Disingenuous

This is a post about Marco Arment’s decision to implement patronage pricing for his app, Overcast. It serves simply as a means for me to reach a conclusion about a group that I looked up to until now.

The word I keep coming back to is “disingenuous”. I looked it up:

not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does.

This is the problem. Marco did this twice in the space of a few weeks. The first time was when Marco pulled his ad blocker, Peace, from the App Store, less than a day into its life. And in a more inflammatory fashion, when he announced that he was making his podcast client, Overcast 2, free, supported by donations.

In both cases, Marco wrote long and thoughtfully about his reasoning for his actions. And both times he used a lot of words to, in my opinion, say everything but the truth.

I simply wasn’t satisfied with Marco’s explanations about pulling Peace. While speaking passionately about the need for such an app, when faced with a surprising success on launch, he decided he didn’t want to be a part of that industry (as it were). That’s possible. But never said was the more likely explanation: his public, well-established and healthy relationship with the members of the Apple press that cover him so well. They stand to lose from ad blockers in general, and his in particular.

Marco never mentioned that rationale, even to dismiss it; I can’t be sure that it was a factor. But at the time I looked askance and said “hmmm”.

The Overcast move is far more probative. By making his app free and relying on “patrons”, he is doing two things at once: taking advantage of his social capital (well-earned), and deploying his position as a millionaire who doesn’t need this experiment to succeed. I’m totally cool with the first — I’ve always been a great fan of Marco’s work.

But that second…hoo boy. Never said. As an early employee at Tumblr back in the day, he had stock options which converted into great bags of cash when Yahoo bought the company for ONE BILLION DOLLARS.

Maybe when you’re rich, you stop thinking about how much of an advantage that money is. Because the only thing Marco talks about is how he got where he is through hard work, and that anyone can do it.

This is demonstrably false. Even for Marco, there was a lot of luck working for him, not the least of which was getting that windfall from Tumblr. As he himself said in his most recent episode of his podcast, his apps alone have not been successful for him over the long term. Instapaper was overcome by free competitors, so he sold it. The Magazine didn’t really take off, so he sold it. Bugshot didn’t really take off, so he dispensed with it. And Overcast? Obviously not doing as well as he’d liked.

If this is “making it with hard work”, well, that’s an indictment of being a successful indie developer in 2015. So who could blame Marco for taking the route that his unique position grants him? Make it free. Take the chance. He can afford it.

And you know what? I’m totally cool with that. If he’d just come out and said it: “yeah, I’m loaded, so I recognize this is a club I have in my bag” (of course, he would never reach for a sportsball metaphor, but hey, I’m already putting words in his mouth), then it would have ended right there.

But no. Instead, “anyone can do this, if they work as hard as I did”.

And that really grates the nerves. Because as I just said, even in his own case, that is demonstrably untrue.

And then it got worse. Anonymous commentator Samantha Bielefeld put a well-crafted finger on the problem, and a huge pile-on ensued. Her Twitter account is a cesspool of contempt, and it seems to be exclusively men yelling at her. It’s been going on for over a week.

The essays written about this issue have taken on the usual volume of an Internet blow-up in the tech community, and I’m embarrassed to say that what you’re reading now only represents just another contribution.

But what they don’t say is this: Marco Arment has behaved very badly through this, and he’s been abetted by his friends, particularly in the press, who either backed up Marco, or said nothing while his critics were getting harassed. Even people who should stand up for the rights of women backed off. John Siracusa, perhaps the man whose insight and intellect I respect the most, shocked me by lobbing softball questions at Marco during that podcast. I kept hoping he would say “what about your overflowing bank account, Marco???”.

There can be no doubt in my mind anymore. There is a circle of friends at play in the midst of the indie app scene, a collection of journalists and developers who represent the cool kids. Just like in high school, most of us are looking in at them, envious and ever-angling to achieve our own place among their ranks. It’s certainly attainable, but when attacked, they look inward, ignorant of the damage they cause.

I think I’m done with reading marco.org. I think I’m done with ATP. I think I’m done with my constant attempts to get the cool kids to pay attention to my apps. I think I’ve learned my lesson: I’m going to reach my customers not through the press, and not through the reach that comes via the cool kids’ retweets. I’m going to find my customers directly.

That project has already begun.