Did anyone wonder why TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington participated in last week’s Naked Truth? I have, many times.
It’s not because we’re close personal friends. We don’t hang out, and we disagree about almost everything, starting with whether you can build a great technology company in Seattle. I’ve complained that his official sanctioning of music theft is adolescent and even immoral. I’ve argued that his enthusiasm for free software services has led an entire generation of entrepreneurs over a cliff. I’ve chastised him for bashing traditional media competitors when he has friends in journalism who’ve lost jobs, a point he grumbled about just before the Naked Truth started. I’ve been so upset about TechCrunch coverage of Redfin that I couldn’t sleep. He knows I think he probably over-covers Twitter; he knows I disagree with his position that Facebook should give Nazis the boot.
So if anything, Mike helped out because of our disagreements, not in spite of them, because he believes in disagreement as a dialectic for discovering the truth. And he is still eager, after all these years, to help out whenever he can.
This is not to say that Redfin feels more gratitude to Michael Arrington than to our other speakers: Damon Darlin, Fred Wilson and Fred Vogelstein. As we have said in other places, public and private, words cannot express how grateful we are to all of you, each of whom drove all day or flew all night to be at the Naked Truth. But Michael is a special case because only Michael has had his motives questioned so thoroughly.
1. He gives himself away. Even though TechCrunch makes most of its money from events, Mike supports others’ events that charge no admission and pay him no money. In 2006, after Jason Calacanis and others had shown Mike how essential events were to building a sustainable media business, he asked me if we could charge for the Naked Truth and then give the money to charity, just to avoid setting a precedent that the events he headlines are free. He called rather than emailed to ask, and he was so ham-fisted about it that I could hardly understand what he was saying. Before he could finish the request, he told me I didn’t have to do it and probably shouldn’t. Since that call, he has helped us out every year and never raised the issue again. Last Thursday on the sidewalk outside the Naked Truth 2009, I told Mike “you’re the only hooker who gives it away.” He looked crestfallen. Every year, I am sure he won’t be back again.
2. He’s one of us. Most of the people whom entrepreneurs talk to look at us like a space alien: we get over-excited, or tired and cranky, because we’ve lost perspective or lost sleep. We go too far, we speak in tongues. Mike’s that way too. For years, he let entrepreneurs crash at his place. On one of his visits to Seattle, Redfin once offered to put him up somewhere fancy, and he chose a dive to save us money. True to his belief that journalists shouldn’t get free gear, he has the shittiest iPhone in Silicon Valley, last year’s model with a gigantic crack in the screen. And after all these years, he’s still a breathless fanboy and an outraged critic, a user and a creator of new technologies. In a resignation letter by perhaps the greatest of all editors, The New Yorker’s William Shawn, there is a halting expression of emotion that must capture how Mike feels about his own publication, too: “the operational word is, I think, love.” Even after Mike has hired a dozen writers of varying talent, TechCrunch is, more than almost any other blog I read, a labor of love. Whatever faults Mike has, they are those of a true entrepreneur. He cares too much, not too little.
3. And he cares a lot: the day Michael Arrington wrote a piece taunting me for leaving Silicon Valley in favor of a kick-back lifestyle in Seattle, my cell-phone rang. It was Mike, calling to make sure he hadn’t hurt my feelings. He called again last Friday to ask if anyone had his feathers ruffled during the Naked Truth. In 2006, after he told a conference of real estate agents that their whole business was doomed and wrong, he anxiously asked “how’d you think that went over?” It turned out he’d stayed up all night preparing the speech. Like a kid who can’t help blurting out the wrong thing at a dinner party, Mike always seems genuinely surprised that people take it personally when he disagrees with them. And yet it’s impossible to take ideas seriously without occasionally being disagreeable. Every polarizing statement Michael Arrington makes costs him dearly, but he can’t stop saying what he thinks, which can only mean that his opinions come from somewhere real.
4. He rallies: when we asked Michael Arrington to speak at this year’s event, he agreed to do it on the spot. Then it turned out that there were no flights to get him back to Palo Alto for the all-day event TechCrunch was hosting at 9 the following morning (9 a.m. for Michael Arrington is like 4 a.m. for a normal human being). When he called to say he couldn’t make it, I must have sounded a little hurt. An hour later, he’d found one last flight into a third-tier airport. Best case, he’d get home by 1 a.m. When I told him he really didn’t have to do it, he lied and said it would be a good excuse to visit his parents; I already knew that flight would only give him a few minutes in Seattle prior to the event. He traveled six hours to spend an hour as one of eight people on a panel. What’s funny is that during the panel, Mike told the audience that the speakers all came because it was somehow in their self-interest to come. But in fact he had already made that calculation – who hasn’t said, “why on earth did I agree to do this?” – and then he came anyway.
5. He fights the baloney avalanche: Mike is one of the only people in tech to stand before a daily avalanche of baloney and shout, with real emotion and even indignation, “NO!” Of course, many other journalists silently sift through all the hoo-ha to find out what’s true. But no one else is so deeply offended by it, no one calls it out so much, no one is continually goaded by it like one of those bug-addled deer you hear about that throw themselves off a cliff. That’s exactly what I like about Michael; that he is still capable of fresh outrage — do you know how hard it is to be idealistic and cranky at the same time? — that he is fighting a lonely, almost ceaseless battle against the minor, countless lies we tell each other to get along and the seeping mediocrity that all the rest of us just sort of surrender to. When Mike waxes nostalgic about how Meebo and Sphere launched in his living room, you get the unmistakable feeling that he is protecting something small and precious — the entrepreneurs, the technology — in a near-hopeless battle against a far-more numerous enemy that nobody else even sees.
6. We need him: do you know how boring Silicon Valley would be without Michael Arrington? I do. I remember reading eWeek and thinking I just can’t take much more of this. We can go back to those days, but I don’t think anyone – least of all Michael Arrington’s detractors – wants that. The truth is we need someone to mix it up a little; we need someone to grumble about and point at. If Michael Arrington didn’t exist, we’d have to create him. Lost in all the talk of his celebrity is that his raw writing talent is off the charts. And no one more than Mike wants our industry to be bigger and better and more fun. He has given a voice and a sense of belonging to a lot of lonely people who spend their days and nights feeling fly-by-night. Most startups get their first notice on TechCrunch, and Michael Arrington is often the first person to have taken them seriously after years of doubt and work (work is hard, and doubt is terrible, but the two together are what can really make a startup miserable). I still remember how everyone here at Redfin felt when TechCrunch first wrote about us. Ten thousand real estate agents said it would never work. And Michael Arrington said it just might.