In 2016, Gawker Media was sued into bankruptcy by professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. It later emerged that the lawsuit had been secretly funded by tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who had been upset over Gawker’s coverage of him. Media strategist Ryan Holiday gives a detailed account of the affair in his new book Conspiracy.
“It’s just an unreal story from start to finish, and I’m not sure we’ll experience something like this again,” Holiday says in Episode 368 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
Thiel is a big fan of science fiction (he’s named five companies after story elements from The Lord of the Rings), and so is Gawker founder Nick Denton, who helped launch one of the internet’s most popular science fiction websites, io9. That love of science fiction seems to have played a role in shaping both men’s ambitions and boundary-pushing personalities.
“Both of them live in this world where the role of the entrepreneur is to invent the future,” Holiday says. “I think that’s what Peter thinks his job is—to create the innovation and growth and change that the free world needs to survive and to avoid catastrophe. And I think that for many years Nick and Gawker—even though it might not seem like it, because they’re running these celebrity gossip stories—but I believe that Nick was under the impression that the role of Gawker was to usher in a new world of transparency and truth.”
Holiday notes that Thiel and Denton have many other similarities, and that this may have exacerbated the tensions between them. “Denton has this cultural cachet, this influence over what people are thinking,” Holiday says. “And Peter, I believe, fancies himself a little bit of a philosopher—as a big thinker, as a person who realizes that it’s ultimately these attitudes that the public has that shape the direction that technology can go. So I think there was probably some mutual envy between the two of them, and that’s what sets these tectonic plates jostling against each other for the first time.”
Listen to the complete interview with Ryan Holiday in Episode 368 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Ryan Holiday on political correctness:
“[Thiel’s] second critique is, what is the overall social cost of dismissing an idea like seasteading—and anyone associated with it—as a kook? It might not be a good idea, I think he would admit, but what does it say when we can’t even have a discussion about anything unusual, or untraditional, or strange, or counterintuitive? What does this cost us as a society in terms of innovation and change, and the ability to break new ground or explore new possibilities? I think his point was, in that respect Gawker—and the media at large—was sort of this enforcer of sameness, of political correctness. Not in terms of language, but of political correctness in the sense of like, ‘Don’t get too far out there, don’t say things that are upsetting or weird, don’t question the status quo. Just be normal. Just be normal or we’ll make fun of you.’”
Ryan Holiday on conspiracies:
“People don’t really believe in conspiracies anymore. … We understand that there are fools who believe in conspiracies, but as far as the machinations—how things really work behind the scenes—we pretty much think nobody’s getting anything done, that nothing’s possible, that there is no one operating behind the scenes, that things just kind of are what they are. And I imagine that was a benefit to Peter as he was planning and pulling off this conspiracy. Even as evil as we might think billionaires are, nobody thinks they’re plotting in secret through proxies to bring down a media outlet.”
Ryan Holiday on heroes and villains:
“All I could really think about was the people on both sides. I came to like Nick, and came to feel terrible that he had undergone this massive reversal of fortune. A.J. I found to be much more sympathetic than I had thought—he’s the one who wrote the article which published the Hulk Hogan sex tape that brought down the company. And even with Peter, I came to so admire his independent thinking and his unique worldview that it made it so hard for me to go, ‘Here’s the good guy, here’s the bad guy.’ I came to think of it less as an underdog story, or about who was the villain, and more that this was a story about two sharks that fought each other, and one of them won. Neither of them was helpless, and both of them put up a pretty good fight.”
Ryan Holiday on the media:
“I think the unintended consequence of what Thiel did is there’s this sort of diaspora of ex-Gawker writers who went off to all these different media outlets. You could argue that BuzzFeed has picked up the mantle in some ways, and writers at the Huffington Post picked up the mantle in other ways, and that all these different people were trained inside Gawker, and have now gone and infused that DNA into the media as a whole. … We have this idea that history is written by the victors, but I think that Gawker and its supporters have done a very good job of writing the narrative of what happened, and sort of winning the cultural war. Even if they lost the media outlet, and even if they lost their jobs, they have certainly won the overall cultural narrative about what happened, and what their place in the world was.”