Oct 6, 2016 ยท 4 minutes

For anyone wondering if karma is real, the past week has offered plenty of supporting evidence.

On Monday we learned that, contrary to earlier reporting, Univision’s purchase of Gawker Media did not actually include the company’s most toxic brand: Gawker.com itself. According to The Hollywood Reporter:

[I]t was revealed in bankruptcy papers that the sale of various Gawker Media properties to Univision for $135 million didn't include the domain name and content of the company's flagship website.

Then on Wednesday Google and Disney ruled themselves out as possible acquirers of Twitter, leaving Salesforce as the only bidder left in the game. Overnight the abuse-rife, Trump enabling company’s stock tanked by 16%. And then of course there’s “poor” Theranos, fresh off the back of a damning Vanity Fair profile (the same magazine, let’s not forget, that once promoted the fraudulent company) Elizabeth Holmes announced she is shuttering the company’s controversial research labs.

Gawker, Twitter, Theranos: Three brands that, in their own special way, have either conspired to make the world a worse place or have actively failed to make it a better one, and now three brands unable to find anyone to bail them out.

And then of course there’s the worst of the worst: Uber. A towering pile of lawsuits, continuing struggles with regulators and still no sign of an IPO, despite investor howls.

Could it really be true? Has the free market actually grown a conscience?  Does being awful now render a company unsaleable?

Nah, of course not. Twitter’s acquirers -- even Disney -- are not put off by Twitter’s enabling of hate and bullying, they’re put off by the company’s ludicrously high market cap and its hapless part-time CEO’s failure to grow user numbers. Gawker.com may be siloed, but that’s largely a strategy by Univision to avoid further lawsuits over a brand they never really wanted. Uber will likely get its IPO eventually, or some other suitably enriching exit, and few would be surprised if Theranos, or at least Elizabeth Holmes, ultimately finds a way out of the wilderness.

And yet, that’s not to say there’s no lesson to be learned here.

Reading the New York Times report on Marc Benioff’s Twitter deliberations, one paragraph jumped out. Here Benioff describes Twitter’s appeal:

Mr. Benioff, who is himself a power user of Twitter, said on Wednesday that while it was essential that Salesforce be in A.I., there was more to Twitter than that.

“It’s a huge customer-service platform,” used by companies like Dell, Apple and Bank of America, he said in the interview on the way to the St. Regis. “It’s not a reason to buy it, but it’s a reason to look at it. I’m not saying I’m buying it, but I’m not saying I’m not buying it.”

Putting aside the notion of Twitter as an “A.I.” company, it’s interesting that Benioff sees the platform’s major appeal being a customer service tool. No mention of the usual stuff we associate with Twitter: free speech, journalism, celebrity fluff and, of course, Donald fucking Trump. The message is clear, and not particularly surprising: If Salesforce does buy Twitter it will be to act as a consumer-facing extension of Salesforce’s existing business tools.  

The implication is clear too: Anything that doesn’t directly serve that customer service goal -- that is, all of the stuff that made Twitter the 50/50 wonderful/toxic stew it is today -- will be of secondary importance, or phased out entirely if Salesforce ends up owning Twitter. The baby and the bathwater both gone, replaced by a tool optimised to sell more Pampers.

That’s what we’ve seen happen with Gawker/Univision too: Gawker.com -- i.e. the thing that defined the entire brand -- left by the wayside to prioritize the less sexy but much more commerically viable tech vertical.

We already know Uber is rushing to clean up its act -- to cast off all the lawbreaking and Robin Hooding that once defined it -- in the hope of finally getting to IPO. It’ll be interesting to see what parts of Theranos, if any, are considered to have value in any upcoming fire sale.

Perhaps then, the trend, if there is one, is more prosaic: A willingness to behave like an asshole (or to allow others to behave like assholes on your platform) might be a major asset at first when building a big consumer Internet brand. But the easier it is to neatly uncouple the toxic part of the business from the remainder -- Gawker (very easy), Twitter (slightly less easy), Uber (an ongoing process), Theranos (God only knows) -- the easier time you’ll have finding a buyer when your luck runs out.