The denizens of Silicon Valley frequently come across like wide-eye college freshmen thinking about the world's problems for the first time, impatient to fix them, indignant that nobody has yet. Sometimes, this naivety leads them to novel answers to riddles everyone else had written off as insoluble. Often enough, however, it results in their offering tried-and-discredited "solutions" that are worse than the complex problems they seek to address.
In the ranks of Silicon Valley solutionists, you won't find one more utopian than Peter Thiel. There's no problem he believes can't be remedied through the application of pure Apollonian rationality and large amounts of capital, up to and including death.
While his Founders Fund concerns itself with challenges of that magnitude--life extension, space travel, clean energy--it turns out Thiel has been spending his personal money in pursuit of an earthier goal: putting Gawker Media out of business. On Wednesday, he admitted he was the secret financier behind the wrestler Hulk Hogan's successful invasion of privacy lawsuit against the gossip publisher.
Hogan's is only one of an unknown number of cases Thiel has offered to underwrite, but it looks like it might be enough: Faced with a $140 million judgment, Gawker owner Nick Denton is reportedly considering a sale. (In a statement, the company said its hiring of an investment banker is mere "contingency planning," not a sign of anything.)
Justifying his actions to The New York Times, Thiel said he did what he did because Gawker is "a singularly terrible bully. In a way, if I didn't think Gawker was unique, I wouldn't have done any of this. If the entire media was more or less like this, this would be like trying to boil the ocean."
There's no doubting that Gawker has played the bully at times over the years. Just as the billionaire lords of Silicon Valley still think of themselves as embattled outsiders, Gawker, which started as a kitchen-table blog, has maintained a sense of itself as an insurgent even as it has grown into a cultural force. Its journalists sometimes find themselves punching down at targets that must once have appeared untouchably high.
But "singularly terrible" is a matter of perspective. In using that phrase, Thiel betrays his as a parochial one. Ask anyone in Hollywood if there's been a "singularly terrible bully" in the media and you'll be told it's TMZ or Nikki Finke. Ask a socialite or model in New York City and she'll say it's Page Six; ask any moderately public figure in the U.K. and he or she will have a hard time picking one. But none of those publications care much about the technology industry and its masters--and certainly none of them has ever delved into Thiel's personal life, as Gawker-owned Valleywag did in 2007 when it published a claim that Thiel is gay.
Yet Thiel maintains that his motivation for going after Gawker in court was not personal pique but public spirit, calling the campaign "one of my greater philanthropic things that I've done. I think of it in those terms."
If that's how Thiel defines philanthropy, the IRS might want to give him a call. It's true, we all applaud philanthropists who eschew credit for their good works, but in this instance anonymity has a different tinge. Had Thiel wanted us to construe his actions as principled, he could have done so in a more public and disinterested way--perhaps, as Jay Rosen suggests, by funding a "Gawker watch and critique site," or endowing a legal-defense fund for victims of media bullying. At a minimum, he should have revealed himself as Hogan's backer sooner.
But that almost certainly would have interfered with his primary aim of putting Gawker out of business. As Politico's Jack Shafer notes, "The Florida jury that found in Hogan's favor thought it was delivering a rebuke to morally reprobate coastal elites on behalf of a hometown hero. Did he figure that the jury would have responded differently had it known that the case wasn't pitting a wrestler against a rude and smutty New York Web empire but was really a multibillionaire's personal vendetta?"
I've interviewed Thiel at some length and Denton extensively. The two are more similar than either of them might like to think. They're both wealthy, brilliant, highly educated, science fiction-loving techno-optimists. They're both idealists who crave intellectual consistency from the world and are willing, to a rare degree, to follow their beliefs to their logical conclusions, however unpopular the endpoint may be.
The biggest difference between them is in their view of privacy. Thiel cares about his enough that when Valleywag first threatened to out him as gay, in 2006, Denton claims Thiel promised severe retribution. In contrast, when the New York Post was looking into a scandalous incident in Denton's love life, Denton, who is gay, called the reporters to fill them in on the details. He believes privacy is almost always an obstacle to social progress, secrecy is almost always a tool of the powerful, and the exposure of secrets is the best way to keep that power in check.
By conducting his war against Gawker in private rather than openly, Thiel proved only what was already obvious: that, for a plaintiff with vast amounts of money, the American legal system is a pretty effective weapon.
He also, inadvertently, offered the best possible demonstration of why we need something like Gawker, a news organization that, whatever its failings, will go further than any other to expose a secret.