cut out the middleman by just becoming middlemen. Dare to dream.
We Love Doers So Much We Want to Give Them a Hellish Existence of Endless Precarity
This is the type of company that has become inescapable in NYC subway advertising. Not coincidentally the time I spend contemplating stepping in front of the train to enjoy the sweet oblivion of death is also up dramatically. Theres legit dozens of these companies out there.
The basic idea here is that 40 years of stagnant wages, the decline of unions, the death of middle class blue collar jobs, the demise of pensions, and a general slide of the American working world into a PTSD-inducing horror show of limitless vulnerability has been too easy on workers. Im sorry, Doers, or whatever the fuck. The true beauty of these ads is that they are all predicated on mythologizing the very workers who their service is intended to immisserate. Sorry about your medical debt; heres a photo of a model who we paid in exposure over ad copy written by an intern who we paid in college credit that cost $3,000 a credit hour. Enjoy.
The purpose of these companies is to take whatever tiny sense of social responsibility businesses might still feel to give people stable jobs and destroy it, replacing whatever remains of the permanent, salaried, benefit-enjoying workforce with an army of desperate freelancers who will never go to bed feeling secure in their financial future for their entire lives. These companies are for people who think temp agencies are too coddling and well remunerative. The only service they sell is making it easier to kill minimally stable, well-compensated jobs. Thats it. They have no other function. They valorize Doers while killing workers. They siphon money from the desperate throngs back to the employers who will use them up and throw them aside like a discarded Juicero bag and, of course, to themselves and their shareholders. Thats it. Thats all they are. Thats all they do. They are the final logic of late capitalism, the engine of human creativity applied to the essential work of making life worse for regular people.
Our society is a hellish wasteland and I am dying inside.