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Reactions to the corporate ‘woke wars’ range from ‘rah-rah’ to revulsion

May 4, 2021, 3:50 PM UTC

Last week I asked whether you, dear readers, might be comfortable sharing your views on a schism splitting the business world. I’ve taken to calling this fractious battleground the “woke wars.”

As Aaron mentioned yesterday, at least 20 Basecamp employees reportedly took a buyout after the company instituted a ban on “societal and political discussions” in the workplace. That’s more than a third of the productivity software-maker’s workforce. (Casey Newton, a Verge journalist-turned-Substack writer, has lots of juicy details in his tech newsletter.)

Basecamp isn’t the first business to adopt this policy. Coinbase, the cryptocurrency exchange, took a very public stand on becoming stance-less last fall. At the time, I remarked that any attempt to establish an “apolitical culture,” to use Coinbase chief executive Brian Armstrong’s phrase, would prove challenging: “As long as there are people, there is politics,” I noted. Sixty staffers, or about 5% of the company, left in the wake of Armstrong’s edict.

Unlike Basecamp and Coinbase, Data Sheet has (virtually) no restrictions on dialogue. And thank goodness, because our subscribers are an eminently thoughtful bunch. Among our respondents, fans and critics of the apolitical policy took opposing sides in roughly equal numbers and they expressed everything from support to censure.

I sorted through the mailbag to pull out the best commentary, which I’ve reproduced for your consideration below.

“I think that pushing these conversations entirely out of work is dangerous and silencing, and leads to isolation for minorities in the professional workspace. I can understand not wanting to cloud a company social account from the ‘mission’. But there are too many times that societal issues impact people who are part of your business.”

—P.G.

“As a society, people are NEVER satisfied no matter what side of the aisle you’re on or if you even sit right in the middle…. If I’m at a company, I shouldn’t have to speak out, take a stand, or do anything if I don’t want to. Yet that’s exactly what many people are expecting. If I don’t or god forbid take a different stance, then here comes hell, fire, and brimstone.”

—E.L.

“When I lived in Brazil, they had a saying: ‘There are three things you should never discuss in mixed company, because they always result in fights: Religion, Politics and Soccer.’ I try to do the same with work…. just because I feel passionately about something, doesn’t mean I’m right; just because someone believes in a different solution to a problem doesn’t mean they are evil.”

—J.W.

“Put me in the [Coinbase CEO] Brian Armstrong camp. Boards & CEO’s have a responsibility to execute on a business model they have communicated to their shareholders. The business of companies is business. Boards and executives that don’t focus their time and energy on building their business should be replaced.”

—B.W.

“I will not purchase a product or service from a company choses to be part of this out of control ‘wokeness’ and publicly take a position on an issue.”

—H.P.

“A company that refuses to have and express an opinion about the way that the world and the people in it are regulated, monitored, improved, degraded, diversified, homogenized, educated, trained, and judged is a business that shouldn’t earn the public’s trust.”

—P.A.

“I have a quibble with a premise you have made. There is indeed a difference between companies that speak out and remain silent. But there’s also a difference between companies that speak out, remain silent, or close off internal conversations about politics. There’s probably a larger point here about whether or not employees have to embody the politics of the place where they get their paycheck.”

—T.L.

“It’s a political statement to say you can’t make political statements or discuss ‘society.'”

—C.V.

“Bowing to pressure to say something does not help anyone. I don’t believe companies should silence their employees who choose to speak out on their own, but a corporate brand should not put out a statement or “black box” just to appease the masses. We need real change, and this change does not come from forcing people to jump into every conversation, but holding them accountable to do the work.”

—K.S.

To everyone who helped write today’s Data Sheet, I thank you from the depths of my sorely vaccinated arm.

Robert Hackett
Twitter: @rhhackett
robert.hackett@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Epic battle commences. The courtroom is already filled with drama after Apple and Epic Games began their first day at trial over the iPhone-maker's fees. Apple is arguing that Epic is merely trying to revive interest in Fortnite, its flagship video game, while Epic contends that Apple's App Store toll booth is ripping off iOS application developers. As Aaron noted yesterday, this epic brouhaha is going to be one to watch.

'V' for Vendetta. The case centers on V-Bucks, the in-game virtual currency that Fortnite players use to buy cosmetic outfits ("skins") and dances or taunts ("emotes"), among other digital goodies. The bulk of Epic's more than $5.5 billion in 2018 and 2019 profit and $5.1 billion in 2020 revenue came from the game. Another nugget: Epic presented evidence that Phil Schiller, Apple's App Store lead and former marketing chief, once floated reducing Apple's take from 30% of in-app transactions to as low as 20%. 

Cryptopia. Speaking of virtual currencies, the prices of cryptocurrencies Ether and Dogecoin are rocketing moon-ward even while Bitcoin trades down to $55,500 per coin. I'm beginning to believe we are living in a simulation. Oh, and—surprise, surprise—the trading app Robinhood says it is "experiencing issues with crypto trading" this morning. 

Calling it splitsville. Amazon cofounders Jeff Bezos and Mackenzie Scott kicked off trend. Bill and Melinda Gates are ending their marriage after 27 years. The Microsoft cofounder announced the couple's intention to divorce in a post on Twitter Monday. How the separation will affect the mega-philanthropists' Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent billions of dollars on public health initiatives globally since 2000, remains uncertain

Santa Fe is less than 90 miles away. Chipmaker Intel announced Monday that it would invest $3.5 billion to upgrade an existing manufacturing plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Doubling down on fabrication plants, or fabs, is a key part of new CEO Pat Gelsinger's turnaround plan for the business, which has fallen behind Asia's Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. in recent years. 

Trump 2024? All eyes are on Facebook's independent oversight board. The 20-person committee is poised to issue a ruling on Wednesday that may determine whether former President Donald Trump can rejoin the social media giant's services, like Facebook and Instagram. He was banned in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the suspension was important to reduce the risk of violence through President Biden's inauguration.

A lot of people still subscribe to AOL.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Justin Zhu, the cofounder and former CEO of Iterable, an email service that we at Data Sheet use to send our daily dispatch, was fired last week. Zhu claims the main reason for his ousting was a failed LSD micro-dosing experiment at a board meeting. There were other reasons for his removal though, which Bloomberg's Sarah McBride details in her rich and extremely readable profile of the unusual leader.

“In the early days, they’re looking for weird,” Zhu, 31, says now about venture capital investors. He’d taken Iterable from an idea to a company valued at about $2 billion, a stunning success by most measures. But when a company reaches that stage, he says, the new mantra becomes: Reduce the risk.

...In person, Zhu exudes quirkiness in a way that fits with the freethinking ethos of Silicon Valley. At a recent business lunch, he wore a planet- and star-emblazoned teal velour sweatshirt that he says he bought because it reminded him of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. He likes to discuss the amorality of capitalism, the principle of cosmic debt, and the need for more love in the world.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Okta’s Auth0 deal closes: Inside the 8-year, $6.5 billion courtship by Robert Hackett

3 reasons Verizon needed to dump what’s left of AOL and Yahoo by Aaron Pressman

Europe seeks to fast-track its big bets on hydrogen, 5G and blockchain by Ewa Krukowska

StubHub will offer refunds for canceled events after customers complain over ‘no-refund’ policy by Tali Arbel

We probably won’t reach COVID herd immunity. So why are states already re-opening? By Sy Mukhurjee

Ethereum at $5,000? One financial advisor CEO says it could happen this week by Chris Morris

Meat giant Tyson Foods enters the competitive plant-based market again—this time with a line of vegan meat products by Michael Hirtzer, Deena Shanker, and Fabiana Batista

Intel ready to help Europe achieve its long stated goal of chip self-sufficiency—but it won’t come cheaply by Christiaan Hetzner

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BEFORE YOU GO

Want to up your selfie game? Mashable has a guide to a photo-editing formula that it says "makes life look like a sunkissed wonderland." The technique has been blowing up on TikTok, so I tried it out in the waiting area of a CVS after receiving my second dose yesterday. 

Before

After

You can add the trick to your Pokédex.

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