Many harsh words are traded on Twitter each day. Dick Costolo, the former CEO of the company, added some of his own tonight.
Costolo was responding to a debate that has consumed tech’s elite on Twitter over the past few days, an argument about whether the industry should actively promote social justice causes and encourage political conversations at work. Costolo’s comments had the effect of dumping a jerrycan’s worth of fuel on the fire. “Me-first capitalists who think you can separate society from business are going to be the first people lined up against the wall and shot in the revolution,” he tweeted. “I’ll happily provide video commentary.”
Costolo’s extraordinary language—suggesting he’d like to see some of his peers face a firing squad—was jarring and reinforced the profoundly unusual and troubling circumstances that have enveloped corporate America this year. Businesses have faced a deadly pandemic, a global recession and the most profound reckoning over civil rights in several generations, sparked by George Floyd’s death while in police custody last May. By turn, corporations and the CEOs running those firms have been left wondering what role—if any—they should take in the movement, inaction on their part sometimes leading to the unhappiness of their employees.
While the fiery controversy had largely been reduced to embers in recent weeks, it was sparked anew on Twitter by Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong’s sternly worded blog post from Sunday, a lengthy treatise that attempted to draw a firm line in the sand: Coinbase would take no part in any social justice movement. Generally, Armstrong seemed to say, he expected his employees to keep their heads down and focus on their job of building out the cryptocurrency exchange. “We’ve seen what internal strife at companies like Google
“We don’t engage here when issues are unrelated to our core mission,” Armstrong continued, “because we believe impact only comes with focus.” In finishing, Armstrong made it clear that anyone who didn’t agree with his profits-before-politics mentality should leave. On Wednesday, he reinforced that, encouraging any employee made unhappy by his policy to take advantage of a newly created seperation package, a “generous” buyout, he promised.
Immediately, Armstrong’s comments drew in supporters—and plenty of aghast critics. Among the most notable of those who rushed to Armstrong’s side was the venture capitalist Paul Graham. “Yet again, @brian_armstrong leads the way,” Graham tweeted. “I predict most successful companies will follow Coinbase’s lead. If only because those who don’t are less likely to succeed.”
The irony of the situation was, seemingly, lost on Armstrong and his backers. Cryptocurrency by nature is antagonistic to the status quo, a disruptive force meant to overturn systems of tradition and entrenched thinking. And that’s why Armstrong’s words urging his staff to forget about disrupting the status quo around race struck many as perplexing—or, worse still, as coming from someone bent on commercialism over principles. Box founder Aaron Levie was one of the most vocal critics. “When there’s a vacuum of leadership from the government in dealing with these topics, businesses often need to lead more than ever,” he tweeted Tuesday afternoon. The thought was still on his mind later that night after the tumultuous presidential debate. “So like do Coinbase employees just pretend that debate didn’t happen tomorrow?” Levie asked on Twitter.
Costolo finds himself squarely on the same side as Levie. He characterized Armstrong’s anti-politics dictum as “the abdication of leadership. It’s the equivalent of telling your employees to ‘shut up and dribble.’ ” He further suggested that Coinbase would become “a bank with a mission nobody really believes.”
How he chose to deliver this message—on Twitter—is emblematic of today’s political era and the state of modern political discourse. Twitter has grown from a “microblogging site,” the phrase often used to describe the platform when Costolo captained it from 2010 to 2015, to an all-important portal of information and news portal—the place, naturally, where President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden went after the debate to further press their messages to voters.
It’s where Trump has made comments that courted gunpoint violence, prompting Twitter to censor or append corrections to his tweets several times this past summer. (Most memorable were Trump’s remarks that seemed to suggest he would allow authorities to open fire on protestors: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”) With the president of the United States normalizing such remarks, it was perhaps inevitable that people on the opposite side—Costolo in this case—would copy his tone.
Mike Cernovich, a right wing media personality with a 721,700-person following on Twitter, was quick to criticize Costolo. “This tweet is an actual violation of twitter TOS for glorifying violence,” he wrote on Twitter. “That aside, thanks for publicly endorsing the mass murder of your poltical [sic] adversaries.” (Twitter did not immediately return a request to comment about whether Costolo’s tweet did in fact violate its terms of service—or whether it planned to take any action.)
Geoff Lewis, a venture capitalist and former executive at libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, was left sputtering for words: “ ‘I’ll happily provide video commentary’ ????? Wow.”