On this episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode’s Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka, the co-producers of the 2018 Code Conference, talk with Converge host Casey Newton about this year’s interviews and the unofficial theme that emerged at the event: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor at large at Recode. You’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. This is a show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about consumer tech and the week’s news. You can send us your questions on Twitter with the #tooembarrassed. We also have an email address, TooEmbarrassed@recode.net. Reminder, there are two Rs and two Ss in embarrassed in case you cannot spell.
Today’s Too Embarrassed to Ask is coming to you from the 2018 Code Conference. I’m in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, by the ocean today with Peter Kafka from Recode and Casey Newton from The Verge. We’re gonna talk about some of the highlights of this year’s conference and how this conference came together. This is the first year I co-produced the event with Pierre, Peter. How you doing?
Peter Kafka: Yep.
How’s it going?
PK: You want a French accent from me?
I called you Walt Mossberg too, I think, right? Is that correct?
PK: Another old, grumpy jew?
Yes indeed, I would seem to have an affinity for them. Casey, hello.
Casey Newton: Hello, nice to be here.
Oh, are you doing your game show voice?
CN: I don’t know, just my early-morning voice, I guess.
PK: Casey, we’re not gonna pipe in fake applause here.
CN: No applause? No laugh track?
Is that fake applause? Several people have asked me.
CN: Yeah, we are doing some interesting audio things with the show and they’ve been quite controversial.
Yeah, I know. Everyone’s like, “Why does he have fake applause?” I’m like, “I don’t know, ask him.”
PK: Should we explain the name of the show?
Yeah, explain what you’re doing.
CN: Yeah, so if you haven’t yet had ...
Besides being a fine reporter, covering many things in Silicon Valley.
PK: Living in Kara’s backyard.
CN: If you haven’t yet had a chance to listen to the No. 7 tech podcast in the world, let me tell you about Converge. It’s an interview game show. We bring on some of the most interesting personalities in Silicon Valley, we ask them many interesting questions about their lives. Then we play a bunch of silly games. The idea is to have a tech show where you learn about what’s going on these days in the industry, but you also have a good time.
CN: It’s edumatainment, is what it’s called. It’s a fast-growing industry. We’re two episodes in, we’re having a lot of fun so far, we’re getting good feedback. We were featured on Apple in the new and noteworthy section this week, so having a good time.
It’s on the Vox Media podcast network.
PK: Do you have the aspiration that one day you can afford to do it with a live audience?
CN: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve already talked about wanting to do it before a live studio audience. It was the idea of our producer, Andrew Marino, to really give it a game show vibe. That meant pumping in some crowd noise, giving you the sense that you are actually listening to a game show. I don’t know. Listen to it, tell me what you think.
Also, by the way, people don’t know this about Casey Newton, but he does improv, correct?
CN: I do. I started doing that as a hobby. When it came time to do a podcast, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, we had talked about some more traditional ideas, but we kept kind of circling around to, “Wouldn’t it be nice to make people laugh?” I sort of feel like, this is not true of your shows. You listen to a lot of shows, you read a lot of the internet, it all presupposes we’re at the end of the world. We wanted to make a show that’s like, “Actually, what if it’s not?”
PK: Or, if it is the end of the world ...
CN: Let’s have a good time.
CN: Hopefully either way you’ll find something to enjoy.
One thing I notice that you promise, that you did not solve a murder.
CN: That’s true. Well listen, in the trailer we said that every week we were gonna solve a murder. Here’s what we’ve learned. It’s very difficult to solve a murder. You know, you think you’re just gonna go in and crack open a cold case and fix it.
How about to do a murder and solve it?
CN: Well listen, I can’t be involved with anything illegal. The season’s gonna be long and who knows what murders we may solve by the end of it.
PK: Maybe there’s one murder that you solve throughout the season.
CN: I really like that idea. It seems it’s been very popular on other shows.
Yeah, we could call it “Murder, She Wrote.”
CN: I would like the idea of rebooting “Murder, She Wrote” with just me.
With Casey Newton.
CN: It’s a nice idea.
That would be good. You could live up in Maine.
CN: Cabin Cove.
Oh that Casey up there, and all your high jinks.
Let’s talk about the Code Conference since we’re here in Rancho Palos Verdes by the ocean. Let’s talk about Day One and Two and I’d like to get your thoughts about them. Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft.
CN: It was interesting. You guys had an interesting conversation with Brad that was really focused around the Microsoft antitrust trial.
Yeah, I was wanting to set the tone. They were the big bad guys last time there was big bad guys here in Silicon Valley.
CN: I found the discussion really interesting. Of course, it’s in the news right now because there are a lot of people who want to bring this antitrust pressure to bear on Facebook and maybe Google. Of course, Microsoft still kind of hates Google. Some of the commentary around the interview was Brad trying to create problems for Google, the way that he talked about the antitrust case.
Right, he was talking about responsibility, too. The impact that trial had on Microsoft.
CN: The one place where I disagreed with him was that he seemed to suggest that Microsoft was so distracted by the antitrust trial, that’s why they didn’t think to invent an internet search engine.
They probably just didn’t have innovation. They’re not a very creative group of people.
CN: It’s a pretty nice move when you can say, “Look, we would have literally invented Google, but we had this trial going on.” I’m not sure if I believe that.
PK: Who you should read on this is — well I’m sure you have — Ben Thompson’s Stratechery had a long rant about Brad’s appearance.
CN: Yes. And Ben — speaking as we’re recording this — is one of the super-smartest people in tech.
Yeah, absolutely. Another person that spoke which I thought was a problematic interview was Linda McMahon, the SBA head. Also, one of the founders of WWE, Worldwide Wrestling whatever. Very stickin’ to the Trump line.
CN: I do think it was interesting as somebody who does not spend a lot of time in the room with senior Trump administration officials to at least hear how they see the world. It seems like anyone who’s intellectually honest has a hard time defending the president. You really stuck it to her. Some of the people in the audience asked questions about, for example, the fact that the President lies all the time. She just said, “Well I don’t know, he’s always honest with me.” Didn’t really want to answer that question.
That’s how they handle it.
PK: Yeah, I think it’s a problem with, by the way, this isn’t just politicians, right? All sorts of executives, if you want to talk about this. You have a line and it’s very hard to move from that line publicly. There’s really only a downside for moving from that line publicly. It’s frankly, one of the challenges of any of these interviews — at this conference, any other conference — is how do you get someone to speak candidly or even appear candidly? If you have any divergent opinion from the president, you are not gonna say it on the record.
You’ll get fired.
PK: You’ll get fired. Of course, you leak it. Of course, when you leave then you say, “Oh, Donald Trump’s very dangerous. I shouldn’t have been Secretary of State.” Thanks, Rex Tillerson. The exit interview with Linda McMahon would be great.
Yeah, absolutely. We’ll see. Although she’s pretty close to him, I think. I think she actually likes him. I think she does.
CN: She’s wanted to be in government for a really long time.
Yeah, she’s tried to run.
CN: She’s had two really hard-fought Senate campaigns. Now she’s there.
Interesting woman, but problematic there. Two people who I thought did speak to me a little bit more was James Murdoch and Evan Spiegel. Let’s take apart each of those. Murdoch, Pierre.
PK: Still very much on message. He’s not gonna tell you what he really thinks about leaving the business that he built with his family.
More Fox News.
PK: Well, there’s a little bit ... the one break was that he actually was critical of Linda McMahon, he joked about her. The fact that she was insisting that the president doesn’t watch TV. Again, if you’re on Fox News, you can’t say that. If you own Fox News, I think you can say it.
James Murdoch: I couldn’t possibly comment on the President’s television habits.
Peter Kafka: Executive time.
Murdoch: According to the Small Business Administrator, he’s working so super hard, he couldn’t be watching that much cable T.V.
Kafka: I heard that.
Murdoch: We can only hope.
[end audio clip]
PK: Again, party line, wants to do the Disney deal. If you got him drunk or — you don’t have to make him drunk, maybe, just talk privately — he might say, “It’d be okay selling to Comcast too, either way. I’m happy to leave the company.” That’s the challenge of having that conversation onstage. I’m super interested in the psychology of, “You spent two decades working for your dad. Your dad is Rupert Murdoch. Now you’re gonna leave that business and you’re 45. What do you do with the rest of your life? How do you feel about that?” There’s an HBO show about this, launching this weekend, that I’m super psyched to see.
CN: It’s a fictional version of it.
PK: Fictional Murdochs.
CN: Yeah. The question I wanted to ask you is — because you pressed him on this question, somebody in the audience pressed him on this question — why are you really trying to get out of the TV business? Has the TV industry peaked? I want to know what you think that answer to that question is.
PK: They’re selling, man. I mean, Rupert Murdoch cares about news and journalism. That’s what he gets animated by. He will build businesses for years and then abandon them. He’s done that throughout his career. He’s not emotionally attached. He does not care about movies at all. If you notice, Rupert Murdoch is hanging on to News Corp, which is the Journal and New York Post. He’s still gonna have Fox to play with a little bit.
They’re all selling for the same reason, which is the media business has peaked. We are gonna sell it to the phone company or the tech guys or whoever wants to overpay us for it. We can’t do anything more with it.
Or consolidate, like Disney’s doing.
Even then, they’re gonna have to make another move after that.
CN: I think this podcast is the peak of the media business, myself.
PK: We are selling this podcast.
We’re selling it tomorrow.
Evan Spiegel, also heartfelt.
PK: This is one of my highlights of the whole conference.
Yeah, that was a good interview.
PK: Again, I can’t tell how much of what Evan said is true or not. It certainly appeared that he was listening to the question you asked him and then thinking about it in response. By far, I think it was one of the most entertaining interviews. Solely for the fact that he appeared to be a live human being talking to another human being.
CN: It’s crazy to me how rarely he speaks to the media in forums like this. He is quite good at it. His vision for what social media should be is so different than what Facebook’s is. Given all of the business problems that Snapchat has had, I think it’s even more important that he’s out there. I think he did a good job. The buzz among attendees afterwards was, “Oh hey, he’s a really interesting person. He’s a thoughtful person.” I think he has a good reason to do that more. The criticism I would make is that I’m not sure that he was really able to make a convincing case that he has figured out the business side of Snap.
Or he’s not gonna get killed by Facebook.
CN: Yeah, I mean, he’s still in a tough spot. He didn’t have great answers to how they’re going to repair this disastrous redesign that they had. Where they’re gonna find the ad revenue that’s gonna let them turn a profit. Lots of big questions.
PK: Those are all questions that you answer in the real world, right? It doesn’t really matter, it’s cool that you say them onstage. I think about this a lot. What is your performance onstage as the leader? How does that matter? Does it matter in terms of your actual performance leading the company? I think if you can’t articulate what you want to do, it’s probably difficult for you to lead the company that way. I don’t think that just because you’re glib or smart or good at presenting necessarily means that you’re a good leader. If Evan ... he will prove it or not prove it.
He did seem like a genuine, heartfelt ... He really just was. One of the things I said right before we went on, he’s quite shy actually. Surprisingly shy. It’s not calculatedly shy, he actually is. He’s like, “Oh I hate going on these things.” I said, just ... we had a really good conversation in Venice Beach earlier this year. I said, just pretend we’re doing that. It was a great ... I enjoyed the ... I didn’t want it to end and I, believe me, often I want these conversations to end with these type people. I was really enjoying it because he’s so creative. I said, just talk like that. Just say it. Then he, of course, took a dig at Facebook, which is always enjoyable.
Evan Spiegel: I guess what I’m saying, to take it a step further, is that we would really appreciate it if they copied our data protection practices, also.
[end audio clip]
CN: Oh, it was fantastic. It was one of the best zingers at the conference.
He practiced that. Someone’s like, “Oh that was a practiced line.” Well, it worked. It was, like Tim Cook’s did. The same thing. Speaking of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg and Mike Schroepfer.
CN: You know ...
Come on Casey, here’s your bailiwick.
CN: Yeah. It was hard, right? We’ve been talking about Cambridge Analytica for three months. They have very pat answers to those. You did your darnedest to get them off those answers. I don’t know. They have their talking points down. I think it was really hard to get beyond that. I don’t know. I came away a little disappointed. At the same time, I’m not exactly sure what else I wanted. They were clearly there to wrap up their apology tour.
Right. That’s a good point. That’s a really good way to put it. Peter?
PK: It’s the frustration of talking to executives in general. Facebook is a very buttoned-down company. By the way, this is why Steve Jobs was such an anomaly was that he appeared to be just saying what he felt off the top of his head. Almost no one can do that. They certainly can’t run a giant, publicly held company and do it. If you think about it, what’s the upside for them?
To tell the truth?
PK: To be candid and like, this is how I really feel about this.
I tried that, I tried.
PK: Of course. They might tell you as soon as you walk off stage, or at least a version of it. They can’t do it. It’s the frustration we have. You need to have one of the most important companies in the world onstage at this conference. We’re glad we had them there. I don’t know what we learned.
What did you learn? Tell me something.
CN: One distinction that I found interesting — I wrote about it yesterday — was, you had both Evan Spiegel and Sheryl Sandberg making a case for their respective companies. When Spiegel talks about Snap, it’s about getting away from this world where you feel like you’re competing online for attention with your friends. You’re competing for “Likes.” It’s about building closer connections to the people you already know as opposed to doing these broadcast performances for the entire world. I actually think it’s a conservative idea of what social media should be, in a lot of ways. Then you had the Facebook execs. The closest we got to a case for why they should exist was, during Hurricane Harvey ...
PK: Taco trucks.
CN: Yeah, two people who run taco trucks hooked up and delivered tacos. Sheryl Sandberg was not trying to make the complete case for why Facebook should exist. It’s so big that I think they probably feel like they don’t need to make the case for why. I would say that given the year and a half that they’ve had, what they should be doing in those interviews is putting forth an executive who can sketch a positive vision of what Facebook is doing in our lives that goes beyond taco trucks.
PK: I talked to someone who had worked at Facebook. He said, “The thing that you would be great to get them to talk about” — because they do have this conversation, by the way, this happens at lots of tech companies — “is an actual debate about the pros and cons of running these kinds of platforms.” Yes, there are abuses. And bad things happen on Facebook. There is the taco truck and we think there are many more taco truck or whatever, positive things. The debate is literally like ...
We should talk about that. The human’s perspective.
PK: The debate is literally like, how much are we willing to put up with for the upside? Not for the $40 billion in ad revenue. We think this is a genuinely good thing. We’re not just craven people. We think what we have built has brought good to the world. Anything that would move them into that conversation, which reflects a little bit more of what they’re actually discussing.
You had some great stories earlier this year about some of those. The growth conversation. That is a conversation they are actually having. They are human beings, they’re not robots. In retrospect, I would loved to have pushed that a little more. I don’t know that we would have got it.
She did talk about, “Wow, there are bad people out there.” That was, I was like, “Oh, you’re kidding.”
CN: Sure, I think ...
PK: That’s like yeah, “Some bad people hurt our platform,” as opposed to, “We realize we are always gonna have, not just bad people abusing us, but that part of what we built is gonna bring bad to the world. We think when you weigh the scale, we’d rather have the good.”
Seems like a carmaker could debate that too.
CN: I want to hear them talk more about how are you going to measure you’re doing the good in the world? You’re actually seeing Twitter starting to do this, they’re getting academics to help them measure the health of the conversation on the platform and how they can improve that.
CN: You know, Facebook, it would be interesting if they did similar things, and they said what happened with Hurricane Harvey, we want to repeat that day after day, all around the world.
She did mention a little bit, not Hurricane Harvey, there was one other thing she was talking about like that.
That if you put this much in here, this is what people feel like versus this.
CN: Sure, but I mean, like, put up a scoreboard and show us how that number is changing over time.
CN: And try and measure the good that you’re putting into the world.
Yeah. They were pretty slick though.
CN: Sheryl Sandberg is the slickest person in the entire world. Just absolutely unflappable.
Schroepfer was a little, seemed a little ...
PK: He did a good joke about being a ...
A robot, yeah.
CN: A robot.
Right. Okay, good.
All right, the last one we’re going to talk about is Mark Warner, Senator Mark Warner.
CN: Yeah, Mark Warner has taken a leading role on the Senate Intelligence Committee, taking a look at what the Russians did during the 2018 election, and has a lot of smart things to say and doesn’t have very much power. I think, you know ...
I thought it was very substantive, what he was saying.
CN: Yeah, no. He’s an incredibly substantive guy. I think that his ideas, if they were implemented, would do a lot of good in the world.
PK: He’s one election away from having more power, right?
CN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
PK: Senate majority. To me, the most interesting thing — and we didn’t spend a lot of time on it — is how strong his anti-China feelings are, and I think way ahead of where the rest of Silicon Valley is with their ... you know, it’s complicated, right? People maybe fear China but they’re also happy to take their money and they definitely want to get into those markets.
He was really ... I asked him about it a couple of times ... He really wants them to basically stop doing business there, and also not take their money. If we could go down that rabbit hole, well, if we’re not going to take Chinese money, what about Russian money? Should Facebook return their DST money? Should you not be doing business with the Saudis? I mean, it would really change Silicon Valley.
PK: Much of America, right? If we stopped taking, if we started returning checks.
CN: Yes. It’s true, but you know that makes me think of a great conversation Kara had with some venture capitalists who were trying to bring more women to the table and something they talked about ...
We’re going to get to that.
CN: ... Was customers are changing and customers are demanding different kinds of companies. So, companies may get to a point where their customers are saying, “Hmm, you’re doing what in China? Actually, I’m not going to use you because of the human rights abuses.”
I think the thing they did talk about China was how much they’re bettering us. We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors, then we’ll be back with Peter Kafka and Casey Newton. We’re at the 2018 Code Conference talking about everything that happened here this week. Which is quite a lot, we had a lot of interviews ... I’m exhausted myself ... We have one ad break in this episode, so I’m going to need you two to say it together, gimme your best “hashtag money.”
CN: Hashtag money.
Oh my God. You sound nothing like ...
PK: Hashtag fiat currency.
CN: Give me your money.
CN: That sounds good.
Oh my God. You two.
We’re back with Peter Kafka and Casey Newton talking about the 2018 Code Conference, which just completed. We’ve got a couple questions from our reader and listeners about the event.
What did you all think of Sheryl Sandberg dodging Kara’s image question? How big a hit her reputation has taken? I tried, I tried to get her to have a genuine human emotion about that. She said that was unfair to me later, but I don’t so.
CN: The interesting thing, to me, about that is that we know, because I reported it this year, that Sheryl Sandberg has a pollster who works at Facebook who monitors her image. So, she knows the exact answer to that question and it would have been interesting if she shared it.
What do you think from a Casey Newton perspective?
CN: You know, I actually doubt that her image has taken too big of a hit, in part because she is so good at saying so little onstage, right? She is not the person who is most closely associated with Facebook, that’s Mark Zuckerberg. I would imagine that Zuckerberg’s reputation has taken a bigger hit this year.
CN: I don’t know. Probably, like, four points.
Four points. What do you think?
PK: I think it’s 7 percent.
No, but what do you think about that? Because you know there were ideas that both of them could run for office.
PK: Sheryl has a cool trick where she can be COO of Facebook and then step outside and not be held responsible for Facebook excesses. You can argue, by the way, that she shouldn’t be ...
PK: ... But you debate that both ways.
Yeah. He’s the CEO.
PK: Yeah. There’s lots of people who know that Sheryl Sandberg is a tech executive and can’t tell you what she does. Which is not the worst thing for Sheryl.
Right. That’s true. I think I was trying to get to the idea, one, the image of her, herself, has it changed her? You know, being under this kind of scrutiny is not ...
CN: Yeah. I definitely say that if and when she leaves Facebook, this the paragraph about ... Her oversight of the Cambridge Analytica scandal is like a paragraph that is high up in that story.
Yeah. Especially if she decides ...
PK: But you know it’s Mark, Mark has been rarely, which is not normally the case, Mark has been the one talking to Congress.
PK: Talking to the press as it should be, so the focus is on him.
Yeah, okay. Nate Gorby: “What do you guys think of the Snap CEO’s long-game plans? Is Snapchat the tortoise in this race?”
Long pause, like Evan Spiegel there.
CN: You know.
He did a lot of long pauses.
CN: A lot of long pauses. It’s hard. I’ve said this, I as a reporter, what I root for is a balance of power. Like, for me, we’re better off when there’s multiple companies competing and trying to out-innovate one another, so I want Snapchat to be in the race. The fact of the matter is, though, you look at their business and its been very badly managed. They took it public at the wrong time, they made a lot of mistakes since then, they have an insane amount of executive turnover at their highest ranks. They have a culture that leads people to leave and write long memos about how ...
CN: ... Toxic it is, right. So they have a lot of basic business blocking and tackling they need to do before we can talk about whether their grand vision can out-compete Facebook’s, because at this point, I think it’s more of an execution problem.
All right then.
PK: Their audience is not growing at a rapid clip, right? It’s one thing if you can, as Facebook did for a long time, fumble along and have a revolving door of executives and all sorts of screw ups.
Which they did.
PK: Right. That’s what I’m saying. They were growing the whole time and it looks ... I did not think that Facebook was going to be able to successfully sort of copy them and stunt their growth, it seemed like a really stupid idea to me and I was wrong. It looks like they have done that really well and it may be that Snapchat is a popular product with a certain group of people, kind of in the Twitter way, that is not going to really grow beyond that group.
CN: It seems that way. In fact, there was a Pew study out today that said that teens use of Facebook proper is declining but Instagram usage is going up but also that ... I want to say that it was about almost 70 percent of teens are using Snapchat.
I got to tell you, I’ve got some.
CN: You’ve got some teens that are using it daily.
Only using it.
I mean, they say they use Instagram but they don’t. Like every two weeks, essentially.
They’re on Snapchat literally 24 ... My son has it on, he just works in his room and his friends are on there. They’re constantly using it.
CN: Look, Twitter owns the news junkies and there’s like 300 million of them and they were able to actually turn a profit last quarter for the first time ever. So maybe this is a similar situation where Even Spiegel just sort of owns a generation of mobile users.
Sort of like WeChat sort of thing.
CN: And he will eventually be able to build the right business around that.
CN: But you know, for all their problems, I don’t think their core audience is really going anywhere in the next year.
Yeah. What about you? Same thing?
PK: I agree with Casey Newton.
CN: Five points?
Exactly. One last thing about Snapchat, the facility with which my teens use it is really fascinating. How quickly they do it. When I ask them about Facebook, there was a group of them, like, a bunch of lacrosse bros around the house and I was like, “Facebook.” They were like, “Ugh!” Like they just literally wanted, they did fake vomiting the whole time. These 16-year-olds.
PK: Because that’s where Mom is.
They were just like, “We never use it, we never will.” I was really interesting.
CN: Yeah. But they’re all on Instagram.
No. The girls are.
CN: Mark Zuckerberg is still profiting off the lacrosse bros.
The girls were. It was interesting, it was a bunch of certain kinds of kids but I think they represent quite a few of different things.
All right let’s get to some more speakers. No, one more question. “Lots of important people in the tech world, how do you prioritize and sift through the ultimate invites? Also, a lot of intersectionality in tech, but of seemingly non-tech interviewees, how do you successfully marry their worlds to tech?” Peter, do the speech about how tech affects everything, please.
PK: Tech affects everything.
PK: So we had David Chang on, he’s an awesome cook. He has a show on Netflix, you can argue that makes him tech. That’s not interesting. The point is, he lives in the world, he’s an interesting person. So, one, if you’re a technologist, you should hear how someone who’s running an amazing restaurant empire thinks about the world.
PK: He intersects, by the way, he intersects with delivery services so there’s little bits of that, but it’s much more interesting to just hear a real human being talk about running a business.
We’ve always done that kind of [interview].
PK: Failing a business, screwing up, figuring out how to harass people, all of that, that’s the world and tech is the world.
CN: Yeah, and also, he invested in a couple of tech businesses or tech-enabled delivery.
You know, we don’t have to make a stretch.
PK: We don’t, we actively try not to strain and go, “Tell us about your Twitter strategy.” Who gives a fuck?
Yeah, yeah. That’s true. Although some people, like we did with Kim Kardashian, we had her because she was so popular on social media and also, she’s Kim Kardashian and she went to the White House yesterday.
So how do we prioritize and sift through all of them? We just beg people. Right, Peter?
PK: That’s our job.
CN: Yeah, I mean like, look, I can say this as somebody that does not work at Recode, the thing that always sets this conference apart is you get, like, the big-deal CEOs to show up. There’s a lot of tech conferences out there that get ...
They get one.
CN: ... The Chief Financial Officer of LinkedIn.
Yeah, I beat them.
CN: You destroy them.
I’m getting real good at it and they just seem to want to keep coming back, it’s an odd situation.
So, let’s go through a few more. The Time’s Up panel you mentioned.
CN: Yeah. You know, it was great to hear. I just, I learned a lot. It’s a great opportunity to sit and listen to women in the industry about their experiences, about how things are changing, how they’re not changing, that conference was particularly oriented around — I’m sorry, that panel was oriented around solutions. Things that people can start doing now to start changing that ratio. Honestly, like, people were rapt. The session was full. Nobody was looking at their phones.
CN: It was a really good talk.
PK: You could see the energy of that session on the monitors outside the room. Which is, again, unless you’re there it’s hard to explain this. Sometimes you can tell when you’re onstage that’s it half interested and when you’re watching it generally on a screen you can’t really tell. You could feel the vibration.
Before we go, Kara, because a bunch of people have asked me about this, how would you describe your relationship to Megan Smith?
Oh, we’re divorced.
PK: So you used be married?
Yes. Used to be gay married.
PK: Gay married. “Why didn’t Kara ...? Kara’s interviewing her ex-wife.” Yes.
PK: Which is fine. They just wanted you to tell people onstage.
I know, we thought about that. We thought about that.
PK: You actively decided not to?
PK: I just figured you forgot.
I may have. No, we, I thought about it.
PK: Here’s our disclosure.
Here’s our disclosure. At the same time, it didn’t really have pertinence, you know.
The topic. Also, she was the CTO of America so she had ...
PK: She wasn’t on as your ex-wife?
No, no. She wasn’t on as my ex-wife. Yeah, yeah, but we get along very well.
CN: Maybe next year you bring her back and you just kind of talk about the whole relationship.
We did that! We actually did, we did that at Lesbians Who Tech. We did a thing, we talked mostly about tech, but my first question was “Who do you think our children like more?” Like, I think that was our first question. Then we talked about who was the top lesbian in tech, her or me? Then we decide it was Sheryl Sandberg with a couple of drinks in her or something like that, we made a joke. It was, whatever.
PK: I like this podcast.
Do you? It’s a good podcast.
Couple more. Randall Stephenson. Peter, you did that interview. That was a great interview.
PK: As I said, Randall Stephenson wasn’t psyched to be ...
CEO of AT&T.
PK: CEO of AT&T being sued by DOJ, they are expecting a ruling June 12th. Between us, and listeners to this podcast, I think that AT&T assumed this trial would be over by the time they came onstage. They weren’t psyched to be onstage in the middle of at trial. I respect him for coming on.
I do too.
PK: And I really respect the fact that when I asked him some straightforward questions, he gave straightforward answers.
He’s a fascinating CEO.
PK: Yeah, I mean, I still don’t, I believe that he’s not really providing the real answer to why he’s buying Time Warner. Which is he’s got a slow-growth business and doesn’t really know what else to do. It was still an interesting question, we talked about Roseanne Barr and, again, like I mentioned earlier ...
You did talk a lot about Roseanne Barr, the whole time.
PK: Yeah. I like bringing news in. Also, by the way, you’ve been running the phone company and now you’re going to be dealing with people like Roseanne Barr.
PK: This is something I’ve been interested in for a year plus is this Black Lives Matter speech that he gave, which was a little bit of a big deal at the time but has since sort of gone unnoticed. You know, it shouldn’t be a radial thing for someone who runs a big publicly traded company to say that black people have had a hard time but it is.
Randall Stephenson: Two weeks before I gave this talk, you had five police officers killed in Dallas. So you just had all of these activities going on and some amazing racial tension, and my view was that none of our political leaders were stepping up in a way that gave context to our people. My employees were struggling with this. I was feeling tension among my employee base and I said I need to talk to this.
[end audio clip]
CN: Yeah, coming from a ... I mean, honestly, what a reflection of the times that we’re in that a CEO feels compelled to make a speech like that. Particularly, like, a company like AT&T that just wants to be the most absolutely middle of the road company possible.
CN: Offend the least amount of people.
PK: Just think of us as an American company that helps connect you to someone else and please don’t ever talk about our politics and we’re from Texas.
Right, well, can you avoid it? Every one of these discussions was about responsibility and politics.
And partisanship and impact, I mean, faiths, all of them.
PK: Yeah. So I’m very glad he came on and I thought that was a really good discussion.
PK: If I do say so myself.
Two more. I think we’ll go to Dara Khosrowshahi.
CN: He had an incredibly hard problem, or set of problems, that he inherited when he took over Uber.
Dead bodies in every closet.
CN: Almost literally. He did a really good job, I think, last night of explaining to people why Uber is going to be, kind of, different from here on out. He’s more boring than Travis is but that’s the entire point of him, is to stop ... You know, Uber should not be a company about a charismatic and insane CEO who will stop at nothing to build the biggest business in the world. It’s more like, “Well, here’s what we’re going to do for our drivers.”
Yeah, here, yeah.
CN: “We’re going to make some changes to the app.”
And he didn’t say — and it was interesting because when Travis was here a couple of years ago, he literally said that. It was great for me. It wasn’t great for him where he said, we were talking about self-driving, and he said, “The problem with Uber is there’s the people in the front we have to pay. And once they’re gone, it’s all gravy for us.” And I literally sat there and went, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” And you could hear the audience like, “Oh.”
CN: Oh, I was in the [audience]. I wrote that story immediately.
CN: He hadn’t finished the sentence and I had half a post up on The Verge. Yeah.
Yeah, and I literally was like, “Thank you so very much.” Just like when Tim Cook said, “I wouldn’t be in that situation.” I was not expecting that, and I was like, “Thank you, Tim Cook. And: scene.” You know what I’m saying.
But Dara said, “No.”
CN: Dara’s a different kind of CEO.
No. He likes his driver. He doesn’t want to give up his driver.
PK: His job is to clean up the mess, and his job onstage last night was to explain that he’s cleaning up the mess. Did that very effectively. I think the real question for him and that company in a couple years is: Is this really a sustainable business? Is this a commodity business? How long can you keep taking money from Bill Gurley?
And can they split up the world?
PK: And then, basically handing it to you and me, and that doesn’t seem like a good business model. Again, it’s a pretty good ...
I like that business ... I like taking Bill Gurley’s money.
PK: It’s great.
PK: Most of the time. But again, that’s the kind of thing you’ll see in a couple years. And by the way, if it doesn’t work, there’ll be a whole like, “Oh. See, this is why you need a founder-led company. This is why you need an asshole in charge. This is why you need a crazy person. This is why Apple didn’t work when Steve Jobs wasn’t there.” And we’ll see, but there’s plenty of big companies that are run by professional managers very well.
Right, and also, they could split up the world. I think that’s what’s going to happen. They’re going to split up the world and make money in each of their markets, and they’ll all be owned by SoftBank.
CN: Right. But Uber has a stake in most of the big markets, right?
We’re going to benefit. They have a lot of stake. That’s what I asked him about, if it’s going to be like Alibaba to Yahoo kind of thing with it. Their investment in DiDi or some of the others, Ola, wherever they are.
So, Daniel Ek. Let’s finish on Daniel Ek.
CN: Daniel Ek deeply frustrated me.
CN: He said the word “transparency” 400 times.
Transparency said with a Swedish accent.
CN: And I still have no idea what that company thinks about hate policies. Yeah. No, I mean there’s this really interesting question that Spotify started to deal with and then ran away from as fast as they could which is: If you have artists who have done really bad things in the real world, should you continue to promote them on your public playlist? Not should they be allowed to be on the platform, because there’s a lot of artists who have done a lot of shady things, but if you’re going to put together like the best ’90s playlist, should R. Kelly be on it given all of the stories about being a sexual predator? And at the end of that interview, I still did not know how Spotify thinks about that question, despite him saying transparency 400 times.
He wasn’t transparent.
PK: Yeah, they clearly are ... That is an internally confused company about that policy, and they certainly regret the stepping into it. And I said this on the stage. I was like, “Daniel Ek’s a stubborn guy, so it’s hard for him to sort of say, ‘I was wrong,’ or, ‘This was wrong.’ I wish he would have just said, ‘Yeah. We didn’t get this right. We’re going to go back and figure it out.’”
He just seemed to communicate it wrong. I don’t think they had ...
PK: Well, he’s mainly just blaming his PR people, which is always a strategy. But I just wish he would have just said, honestly just said, “We screwed up,” and it sort of cut the conversation off because, by the way, this guy built a really big business that should not exist, took it public in a way that’s really novel, is doing really interesting stuff, is competing against Apple and Google, and you’re constantly waiting for him to be crushed. There’s lot of really interesting stuff to talk about, and I was hoping we would get more of that. And because he couldn’t sort of answer that question, it just stuck around and stuck around and stuck around.
He may not have an opinion. I think there’s fighting internally at that company over that issue. Yeah.
PK: That’s what I’m saying. There’s internal fighting. I don’t think that he really is that passionate about it, or maybe he is. Who knows? But you just want to move that thing off the table, at least as an interviewer, so you can talk about other stuff.
Although he did say, “Should we be the ones to judge?” And, of course, I was like, “Absolutely.”
PK: Well, you did judge.
PK: You judged.
He did, and then he de-judged.
PK: So, you get into this sort of ... And you can just see the internal confusion on the stage, and so you end up sort of with a meta answer to it like, “Yeah. They don’t know.”
PK: And that’s the real answer, but you just spent a lot of cycles on it.
CN: Yeah. A frustrating thing was that he said continually, “We communicated this wrong.” And I was sort of like, “Okay. Well, now is your chance to communicate this right. What do you think?” But he wanted ...
Right, and I think, well, that’s one of the issues. I think what we’ll finish up on is this idea of responsibility, tech responsibility, which was a big theme. When someone said, “Oh, well, you didn’t have as much product news this year,” but I was like, “Product news doesn’t happen the way it used to at all.” Things they’re used to at Code, because there wasn’t a sudden like, “Here’s the self-driving car.” It just doesn’t occur.
PK: No. If you have a really big deal to announce, you do it at your own thing, right? All these companies literally have their own events to do that. And the smaller stuff, “And today we’re announcing ...” That stuff, as a reporter, as a journalist, I don’t care about that stuff.
Yeah. I was like, “What would you have wanted from Facebook?” I was like, “Another feature?” A couple years ago, it would have been a big deal, but now it isn’t.
PK: Well, they would have all written it up, but it’s much more interesting that Evan Spiegel came on and talked candidly about the struggles of running Snapchat than like, “Here’s our new taco filter.”
Right, right. Do they have a new taco?
CN: Oh, yes. It’s beautiful.
Okay. All right. And talk about tech responsibility, and then we’ll wrap up. I mean, because I think that really was this idea of them growing up, the reckoning. You used the word reckoning, Peter.
PK: Yeah. They’re all being forced to do it through sort of political weight, through just the weight of their own companies. If you have two billion people, whether or not you want to admit responsibility for what you’re doing, you end up taking responsibility because there’s no one else to blame, right?
CN: Yeah, and I’m torn because on one hand, the more powerful the platform is, the less actively I want them to be micromanaging the way the different opinions manifest themselves on the platform. At the same time, as a Spotify user, if Spotify wants to say, “There’s real consequences for being convicted of domestic violence,” I feel great about that as a user, right, and not seeing about those in the playlists.
I think companies are going to try a bunch of things, and some are going to take a more aggressive hand and others are going to be less aggressive. And we’ll just have to sort of see how we feel about it. But I think that there’s going to be lots of mistakes and controversies in the meantime, and that’s great for the content business.
But, what is coming in the next year?
CN: Just generally?
Yeah, what’s more? This is kind of ...
PK: More and more Casey Newton podcasts.
More Casey Newton, but besides that.
CN: Well, yeah.
I mean, this has been a really tough year. It seems like you literally can’t shower without even — not just in politics, but tech every day. It’s just like ... Whether it’s #Me,Too, whether it’s diversity, whether it’s political hacking, whatever it is.
CN: Well, where I have my eye on the ball is: What happens between now and the midterm elections? We know that Russians and other bad actors are trying to ...
Which Warner talked about.
CN: ... interfere on all the big tech platforms, and they might not see the next wave of attacks, right? They didn’t see the last one.
Well, Sheryl did reference it.
CN: Why should we believe they’re going to catch it next year? Yeah, she did.
It’s like we don’t even know. We’re fixing for the last problem.
CN: Right. The best-case scenario is that we make it through the midterms relatively unscathed and there are no new attacks. And the platforms do a better job of managing the bad actors. And the worst-case scenario is that they get caught flat-footed just the way they did last time. So, that’s what worries me.
Peter, what do you think?
PK: Yeah. I think one way to think about it is all of these companies, right, not just Facebook and YouTube, but Spotify and Uber all describe themselves as platforms, right? Which is, there’s a business reason for that that I think actually, theologically, they think this is the right way. But the argument is, “Hey. We’re just in the middle here, and people are putting stuff up, or people are connecting with drivers, and we’re just facilitating it. We’re just the middlemen here. Don’t look at us. If anything bad happened, it’s because of the guy who rented the Airbnb. We didn’t do that.” And I think this is the year where we’re bumping up against some of those limits.
PK: Again, whether the company is recognizing on their own or being forced to recognize it.
Right. Values, Peter. That’s what I was talking about. Values are hard.
PK: And the counter to that, right, is Randall Stephenson saying, “Yeah. I would fire Roseanne Barr.”
Yes, exactly. This is our value [set].
PK: “Because she would be working for me, and she can’t do that.”
“We do not want someone who tweets racist [stuff.”
PK: Right, and by the way, the flip side is the platform model has allowed all of these companies to grow at really rapid clips. They’re valued much more than traditional companies.
And they don’t have to pay the price that it costs to monitor this stuff.
PK: Right, and so now we’re seeing maybe ...
They have to pay.
PK: ... there is a final point where you actually have to stop that, and you have to say ...
And pay for it.
And pay for it. It costs more. Guess what? The media business costs more. That was interesting, what Warner said, whether they should be considered media companies. What do you think? I do.
CN: To me, the distinction is meaningless if Facebook says, “We’re a media company.”
I can tell you about it. It gives you more responsibility.
CN: Yeah, well, Mark Zuckerberg has already said, “I think we have more responsibilities than a traditional media company,” which is true.
Broader responsibilities. Yeah.
CN: Like in a way, making Facebook a media company, it’s too small a way to think of them. They’re much more consequential than fricking Time Warner.
All right. Last question. Who’s your favorite speaker? Each of you.
CN: For me, the most interesting talk was Spiegel because it is so rare that he sits down and faces an interview that is at all challenging. And so, for me, that was the highlight.
And you’re welcome.
PK: I don’t want to compliment Kara, so David Chang.
That was great. It was heartfelt.
PK: It was another guy thinking about the answers. You could see him pausing. There was a really cool moment at the end from Brooke Hammerling, who is his friend, and they are mutual friends with Mario Batali. He was saying, “What do we do as people who are around people who are behaving badly?” And he didn’t have an answer, but it wasn’t unsatisfying in the way that watching Daniel Ek sort of struggle with the question was unsatisfying. Him saying, “I don’t know what we’re really supposed to do,” and that felt like a cool moment.
Yeah. That was great. Very good. Say, “You’re welcome.”
PK: You’re welcome.
Who do we want next year? Who would you like to see?
CN: It seemed like you came very close to getting Elon Musk this year.
I came very close.
CN: He has a lot to answer for.
CN: It’d be great to hear from him next year.
CN: And somebody else, so you had ... The same year, the last time you had Elon was Jeff Bezos. And I’m just always interested in hearing Jeff Bezos talk.
I’m trying. He’s a hard one to bag.
CN: Yeah, I bet.
I mean to tell you.
PK: We’ll get him.
If it takes me ... We’ll get him.
PK: We’ll get them. They’ll come back.
Peter, who do you want?
PK: Yeah. Those two. I want Warren Buffett.
That might happen.
PK: Yep. It always could happen.
PK: We would like to hear from Barack Obama one day.
Trump? I want Trump.
CN: Yeah, sure.
Look at Peter. Peter just made a face.
PK: It’s the, “Who farted?” face. Yes, it’d be a spectacle.
Yeah. I would love that.
PK: Kara loves a spectacle.
PK: And more boringly, we want to bring in people who run big, packaged-goods companies. I know that’s not sexy, but we want to hear about how big established companies are ...
I want my Trump. What about Macron?
Do you like that?
PK: Big established companies that people ...
CN: Or Merkel.
PK: Or Merkel.
Angela [Merkel]. I would like to have Angela. That would be fantastic.
PK: We’ll put her for Care Assist. But we do want to hear, we continually want to bring in the Fords and Pepsis and Cokes of the world and say, “Hey. Your world has blown up. How are you doing?”
Yes, we have to do that. We’ve been bad about that.
How about Xi from China? That would be so good. How can I do that? How can I pull that one off?
CN: Has he ever given an interview to a Western outlet?
I don’t know, but let’s find out.
PK: How’s your Mandarin?
Not very good.
PK: How’s your Cantonese?
It won’t be fun.
CN: Have Zuckerberg teach you.
How about head of North Korea?
CN: Do you think he would come here?
PK: How about Dennis Rodman?
CN: If you think you can get Kim Jong-un, that’d be a real coup.
That would be a coup. Maybe.
PK: I think what Kara does is she goes to the grocery store and uses those things, they’re called magazines on the rack, and she just goes, “I like that name.” That’s her thing. Actually, her version of that is Twitter, and she goes, “That person wrote a funny tweet. We should have them onstage.”
PK: She’ll be like, “Text me this.” And I’m ...
I’m telling you, Chrissy Teigen. Don’t even start. Don’t even insult.
PK: I didn’t say anything.
Beyoncé. That’s who I want.
CN: Oh, my gosh, please, yes.
Beyoncé. Thank you.
CN: I mean, people would die. People would die.
PK: But here’s the question though, right? When do you see Beyoncé interviewed?
CN: She doesn’t grant them.
PK: But, here’s ... So, is it just that she’s so special that she just refuses to do interview?
Or nobody asks.
PK: Or, is that she’s actually not interesting to talk to?
Oh my God. Sorry. I can’t hear you.
CN: She’s interesting.
PK: We don’t know.
PK: You don’t know.
Stop speaking. The Bees are coming for you. Let me ... What is it? The Beehive?
CN: The Beehive is coming.
The Beehive is coming. Go after Peter Kafka, Beehive, because that would be ... I would love to talk to Beyoncé.
PK: And then some Beehive people.
Yes. In any case, this has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed to Act. I’m so sorry. This has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask.
CN: Too Embarrassed to Act is my improv spoof.
Act. That was funny.
CN: Thank you.
PK: Yeah, he’s funny.
You’re a funny guy.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.