Somehow, it’s both depressing and invigorating to read an article like this, where big-tech rivalries read like the Real Housewives. It’s depressing because the world already has precisely the amount of Housewives it needs, which is a polite way of saying “it doesn’t need more.” But this is also invigorating because, hey, at least reality-TV stars can throw verbal curveballs—and at least they use their camera time to put on a show for us.
Maybe there’s something we can learn from the strange comparison here… but let’s start by validating that comparison. What do big-tech rivalries and reality-TV feuds have in common?
An audience. Needs to be said first (even if it’s obvious) because public disputes are fundamentally different from private disputes.
A see-sawing mixture of flagrant pettiness and genuine, substantive disagreement between feuding parties. Easy to notice, but surprisingly hard to analyze without context (and sometimes, hindsight).
Shared history… or a complete lack of it. This factor amuses us because it can cut in so many different directions. Shared history can ease rivalries and build respect OR fuel deeper resentments (sometimes both). Likewise, new players can be met with cooperative friendliness OR hostile coercion (or a Machiavellian blend of the two).
Competition for relevance. For both groups, irrelevance is death—and competition can play out in weird ways because, for both groups, there’s an unusual tension. Namely: there’s usually enough room for everyone to be relevant, but not a lot of room to spare, and players do occasionally get knocked out of the game (especially with the, ahem, “help” of other players).
We rest our case. So let’s get to the juice: who’s feuded with who (and why).
Jack Dorsey vs. Kevin Systrom
FIRST MET: mid-2000s
FEUD STARTS: April 9, 2012
CURRENT STATUS: Quiet But Cordial
THE BEEF: Systrom sold Instagram to Facebook instead of Twitter. Dorsey was probably a little hurt (and not just jelly) because, after Systrom and Dorsey became friends elsewhere, Dorsey had mentored Systrom in IG’s early days, invested some of the first money, and helped Instagram go viral by cross-posting his Grams on Twitter. It seems they mostly both just went silent… until this April, when they had a nice exchange on Twitter.
Elon Musk vs. Jeff Bezos
FIRST MET: 2004
FEUD STARTS: 2013ish
CURRENT STATUS: Very Testy
THE BEEF: They’re competitors in the 21st-century Space Race. On one hand, calling them “competitors” seems a bit silly, since the market is brand-new and they’re not trying to do the exact same things in space. On the other hand, their mutual peacocking makes inevitable sense when you consider that (A) both Bezos and Musk are as alpha-male hard-headed as they come and (B) they’re basically the only two players in a worldwide rocket-measuring contest. Their businesses don’t really compete on Earth, but that doesn’t stop them from taking any earthly jabs they can.
Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates
FIRST MET: late 1970s
FEUD STARTS: early 1980s
CURRENT STATUS: Moot (RIP Steve Jobs)
THE BEEF: As we mentioned yesterday, they founded rival computer companies; they also had different upbringings (Gates in affluent Washington, Jobs adopted to middle-class San Fran) and different approaches to building a tech company (in a nutshell, Jobs had the talent for concept and design but couldn’t program, whereas Gates was a talented programmer). The respect in their relationship waxed and waned pretty regularly over the course of 30+ years.
Steve Jobs vs. Michael Dell
FIRST MET: 1997
FEUD STARTS: Immediately
CURRENT STATUS: Moot (RIP Steve Jobs)
THE BEEF: Again, rival computer companies, but this was probably the bitterer of these two Jobs feuds, even if it’s not as well-known. The feud started when Dell was asked his opinion of Apple (then in decline) and he said he’d “shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.” Jobs got pissed — so much that, at his next Apple keynote, he literally put a bullseye over Dell’s face and said “we’re coming for you.” In the years that followed, Jobs took every opportunity to jab and gloat at Apple’s success or Dell’s shortcoming. Jobs could handle some friendly jabs from Bill, but he was NOT about to take it from some smart-aleck Texan kid hocking billions’ worth of his main competitor’s core product.
Mark Zuckerberg vs. Tim Cook
FIRST MET: ??? (certainly by 2011, RIP Steve Jobs)
FEUD STARTS: 2014
CURRENT STATUS: Steady Boil
THE BEEF: Apple and Facebook have wildly different business models, different enough to bring up some philosophical disputes. In a sentence: Apple is big on privacy and makes money by selling actual products for profit, but Facebook is not big on privacy and makes money by selling YOU to advertisers. Cook said as much in a 2014 interview, which kicked off the feud more openly. But the gloves came off after Cambridge Analytica, when an interviewer asked Cook what he’d do if he were in Zuck’s situation and he said “I wouldn’t be in this situation.” 🔥😬 After that, Zuck asked all Facebook executives to switch to Android.
Mark Zuckerberg vs. Kevin Systrom
FIRST MET: 2011
FEUD STARTS: post-2012 (after IG acquisition)
CURRENT STATUS: Like Black Coffee (Bitter and Silent)
THE BEEF: Zuck gradually pushed Systrom out after he’d gotten what he wanted from him. As we wrote in April, it was smart of Zuck to court Systrom well before any deal was on the table. But let’s be real: did any of us think Zuck wanted to be friends with Systrom? Of course not. Systrom continued to head Instagram as part of the deal, but Zuck was well aware of who now owned what and seemed to lose his restraint as a result. Zuck became increasingly controlling (e.g. requiring Systrom to get approval before interviews) and even played some dirty tricks, like testing location-tracking—of which Systrom disapproved—while the latter was on paternity leave. Systrom summarizing his September 2018 departure: “No one ever leaves a job because everything’s awesome.”
Mark Zuckerberg vs. Evan Spiegel
FIRST MET: late 2012 (by email)
FEUD STARTS: shortly thereafter
CURRENT STATUS: Perma-Chilly
THE BEEF: Zuck is 0 for 4 (if not worse) at seducing Evan Spiegel. Zuck’s first play was to reach out directly by email and (try to) lure Spiegel to Facebook HQ for a chat, but Spiegel didn’t bite—even though he’s right down the road in L.A. The subsequent three Zuck plays were offers to buy Snapchat, all of which Spiegel refused. So clearly, Zuck really wants Snapchat and can’t get it… so Facebook is copy-catting Snapchat instead. At least Spiegel can clap back; in 2018, after Facebook cloned Snapchat Stories, he said: “We would really appreciate it if they copied our data protection practices also.”
Mark Zuckerberg vs. Jack Dorsey
FIRST MET: probably 2006ish (c. Twitter founding)
FEUD STARTS: unclear; officially weird by 2011
CURRENT STATUS: WTF Dude
THE GOAT: You mean, aside from Twitter and Facebook’s 14-year business rivalry? Two things. First and more recently: where Twitter has basically cancelled political ads AND started fact-checking tweets from prominent figures, Facebook has continued all advertising from its freedom-of-expression high horse, to which Dorsey has publicly called B.S. (basically, “You’re equating paid amplification with free speech? Seriously?”). Much earlier, Dorsey recounted some bizarre and oddly hostile Zuck encounters; in 2011, Zuck killed a goat with a knife and/or laser gun (?!) and then served it to Dorsey cold. Jack stuck with the salad.
So… let’s get to our miniature Reunion, shall we? Three thoughts:
#1 — Zuck isn’t making things any easier on himself, is he? We have to start here because… well, presumably you at least skimmed some of the above.
In fairness to Zuck, let’s just say he has plenty of company in the Powerful People With Issues club—but here’s our take on his issues. He lacks the natural charisma possessed by some of his peers, which would be fine if he didn’t also lack the warmth, eloquence, humor, and/or self-awareness which can compensate for a flatter personality. Which could still be fine, except that he’s a little bit two-faced and keeps trying at it even though his reputation now precedes him.
He’s intelligent, but… damn.
#2 — They definitely play mind games with one another. There’s a sense in which this is inescapable for tech titans, because there are so many psychological layers to their relationships. As one way of explaining it, Silicon Valley’s tech companies are like a little dating game; any one of them, like any person on a first date, is simultaneously trying to (A) figure out the exact game being played and (B) earn a High Score on it. So to speak. People try so hard.
But when businesses or their leaders play this game, it’s not dating in the “love marriage baby carriage” sort of way. If you still want to call it dating at all, it’s a pretty bleak and Hobbesian version of it, narrowly self-interested at best and predatory at worst. Still, most of them seem to understand this “game” and not take everything personally; after all, the very force which forces their rivalry is the pressure they share separately from the followers at their backs. And that raises our last big piece for today:
#3 — The stakes are very real; the rest is theater. For most people, a “public feud” sounds nightmarish because we imagine the whole world watching our private disputes. Thing is, that’s not how most public feuds work.
The fundamental difference between typical private disputes and public feuds is this: when you argue privately, your opposition and your audience are the same entity BUT when you argue publicly, the opposition and the audience become separate entities.
When your opposition and audience are the same thing, it’s wisest (for everyone’s sake) and smartest (for your own sake) to fight fair—but when the audience is its own thing, you have more incentive to mind the audience and less incentive to respect the opposition, especially as the audience grows. And when you’re a Zuck or a Musk, every lens or microphone is one more reminder to mind the massive masses, many of whom have money on their minds.
Which is the biggest difference, really, between the Housewives and the Executives: the sheer size of the chips on the table. Sure, many of the Housewives are business owners and some are quite impressive at it—but none of them is listed on the NYSE, none of them has tens of thousands of employees, and none of them has sufficient mass to start a revolution or topple an election, much less all three at the same time.
Our word in closing: if 2019’s “techlash” did something good for Silicon Valley’s soul, it was showing them just how much power they have and how destructive their power can be, even when innovation and good intentions are the deepest roots of it. The lessons are on the table; the only question is whether each of Big Tech’s prodigal players will take those lessons to heart. Our read of Jack is that he wants to be on the right side of history. Our read of Zuck is that he’s not yet convinced history will remember him at all.