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Away's CEO steps down: a story about Slack

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Programming note: I promised you a special report this week; it's now scheduled for early next week.
 
December 9 · Issue #426 · View online
The Interface
Programming note: I promised you a special report this week; it’s now scheduled for early next week. Journalism!
On Thursday, Zoe told you about the mess inside the fast-rising luggage company Away, where private communication is all but banned and lowly customer service representatives are frequently berated in public Slack channels.
As I wrote in that newsletter, an emerging focus for The Interface this year has been the way that tech companies govern their employees — and the way that the tools they use, such as Slack, enable surveillance that goes both ways.
On one hand, CEO Steph Korey fired several employees after reading their messages in a channel that LGBT employees had started as a place to discuss workplace issues. On the other, Korey’s 3AM Slack messages in which she promised, with great condescension, “to help [employees] learn the career skill of accountability” — by banning paid time off — told the story of her management style better than any anecdote could.
On Monday, Korey resigned. Zoe has the story:
Away CEO Steph Korey is stepping down, just four days after an investigation from The Verge highlighted the company’s toxic culture. Korey, one of the luggage brand’s co-founders, will be replaced with former Lululemon executive Stuart Haselden, though she will still continue on as executive chairman.
The news comes after days of public backlash due to leaked documents showing Korey routinely intimidated employees on public Slack channels. After The Verge’s initial story broke, new leaks showed Away was directing employees not to engage with the article even from their personal social media accounts.
Away gave an exclusive on the news to the Wall Street Journal, where the company’s president had this to say about the timing of the news:
“In light of the article, it’s been a difficult few days for the company,” said Ms. Rubio. “But we don’t want that to overshadow this announcement.”
Unfortunately, any time a founder resigns in disgrace, it does tend to overshadow the rushed announcement of their successor. But perhaps Away will fare better under leadership from Lululemon, where *checks notes* the original founder resigned after saying women were generally too fat for its workout pants. (Haselden, the incoming CEO of Away, came aboard to clean up the brand after that incident. He was previously at J. Crew for nine years.)
For a bunch of takes on the Away drama, here’s a fun roundup from an anonymous tech gadfly, who asked founders, venture capitalists, and journalists to weigh in on the situation anonymously. It’s an unusually polarizing story. VCs love seeing the kind of hustle that Korey embodied — those 10x returns aren’t coming from the founders who don’t work weekends! — and many commentators offered unspecified reports of having “seen worse.” (For a certain mysterious subset of Twitter, journalism is only justified in instances where whatever is being written about is the worst thing that the writer has ever seen.)
Once Korey resigned, the early contrarian wisdom — that there is nothing to see here — dissipated. It was quickly replaced with “Away has clearly been planning to change its CEO for months.” I’m certainly willing believe that Away didn’t make this decision over the weekend. But keep in mind that Away has known that this story has been coming for along time. The suggestion that all of this was part of a natural planned succession, rather than a crisis intervention, beggars belief.
But enough of my aggrieved score-settling. One aspect of this story that continues to interest me personally is how executives may begin rethinking the use of Slack. The kind of type-first, think-later style of communication that it inspires is categorically different than email, the technology that preceded it in companies like Away. And while Slack has long had its critics, the fact that a CEO has now resigned over her Slack messages feels like a new milestone in changing opinion about the company.
Slack is very useful at a publication like The Verge, where speed is a cardinal virtue. But the other edge of that sword can cut very deeply, especially for demanding and impolitic bosses. Until now, it’s been easy to think of Slack as “neutral platform.” But if there’s one thing that this newsletter has chronicled more than any other subject, it’s how no communications platform is ever truly neutral.
Whether it’s Facebook, YouTube, or Slack, every platform offers different incentives (and disincentives) to its user base. Every platform offers avenues for abuse. Every platform is full of dangers that don’t seem obvious at all, until they’re too late.
Steph Korey just found that out the hard way. And I suspect she won’t be the last CEO who wishes she had used Slack differently — or, perhaps, not at all.

The Ratio
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Governing
President Trump’s “repeated public and behind-the-scenes attacks” against Amazon led the Pentagon to choose a lesser bid from Microsoft for a massive cloud computing contract, according to a complaint Amazon made public today. Aaron Gregg and Jay Greene of The Washington Post have the story, which bears all the hallmarks of corruption:
The e-commerce giant’s protest of the $10 billion, 10-year contract alleges that Trump’s stated efforts to “screw Amazon” led the agency to opt for a proposal from Microsoft with “clear failures.” Amazon pointed to alleged errors and an 11th-hour policy change as evidence that the Defense Department failed to follow the rules. And it said Trump’s alleged meddling with defense spending for personal gain threatens the integrity of the government procurement system itself.
“Basic justice requires reevaluation of proposals and a new award decision,” Amazon wrote. “The stakes are high. The question is whether the President of the United States should be allowed to use the budget of DoD to pursue his own personal and political ends.”
Meanwhile: The Trump administration is also considering adding some of Amazon’s overseas operations to a list of global marketplaces known for counterfeit goods. The move would amount to a public shaming of the e-commerce giant. (Timothy Puko and Alex Leary / The Wall Street Journal)
More than 18 months after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, the Federal Trade Commission has officially ruled that the political consulting firm deceived Facebook users through its data-gathering practices. Hopefully this will revive the discussion of Cambridge Analytica so that we can continue discussing it for the next hundred years. (Colin Lecher / The Verge)
Republicans are dramatically outspending Democrats on impeachment-related ads on Facebook and TV. The moves shows how fully the GOP has embraced the issue as a political winner — and fundraising tool — even as public opinion remains split. (Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Anu Narayanswamy and Mike DeBonis / The Washington Post)
Facebook is debating limiting how politicians can microtarget voters. The decision to remove that capability would have massive implications for Trump and his Democratic rivals, all of whom rely on the technology. (Craig Timberg / The Washington Post)
Facebook’s plans to label state-run media are being delayed for unknown reasons. The company said it would start labeling an initial list of government-run media outlets in November, but missed that target and failed to give an explanation. (Hadas Gold / CNN)
Facebook and Twitter aren’t doing a great job policing companies that sell likes and comments on social media. A new report from the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence shows it’s still incredibly easy and cheap to manipulate social trends. (Davey Alba / The New York Times)
Major news outlets are doing a better job of debunking President Trump’s falsehoods on Twitter than they were earlier this year, according to a new study from Media Matters. There’s still room for improvement, however, since outlets still sometimes amplify false or misleading Trump claims without disputing them. (Matt Gertz and Rob Savillo / Media Matters)
A suspected influence operation from Russia was discovered on Reddit, which included leaked documents from the UK. After investigating, Reddit banned one subreddit and 61 accounts for misusing of the platform.
The Department of Homeland Security walked back its plan to expand facial recognition scans to US citizens at the airport. The department was loudly criticized for announcing such scans would become mandatory last week.
Tristan Harris, the Google design ethicist turned tech activist, argues that privacy laws alone won’t save people from their worst tendencies online. “Even the best privacy laws are only as effective as our Paleolithic emotions are resistant to the seductions of technology,” he wrote. Related: every time I go to the gym I see someone browsing Instagram for eight or more minutes between sets. While I’m waiting for the machine! (Tristan Harris / The New York Times)
Industry
People are creating a new kind of nonconsensual pornography by combining deepfakes with 3D avatars that can be manipulated to do whatever the user wants. The people whose images are being manipulated are usually celebrities — and almost always women. Samantha Cole and Emanuel Maiberg from Vice share more about this disturbing trend:
The results are surreal. In one video Motherboard found, which we see from the first person perspective of someone who’s interacting with VaM via an HTC Vive virtual reality headset, the person moves around the virtual naked body and manipulates its limbs in real time. The neutral, realistic face of a celebrity maintains eye contact, following the user and blinking as they move around her. The user looks to the right and pulls up VaM’s control interface, which displays a long menu of sex positions the 3D model can be put into: doing a backward bend, squatting and touching herself, several versions of kneeling. The user picks a position from the menu that puts the model on her back holding her legs over her head, and looks back to the 3D model to find her in that position.
Snapchat is launching a new feature that uses your selfies to replace the faces of people in videos you can then share. It’s essentially a simplified way to deepfake yourself into GIFs. It’s also an alternative to Bitmoji for quickly conveying an emotion or reaction. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
Caring about climate change is trendy on Tinder, according to the company’s “Year in Swipe” report released last week. The majority of people on Tinder are now under age 25, and are more likely to mention causes that they are passionate about than their cold, uncaring millennial counterparts. (Justine Calma / The Verge)
TikTok is ready to help its stars get rich. The company released the TikTok 100, a year-in-review list that names the top videos and creators of 2019. It then shared its predictions and goals for 2020. (Unstated goal: do not get regulated out of existence by the United States government. Or the Chinese government!) (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)
Adobe is acquiring Oculus Medium, a virtual reality sculpting tool originally revealed by the Facebook-owned VR company in 2015. Medium will remain free for people with an Oculus VR system, but Adobe said it plans to bring more features and improvements to the tool in 2020. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
Magic Leap had a tough year with slow sales of its augmented reality headset. The company planned to sell 100,000 headsets in the first year, but six months in only 6,000 units had sold. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai left the board last year. (Alex Heath / The Information)
Local Facebook groups are serving as community town squares, classified ads, neighborhood watch associations and emergency info centers, all rolled into one. For the most part, they are run by unpaid volunteers who spend a lot of time figuring out how to referee disputes and enforce the rules. (Cameron Wilson / BuzzFeed)
Grocery stores are building marketing strategies around everyday influencers who’ve gained massive followings by sharing their favorite snacks and products. The influencers typically don’t get paid — they just do it for the love of the brand. Suckers! (Nathaniel Meyersohn / CNN)
And finally ...
Scottish Twitter is a true gift to the world, and Twitter recently held a celebration of the community in Scotland’s capital, complete with a contest for the funniest tweet. Our thanks to James Hookway for capturing it here:
The top gag on Twitter was awarded to Marc Simpson from Lhanbryde in the Scottish Highlands.
“Wis walkin home n someone threw a block of cheese oot their windee n it hit me on the head,” he wrote. “I turned n shouted that wisna very mature wis it.”
Indeed it wis not.
Talk to us
Send us tips, comments, questions, and internal Slack messages: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.
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