Success and Innovation

May 27, 2013

In general, I find that online communities (particularly HN, which is what I frequent) are often extremely negative about new ideas or changes to existing products. And I find that quite depressing and sad, but that’s a topic for a separate post.

However, I found this particular comment by jdietrich on HN quite insightful. Or atleast, I found myself nodding my head in agreement and appreciation; you can judge for yourself if you find it insightful, my non-existent readers :). For context, he was responding to Dustin Curtis’ post which talks about how Pinterest and Vine were dismissed as stupid ideas in their early days, but turned out to become extremely popular.

Success is not validation of an idea and we should be ashamed to think so.

Cigarettes are one of the most successful consumer products on earth. Inhaling a lungful of carcinogenic smoke several hundred times a day is undoubtedly a stupid idea. Tobacco has made a small number of people incomprehensibly rich, to the great detriment of humanity.

Personally, I think nearly all of these ‘social’ startups are bad news. Not as bad news as a lung cancer epidemic, but bad news nonetheless. I think they feed a culture of passivity and attention deficit. I think they fragment human interaction into the smallest possible dopamine-inducing units. I think they’re essentially Skinner boxes in disguise - apps that dress up an intermittent schedule of reward as meaningful activity.

The startup culture talks the talk about “changing the world”, but in truth most of us couldn’t care less so long as we get our next funding round. For every Watsi, we have a hundred bullshit companies with bullshit products, providing yet another means of idle distraction for indolent westerners. We can hardly distinguish between what is worthwhile and what is popular or profitable. It has hardly occurred to Curtis or anyone in these comments that an idea could be both successful and stupid.

Is Pinterest really an innovative sharing tool, or is it merely a collaborative exercise in commodity fetishism? Is Vine really a radical new way to communicate, or is it merely the nadir of audiovisual culture, fragmenting the world into six-second shards of nothingness? Do we even care?