Bread and Circuses: The State of Web App Startups

I wrote this a few weeks ago and have been sitting on it because I didn’t want to piss anyone off any more than I already have recently. Last night, while watching Waiting for Superman with the Facebook crew and guests, I suddenly realized I care less about pissing people off and more about making a difference. So give it a read, and let’s go make a difference, already.

Solving problems is what God put startups on Earth to do.

However, more and more, I am royally pissed off that so many bright engineers, good entrepreneurs and capable venture capitalists are throwing resources into problems that no one really has. They’re creating “bread and circuses” in a digital format — apps that are wildly popular, infinitely entertaining, and exactly what people want.

The only problem is that they don’t really do anybody any good. They’re not doing what technology is intended to do: Solve problems.

Getting together with your friends? Not a problem. Staying in touch with people you care about? Not a problem. Trying to find information about businesses and products? Not really much of a fucking problem.

Those relatively comfortable “problems” of modern life have already been solved to death, beginning with Alexander Bell and ending (sort of, for now) with Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Many of the apps we have nowadays — the successful ones, at least — revolve around game mechanics, addiction, self-reference, and narcissism. Even apps I use and actually like quite a lot fall into this category.

Foursquare, DailyBooth, Twitter, and Formspring are examples of apps that, while they could hypothetically be used to solve larger problems, are primarily used because of the four factors mentioned above. Yes, Twitter can be used to spread news during times of crisis, including natural disasters and political turmoil. And I suppose a Formspring account could be used to, say, answer questions from people struggling with depression/bad circumstances who are considering suicide. But by and large, these apps do not exist to solve problems. They exist and thrive because they feed our individual vanity.

Then, there are the products that are largely commercial. They feed our supposed need for consumerism. Groupon, Yelp, Blippy, Amazon, and even Facebook — They transform us from humans into deftly categorized, pre-packaged consumers, boiling our wildly and gloriously varied personalities into “likes” and “interests” that correlate to purchases, part of a matrix of the purchases of our “friends” or “people like us.” They make us part of the American marketing-retail complex — one of the more remarkably intelligent machines, as machine intelligence goes, the primary goal of which is to sell things no one needs, things that solve problems no one has.

Finally, we have the category of personal entertainment, which, when done right, can be the most lucrative of them all. Look at Hulu. Look at Zynga. These products feed and profit from our bovine adoration of mindless time-wasting. They create pathways and mechanisms to encourage us to spend more and more time quite literally doing nothing, learning nothing, remaining satiated and complacent. In these cases, not only the startup employees but also the customers they serve are spending vast amounts of time not solving problems.

Lest you think I am being too critical, let’s put this into perspective by detailing what I mean when I say that socialization, commerce and entertainment are not real problems.

Here’s a problem: Many Americans can’t afford medical care.

Here’s another problem: Many Americans can’t afford a decent education, and many parts of our public school system suck.

Here’s another, even more pressing problem: Many Americans are homeless. Many can’t afford to eat.

While people are sleeping in cardboard boxes, you can’t sell me on “getting together with friends” as a legitimate fucking problem.

I would like to propose that technologists apply their ample skill to solving the real problems of humanity, not just the perceived problems of their very privileged social set. And for my good friends at several of the aforementioned startups, I challenge you to find a way to solve a social or human problem with your app. I’m not saying that your app is inherently bad — not at all! But I am saying that if you want to use your app to really change the world, you’re gonna have to get creative with it.

Stay tuned for details on how I personally plan to put my money where my mouth is. And in the meantime, ask yourself, “Does my work as a technologist really help people? Am I solving a real problem, or am I chasing personal success?” If you don’t like the answer, change something about what you do or how you do it.

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