Why Are Middlebrow Dismissals So Tempting?

A “Middlebrow dismissal” is a Hacker News-ism that refers to a response to an idea that’s both a) popular, and b) uninformative. You’d think these would be rare, but they are incredibly common. Below, a couple objections you can write down for use the next time someone tells you about something new and cool:

  • This is a feature, not a product.
  • Google/Facebook/Amazon could easily do this.
  • It’s not scalable. It won’t catch on. (These go on the same line because anything that is scalable and hasn’t caught on yet might be something that will never catch on, and anything that is catching on is not scalable in its current form.)
  • They’ll never justify that valuation. Their business model must be terrible if that’s all they’re worth. (Another good matched set.)
  • That’s not secure.

Paul Graham, News.YC’s moderator emeritus, says that “The defining quality of the middlebrow dismissal is that it’s a cache dump of the writer’s prejudices…” This probably explains why they’re so common. It’s natural to see any news story as confirmation of your existing prejudices—but it’s easy to read confirmation where it’s not there. So it’s easy to see Groupon or Zynga as a “failure” for being worth merely a couple billion dollars when they were once worth ten billion plus apiece. (You could get pretty rich failing like that a few times.)

But the real driver is not just that it’s easy to misread a story as confirming your beliefs. It’s that the alternative is to read a story and realize you were wrong. And since a middlebrow dismissal is a dismissal of something, it’s generally a dismissal of something that disagrees with the reader’s bias. This thread dissing Groupon, which is worth four billion dollars four years later, is a pretty great example:

a glorified wordpress blog with 10,000 sales reps propping up the fake market with unsustainable or warranted demand. It’s like watching Boiler Room play out in real life. There is no business process innovation here or technical innovation. The only innovation here is using huge marketing dollars to perpetuate a pump and dump ponzi scheme long enough for an IPO.

10,000 sales reps are a commodity. Being the first company to staff up to 10,000 sales reps is enough to create a real competitive advantage.

Probably the best part of the thread is this explanation of how to clone Twitter. TWTR, after a painful guide-down, is worth around $25bn, up from roughly $7bn at the time. Somehow that Hacker News commenter has not found the time to clone them and split that $25bn 50/50. Which is doubly frustrating because the comment isn’t even wrong! It is fairly cheap to build Twitter, if Twitter is “a database that can store tweets.” But if Twitter is “the first place anyone goes to track news in real-time,” it’s something so difficult only Mike Bloomberg and Ted Turner have been able to build anything similar before.

If it’s easy to be skeptical, that’s a huge warning sign. Skepticism should be harder than credulity, not easier—someone is betting their time and money on the idea, and a commenter is only betting their Internet reputation, which nobody will ever care about. Startups are a compelling case for Chesterton’s Fence. If you can tell a new company is obviously flawed, congratulations! You don’t have a useful opinion. Only when you can articulate why a reasonable person would have built the company that way, and what that reasonable person is missing, can you escape the Curse of the Middlebrow.

| May 2nd, 2015 | Posted in internet culture |

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