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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Disruptions: A Blogger Mocks the Denizens of Silicon Valley

SAN FRANCISCO â€" Sam Biddle may have one of the easiest jobs in technology journalism. That is, easy if you have the stomach for his line of work.

Every morning, he wakes up in his Brooklyn apartment, checks Twitter on his smartphone, searches for social media posts percolating from Silicon Valley, and he begins to write, his style combining Page Six dishiness with snark and surprising insight.

In other words, his style is pure Gawker.

Mr. Biddle, 26, is the latest blogger for Gawker Media’s Valleywag, the technology industry gossip dartboard that recently reopened for business after a four-year hibernation. His job, which he has been at since April, is to note just how self-absorbed the tech industry in Silicon Valley and San Francisco (and occasionally New York) can be. And he does not seem to care whom he offends.

His latest items are about both the famous and obscure-but-noxious personalities of tech. They include: “Revealed: Sheryl Sandberg’s Unpaid Intern Disgrace,” “AOL CEO Tim Armstrong Fires Employee for Taking His Picture” and “Startup Stud Hates Homeless People, Ugly Girls, and Public Transit.”

“There is a basic calculation where you add money and lack of self-awareness, and the higher those two values are, the better and easier my job is,” Mr. Biddle said in an interview. And Silicon Valley, he added, has a lot of both.

On any given day, Mr. Biddle, who first joined Gawker Media in 2010 as an intern, said he can pull from a near-endless supply of industry follies. But his real specialty borrows from generations of satirists and gossip writers: He picks a few juicy targets and â€" some might say, cruelly â€" goes after them over and over again.

“The Morins are really a gift from heaven,” he said. The Morins he is referring to are Brit Morin, founder of Brit & Company, a do-it-yourself arts and crafts Web site, and her husband, Dave Morin, the co-founder of Path, a mobile social network.

Mr. Biddle has accused Mrs. Morin, among other things, of continually “plagiarizing” work on other Web sites. And he has questioned, with exaggerated bafflement, why Mrs. Morin received $6 million in financing for her start-up.

Mr. Biddle has also made Mr. Morin a punching bag, reporting that he bought new users for his start-up to artificially inflate growth and spammed people already on the service by sending unwanted messages to their phone contacts. Mr. and Ms. Morin declined to comment.

Valleywag began in February 2006 with Nick Douglas, a recent college graduate, at the helm. The site has had several other lead writers, including Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s owner. But when traffic waned (not surprisingly, with the recession that took some air out of the tech industry), it was folded into Gawker.

John Cook, editor of Gawker, said he and Mr. Denton decided to restart Valleywag after seeing a return of excessive spending and obnoxious behavior in the Valley and a “lot of indications of dumb money,” like the $6 million given to Ms. Morin’s start-up.

“The Valley is a target-rich environment for someone who is looking to expose profligacy, ego and self-regard,” Mr. Cook said. “There’s just so much cluelessness about wealth and privilege, and there’s so much completely unearned money changing hands.”

This time, Valleywag may have some staying power. The obscure young tech executives Valleywag wrote about when it started, like Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, have, Mr. Cook said, “become household names.”

Then there is Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster, whose long public relations effort to explain his multimillion-dollar wedding in a redwood grove helped find him a regular spot on Valleywag’s front page.

If you’re not familiar with Mr. Parker, he is the character played with considerable Svengali-like charm by Justin Timberlake in the movie “The Social Network.”

Mr. Biddle has another favorite target: other writers who cover the tech industry.

He has gone to great lengths to ruffle Sarah Lacy, a former writer for Businessweek and editor at TechCrunch who is the founder of a technology blog called PandoDaily that â€" in Mr. Biddle’s estimation â€" does the bidding of the industry it covers. He called Ms. Lacy a “free-market monster” after she wrote a post criticizing a strike by local transit workers; he taunted her for defending the tech industry, and he chided her for becoming part of the stories she covers, considered improper for traditional journalists.

Ms. Lacy says those criticisms are nonsense. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t think much of what Mr. Biddle is doing. “If Gawker thinks the Valley press isn’t uncovering stories, then go do it, because so far I haven’t seen it from Valleywag,” Ms. Lacy said.

Ms. Lacy and others question how Mr. Biddle can accurately report on Silicon Valley while he is based in New York. It’s a common complaint: that Mr. Biddle knows little about the industry he enjoys mocking. And they say he hardly practices the high values of journalism that he preaches. “Not calling people before you write about them is not noble,” Ms. Lacy said.

“Valleywag’s mission was to expose criminality, hypocrisy and corruption, but it isn’t doing any of that,” said Paul Carr, a contributor to PandoDaily and another occasional target for Mr. Biddle. “Instead you have a guy in New York pointing to Silicon Valley from thousands of miles away saying: ‘Look at that rich guy. Isn’t he rich? That rich guy is a loser.’ ”

In his defense, Mr. Biddle and other former Valleywag writers argue that being based in New York, and not Silicon Valley, allows him to avoid going native in the way tech bloggers like Ms. Lacy have.

But no matter where he is, Mr. Biddle understands that taking the job at Valleywag can be like taking a job as a crash-test dummy.

“There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had,” Mr. Biddle said. “But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.”