An unlikely figure was featured in a recent AMA session on the tech discovery site Product Hunt: It was the pseudonymous Startup L. Jackson, who is becoming notorious for his searing sass about tech culture, which he publishes in bite-sized bits through his Twitter account.
And like a scene out of the satirical HBO comedy “Silicon Valley,” techies turned to this anonymous comedian for guiding wisdom, despite the fact that they don’t know anything about Jackson’s history, agenda or biases. In the Q&A, people posed serious questions about “evaluating a company’s moral compass,” “focusing on retention versus growth” and “the potential of blockchain-based technology,” and Jackson responded in kind with measured, thoughtful answers instead of jokes.
“When you have a microphone, you start thinking about what you can do with it,” Jackson said in the AMA.
To date, Jackson is the only fake person to have taken the stage during Product Hunt Live, and it was one of the site’s most popular AMAs yet. Founder Ryan Hoover wouldn’t release exact numbers, but he said Jackson attracted nearly as many questions and viewers as celebrity investor Ashton Kutcher’s Q&A. Jackson received 243 comments to Kutcher’s 265, a sign of his rising influence in Silicon Valley.
Unlike Kutcher, however, Jackson’s motivations are obscured by his anonymity. The man (or woman) could be a venture investor who wants to scare people off his company targets, a bitter failed founder attacking old enemies, or a wise, retired tech Buddha with a lot of spare time to get sassy.
To get a sense of his satirical sensibility, a compendium of Jackson’s “greatest hits” can be read here. Earlier this month, one of his most popular tweets made fun of Google’s new sans-serif logo:
He is indiscriminate in his mockery, targeting big corporations, small startups, investors, advisers, common wisdom, cliches and other Silicon Valley topics. He’ll poke fun at top tech figures:
Go after an entire country:
And then turn his gaze to San Francisco fashion:
It’s somewhat similar to the Fake Steve Jobs blog that journalist Dan Lyons ran in 2006, but as of yet, no one has figured out who is behind Startup L. Jackson. Also, unlike Lyons, Jackson has started giving advice to companies and investors — skim his latest tweets and you’ll see that plenty of them are more preach than parody:
Jackson has been raising awareness for what he sees as important issues in tech — like diversity and equality — leading to a mix of both sincere and comedic content.
“I get to be the absurdist jester, the satirist, or occasionally a voice of reason, depending on my mood,” Jackson told Re/code over email. “Come for the bad puns, stay for the analysis of platform economics?”
In the last six months, Jackson’s Twitter followers have nearly doubled, from 35,000 in March to 57,000 now. It’s still a tiny audience compared to some other well-known Twitterati, but his influence is evident in other ways.
Respected investors like Marc Andreessen and media figures like the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo regularly engage Jackson in Twitter discussions about tech culture and practices.
Andreessen told Re/code, “We think we know who he is, and if so, Startup L. Jackson fully deserves that respect.” But when pressed to reveal the identity, Andreessen simply said, “No spoilers.”
Besides Andreessen, Jackson is followed by a group of well-known tech leaders, including Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, Twitter founder Ev Williams, Slack creator Stewart Butterfield and PayPal founder Max Levchin.
The general partners at the Valley’s top investment firms — Greylock, Andreessen Horowitz, Benchmark and more — also follow Jackson, as do the CEOs at hyped startups like Instacart, Sprig, DoorDash, HotelTonight … the list goes on and on.
Many hypothesize that Jackson is an experienced entrepreneur or investor because of how informed some of his posts are. “The person is clearly deeply knowledgable about the entire startup and big company ecosystem right now, and deeply technical from the occasional code tweets,” Josh Elman, investor at the firm Greylock, told Re/code.
Jackson’s recent blog post about Twitter, where he argues that its product is “fucking fine,” was aggregated by news site Techmeme and stirred up debate, despite the fact that there was nothing funny about it.
“Startup L. Jackson is a true must-read for people who need to stay current on tech,” said Gabe Rivera, founder of Techmeme. “I mean this quite literally — after reading Techmeme, I’ll scan his tweets before I get around to checking places like Hacker News (if I do that at all).”
Despite his implicit expertise, with Jackson’s rise in power comes questions about his ethics and intentions. Who is this satirical shepherd everyone is starting to follow — and is he leading us off a cliff?
Ed Zitron, a publicist in Silicon Valley running the boutique EZPR firm, finds the adulation disconcerting. “We know nothing of his qualifications, who he is, what he’s done, what he will do and yet there’s people who want him to speak to them like a strange prophet,” Zitron said. “Why the hell are you going to a parody account for your advice?”
Jackson’s anonymity is a natural solution to tech’s cult of positivity, where criticism is vilified and sunny optimism and support are applauded. Many are afraid to be entirely honest, lest they hurt their professional relationships. With the safety of secrecy, Jackson can “cut through all the bullshit,” said Matt McGunagle, founder of fitness trainer software StrengthPortal.
Many of the people who asked Jackson questions in the Product Hunt Q&A told me that’s why they trust him. “He’s like a parent that chides you when you do something stupid, but tells you they still love you and are proud of you,” said Gregory Koberger, founder of developer service Readme.io. “That’s exactly what we need.”
In his AMA, Jackson claimed that his fake persona is more or less the same way he is in real life, and that he’s not using it for protection. He likes that the anonymity forces people to engage with his ideas instead of his identity.
“People should be thinking for themselves,” Jackson told Re/code later. “They should be collecting a diverse set of perspectives and coming to their own conclusions.”
No one has managed to unmask Jackson yet. Semantic analysis by one developer pointed to Dustin Curtis, founder of blog site Svtle, but Jackson denied it. Others who have been targeted — Marc Andreessen, seed investor Hunter Walk — also say they’re innocent.
“I swear it’s not me, unless I fall into a fugue state periodically where I blog and tweet without conscious knowledge,” Walk told Re/code.
A special few, like Product Hunt’s Hoover, have been let in on the secret, but they’re staying mum. Jackson admitted in a recent interview with Hoover that his co-workers from an earlier job know it’s him, so it’s “inevitable” he’ll be discovered. He snarkily chalked up the fact that he hasn’t been found out to “the state of tech journalism.” (Just FYI, Jackson: That’s like waving a red flag at a bull, and I will now stop at nothing to discover you.)
“Perhaps one day when he is revealed we’ll see what agenda, if any, he pushed,” said Paul Robert Cary, creator of the video-aggregation app Findie. “Right now, he’s the Silicon Valley equivalent of Banksy.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.