The age of distributed truth

Apparently, for years, Nora Ephron, who was once married to Carl Bernstein, would openly tell people that Deep Throat was FBI Associate Director Mark Felt. It wasn't that Bernstein told her; she deduced it from clues and shared it with many people around her. It seems no one believed her, so when Felt finally came clean in 2005 it was treated as a big reveal.

Explosive truths that hide in plain sight are especially unusual in this age of the internet, especially with outlets like Deadspin so eager to share every rumor. How is it that incriminating stories can be floating out there for years and not spread like viral memes when headline writers everywhere are weaponizing even the most mundane of news? 

For years, many people in Hollywood knew that Bill Cosby was a sexual criminal, yet it wasn't until 2014 when Hannibal Buress called Bill Cosby a rapist during a stand-up set that suddenly everything began to turn. I've written before that how a message is encoded really matters. Buress took a dark story and turned it into viral video form, and no matter how many hung juries will let Cosby off the hook, his career is effectively over, his reputation forever tarnished beyond repair.

"I've done this bit on stage and people think I'm making it up.... when you leave here, Google 'Bill Cosby rape.' That sh** has more results than 'Hannibal Buress.'"

[I just did, and actually "Hannibal Buress" has now passed "Bill Cosby rape" in Google results. Glass half full?]

Until a week ago, I had never heard of Justin Caldbeck or Binary Capital. In the wake of the revelation that Caldbeck had been sexually harassing women coming to his firm for funding, suddenly multiple stories came to the forefront. Apparently Caldbeck had been well known for his perverse behavior among a subset of people in the tech community. Now, everyone knows him thanks to a story broken by Reed Albergotti in The Information. It's sometimes said that all PR is good PR, but like most such sayings, the qualifier is "except when it isn't."

With Caldbeck having resigned, maybe to never work in this town again, and Binary Capital likely headed for extinction, its brand now toxic, it's worth examining what feels like a distinctly modern ritual, the tipping point when highly localized common knowledge goes wide. It has happened over and over in this internet age, and it's going to happen again.


In Rational Ritual, the concise, readable, and seminal text on the subject of common knowledge, it is described this way:

...knowledge of the message is not enough; what is also required is knowledge of others’ knowledge, knowledge of others’ knowledge of others’ knowledge, and so on — that is, “common knowledge.”

Before Justin Caldbeck's behavior might have best been described as mutual knowledge: something that lots of people know, but after the story broke in the Information, and once Caldbeck and Binary Capital finally finally acknowledged the issue, his disturbing pattern or harassment became common knowledge, something that not only does everyone in tech know, they also now know that everyone else in tech knows.

In sharing their news on the record with the Information, the brave women Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, and Leiti Hsu created a new world in which you cannot pretend to be ignorant of Caldbeck's behavior. Everyone around him, from his investors to his partners and coworkers to the tech community at large had to choose how to handle the news. Feigning ignorance now is to be explicitly complicit.

Rational Ritual focuses on the role of public ceremony and ritual in creating common knowledge among the public; “rituals and ceremonies are not just “texts” but also publishing processes.”

What we've seen recently in Silicon Valley is the power of the written word to serve as its own form of ritual to create common knowledge in the community. Albergotti's story was one example, but an even more salient example was Susan Fowler's blog post "Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber."

There had been plenty of rumors and stories about the toxic Uber culture before, but many were about the win at all costs nature of the company, and that will always be spun as the inevitable side effect of dogged entrepreneurs doing what's necessary to break through in a market with privileged incumbents and regulatory capture. But as soon as Fowler hit publish on her blog post, as as soon as the story went viral among the tech press, then the mainstream press, spreading around Twitter with the what seemed to approach the speed of light, the entire tech community had a new source of common knowledge with which to grapple. Uber was a company that, from the top on down, forgave sexual harassment and discrimination.

As Kara Swisher notes of Fowler's post:

But post-Fowler, you could not ignore it, because she pulled off what poet Louise Gluck wrote about in her poem, “Circe’s Power”: “I never turned anyone into a pig. Some people are pigs; I make them look like pigs.”
Which is to say that Fowler did everyone in tech a public service by doing nothing more than making pigs look like pigs.

Fowler wasn't just brave, she was also incredibly wise. With every right to take an indignant tone, she instead maintains a measured, reportorial tone from the start, beginning with the very demure title. Can you imagine what any modern headline writer would've titled her post? Thank god she was able to retain control of her tone and voice from title on down.

In calmly reciting point after point with heroic, reserved prose, she checkmated the company, doing something that countless angry screeds from tech journalists could not do, all of those opening themselves to accusations of partisan naysaying. Fowler simply told her story, and told it straight.

It doesn't take long. In her third paragraph, she writes:

After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird. On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn't. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn't help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.

"Things started getting weird." That's one way to put it, but think of how many other ways she could have said it. It almost sounds naive, but it's clear she knows what's happening, and how in this high stakes game of poker, she has to be the coolest player at the table, lest she, like so many women before her, be labeled some hysteric. Her post is a masterpiece of tone and rhetorical control, and it had to be. No resorting to snark or irony or any number of tricks of the clever; she bore her own witness, and no better witness could an attorney have imagined.

It's also worth noting that she did what every employee training course I've ever taken says you should do, which is to report such incidents to HR. I've met many a kind HR person in my career, but let's be honest about what bad advice this is for employees. It's not just that Uber's HR department let Fowler down; in every company I've ever been at, HR reports into the CEO, and their job is to protect the company. I hope my readers will provide me with examples of HR protecting employee's interests in such cases, but from what I've seen and read, the moment you report an incident to HR they start building a dossier on you and a case to defend the company in court. Their work will be in that courtroom with you, but it will be on the desk of the company's attorneys, not yours. As many an employment lawyer has told me, before you talk to HR, you should talk to one of them. Until we have some independent, ombudsman-like HR group looking out for employees in the tech world, that would be my advice, too.

HR failed Fowler, but she took matters into her own hand. Her post said, “This happened. This happened. Look on the works of these mighty, and despair.”

Those in power are not stupid. They know the power of common knowledge in solving the coordination problem among those who'd oppose them. The first thing oppressive regimes facing rebels at the gates will do is cut off public communication channels like television, radio, and social media. If the opposition cannot communicate with each other, they do not know how many others will stand with them if they march on those in power, weakening their resolve.

The tech equivalent is the non-disparagement agreement. Stitch Fix founder Katrina Lake had reported to Lightspeed Venture Partners years ago that she'd been harassed by Caldbeck, and in response the VC firm had Lake sign a non-disparagement agreement, a copy of which is now online. Lightspeed could have blocked a Benchmark investment in her company, and so she signed it.

While such agreements can cut both ways, in almost every case, preserving information asymmetry is a tactic for those in power to stay there. There's a reason that airlines have rules trying to prohibit passengers from filming personnel and other passengers on flights.

I have no idea whether Fowler had to sign a non-disparagement clause when she joined Uber, and it may be that United Airlines policies prohibited the type of video that passengers shot of security guards dragging an elderly man off a flight like a sack of produce, but even if so, the history of the world is testament that justice sometimes requires a bit of civil disobedience. Or, as the kids these days call it, a bit of disruption.


In many stories that have been written since the original story about Justin Caldbeck broke, it seems that his behavior wasn't exactly a well-kept secret, but the fact that it hadn't seemed to have hurt him until last week is another reason Wang, Ho, and Hsu had to show real courage in going on the record. When such behavior seems to be generally forgiven among a community, one can't be certain of what the punishment for speaking out will be. It's not just the structural leverage of VC's over entrepreneurs, it's the chilling sense of feeling like an outsider trapped in enemy territory, playing a game that has been rigged against you, only you're not sure who is in on it. If you start a war, from which there is no return, who will stand with you?

This is the type of coordination problem that common knowledge is supposed to solve, but one only need study the historical treatment of women who speak out against those who harass them on Twitter or those who've sexually assaulted them to understand why so many are reluctant to do so. The personal cost, and victory is far from assured.

Ask the black community, who have actual video of police gunning them down for no reason other than prejudicial fear, how that's worked out with them. I wrote that in the wake of the Philando Castile case that soon black drivers would have dash cams turned in towards their vehicles, recording every traffic stop in full. Only a short while later the actual dash cam footage from the police vehicle involved in the Castile case was released publicly. Combined with the Facebook Live video, the evidence seemed as strong as it could be.

We need look no further than the highest office in the land to see that common knowledge often isn't enough. When the audio of Billy Bush and Donald Trump laughing it up on the bus broke, I thought for sure that would be the incident to sink him. For once, Trump had been caught on tape, when the press and public weren't in the room to serve as an explicit audience. The tape could be entered into evidence as common knowledge for the public. Then there was video of Trump mocking a disabled reporter.

And on and on and on. Trump has laid so much rope by which the public could have hung him that his feet ended up back on the ground. He is the troll who thumbs his nose at the two intellectually neutered political parties, realizing they have neither the will nor the ideas to do anything as he and his family laugh their way to the bank. In literature, the court jester is often the wisest fool in the room, but sometimes an idiot is just an idiot. If the gloves do not fit, you must acquit. Who will ever forget? What's depressing about Trump is how he seems to be an exemplar of the variant: the gloves do fit, but you can't do shit.

Still, that Trump's personal failings could be common knowledge and yet not disqualify him from consideration from the Presidency is not an indictment of common knowledge but instead speaks to just how dire the economic situation is for too many in this country. Listen to most Trump supporters and they'll acknowledge his faults. That fact that the Caldbeck case sunk a VC firm and the Susan Fowler post kicked one of the most powerful companies in tech into choppy water give hope that internet has created a new form of public ritual by which to establish common knowledge of injustice. The pen can be mightier than the sword.

I'm no expert on blockchain technology, but one of its more elegant properties is that the truth, the common knowledge, if you will, is distributed, not owned by any one entity. When the accusations against Caldbeck went public, he and Binary Capital both denied the allegations in the strongest terms.

In the blockchain, computational algorithms ensure that the truth wins out and is irreversible. Like a sort of human blockchain, Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, Leiti Hsu, and three other women came out all at once, in solidarity, backed by the reporting of The Information, and neutered the predictable Caldbeck and Binary Capital denials as the reflexive bullshit that they were. In the public ledger, the word of these women became the truth.

The internet gave everyone a megaphone, and these days that can feel like that Chinese proverb, you know the one. Perhaps the truth was better kept in the hands of a limited set of responsible stewards, but that age of the expert has passed, and that system had its own issues. As every Death Star reminds us each time they're blown up, concentrating power in a small area has its own unique vulnerability.

We live in the age of distributed truth, and it's an environment in which fake news can spread like mold when in viral form. But the same applies to the truth, and if there's one lesson on how to do your part in an age of distributed truth, it's to speak the truth and to support those who do. It may be exhausting work—is it really necessary to point out the emperor is buck naked?—but it's the best we can do for now. In this age, the silent majority is no majority at all.