What Fyre Fest Docs Reveal About Tech’s Cult of Positivity
Billy McFarland’s push for optimism at his tech startup covered up deeper problems â€” but that “Don’t worry, be happy” attitude is common across the industry
It’s pretty obvious why so many people immediately inhaled both Hulu’sÂ Fyre FraudÂ and Netflix’sÂ FyreÂ as soon as they could. The very public dissolution of Fyre Fest was one of the most satisfying things about 2017: Trump had just taken office, the bad guys were winning, and watching influencers unravel when their luxury, private-island musicÂ festivalÂ turned out to be a Ponzi scheme on a Caribbean construction site felt like the schadenfreude-flavored Xanax we all needed. A fleeting hug for the proletariat in the form of a photo of a cheese sandwich.
Both documentaries highlight founder and convicted felon Billy McFarland’s wellspring of positivity, even in the face of impending doom. InÂ Fyre, Marc Weinstein, a contractor who worked on the festival, recalls a conversation with Billy where he brought up a very big issue about housing for the guests”Š ”””Šnamely, there wasn’t enough of it. Billy’s response: “We’re not a problems-focused group, we’re a solutions-oriented group, we need to have a positive attitude about this.” Maybe if everyone could keep a smile on their face, they’d figure out a way out of this.
McFarlandÂ ”” a wannabe tech bro who was simultaneously getting into the app business while defrauding everyone around him ”” was just taking the lead of the #posivibes tech bros that had come before him. Speaking to theÂ Facebook Social Good ForumÂ in 2017, Facebook CEO Marc Zuckerberg suggested it’s only the optimistic among us who triumph. “One of my favorite sayings is that there are two kinds of people in the world: optimists and pessimists,” he said. “Optimists tend to be successful and pessimists tend to be right.” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey learned the power of positivity fromÂ Disney’s Bob IgerÂ when Iger suggested Dorsey consider giving his employees a happiness ultimatum: “If you’re not going to be optimistic, you’re not going to be a part of this company.”
Optimism, of course, is not at all equivalent to a pleasant disposition. AÂ New York TimesreviewÂ of the 2015 biopicÂ Steve JobsÂ sums up Silicon Valley’s pro-positivity worldview, which Jobs had a heavy hand in shaping: “An aggressive optimism that is willing to roll over just about everything and everyone in its path in the service of what it sees as the more important goal of building tomorrow.” Tyrannous positivity is the only kind allowed in tech. I would know”Š ””Â ”ŠI worked at Snapchat for four years.
One of the phrases often repeated in the halls of Snap, Inc. was “learn to thrive in ambiguity.” The bones of the phrase are noble: stay open to many possibilities. But in practice it was used like a weapon against doubt. One example: In late 2017, when the content team learned of the now infamously botchedÂ app redesignÂ which would separate “the social from the media””Š ”” ”Šfriend content would appear on one side of the app, and professional content from media brands would appear on the other ”””Š internally, there was no room to voice concerns. As a member of the content team who worked directly with our publishing partners, I knew this meant traffic would nosedive. My colleagues and I spent weeks flagging our questions to upper management, but we were consistently stymied. The feedback was often some reworded version of “thrive in ambiguity”: try to stay positive in the face of adversity, this is a little more art than science. The theme behind all of it was “stop complaining.”
These “Don’t worry, be happy” employee stories are common across the tech industry. A former Facebook employee recently toldÂ BuzzFeedÂ what it was like for much of the staff at the end of 2018 after a tumultuous year of scandal and bad press: “It’s the bunker mentality”¦the only survival strategy is to quit or fully buy in.” Another former employee added, “People now have burner phones to talk shit about the company ”Š”” ”Šnot even to reporters, just to other employees.” Blind, an app that serves as an anonymous message board for tech workers, has capitalized on the need for #realtalk among employees. As of 2018, the app has over 2 million users ””Â including 43K at Microsoft, 28K at Amazon, 10K at GoogleÂ ”” with the average monthly user logging on for 35 minutes a day. One Microsoft employee toldÂ ForbesÂ Blind is a place for “real feedback,” making you wonder how many decisions have been made based on whatever the opposite of that is.
The products these companies make are suffocating us with positivity, too. Much has been written about the impact of social media on our happiness”Š ”””Š despite the thumbs up buttons and heart icons, heavy users areÂ three times more likelyÂ to experience anxiety and depression. Social media has created a world in which all feedback, unless anonymous, must be polite”Š. But depriving ourselves of our negative feelings has an exponential impact. Psychologist Guy Winchwrites, “When our negative feelings are not validated by others”¦or we see around us messages that imply it is wrong or incorrect to have negative feelings, we are likely to experience the double whammy of feeling bad”¦and then feeling bad about ourselves for feeling bad.”
The line between a “positive attitude,” which Billy McFarland claimed he was looking for, and blind loyalty is not as blurred as our tech leaders would like us to believe. McFardland didn’t want smilesÂ throughÂ the disaster, he wanted smiles as the anecdote. But optimism, in the face of a failing reality, is delusion.Â Optimism has become a dangerous catchall where dissenters are labeled as “negative” instead of, maybe, “future problem solvers.” You can’t attack a solution until you fully acknowledge a problem. That’s when positivity really works its magic.