They have come here in herds, dressed in business casual. Below their belts, the men are an ocean of khaki, broken intermittently by a cresting pair of Very Expensive Jeans. They wear their finest button-down shirts, but they make sure that those shirts are untucked, to demonstrate their willingness to let it all hang out, to think outside the confines of belted chino. The younger ones are in hoodies, their slouches cribbed thoughtfully from Jesse Eisenberg, who cribbed his slouch thoughtfully from Mark Zuckerberg. The women have it tougher. Their business casual is neither business-minded nor all that casual, a confusing melange of sundresses and sensible slacks, gossamer sweaters tossed over spaghetti straps. They totter about in chunky summer sandals that will leave bloody welts. These women and men have come together to do brutal violence to the English language, to leave the spoken and written word bloodied and victimized on a cold cement floor, wishing for the sweet relief of death.
Or at least, that’s the unintentional result. The ostensible reason they’ve gathered in Showbox SoDo, hiding away from the sunny afternoon in a dark room lousy with power strips, is to stare at a podium and a screen and lose a whole day to PowerPoint. They’re all wearing lanyards with big plastic placards dangling around their navels, their names in huge, humpty-point type and the words “Startup Riot Seattle 2012” and “#occupystartups” at the top. Ostensibly, they’re here to take part in something like an American Idol for startups, in which thirty different entrepreneurs explain their business plans to an audience of a couple hundred people. Their pitch presentations will take three minutes or less, and each pitch will be followed by three minutes of questions from a “panel” of two judges. The winners get guaranteed “face-time” with prominent venture capitalists and support from Startup Riot’s sponsoring organizations.
But, oh, my God, the terrible things these people do to words. It’s like watching some sadist work over a baby lamb with a rusty crowbar and a broken gin bottle. The names of these startups sound like the products of an aggressive brain tumor on the frontal lobe. Crowdegy, Placeling, Kouply, QuoteRobot, Appthwack, Makegood, Onthego, Nickler, Kahal, Tanzio, Taskk. They’re all whimsical and unique in exactly the same way. One of the judges works for Storenvy. The main corporate sponsor for Startup Riot is Mailchimp, along with a flock of smaller sponsors like Uber, Gist, and Twilio. I could staple the mismatched meat of syllables together all afternoon and you wouldn’t be able to tell the legitimate businesses from the illegitimate: Mehole, Kaprah, Yimmy, Blanter, Catzap, Dunzyinonezy, Simplert, Lustaminate.
It gets worse when they start talking about the ideas behind the insipid names.
What do all these words that were seemingly invented by a wizard in a kid’s picture book do? They each solve a specific problem. You ever have trouble organizing an office softball team? Don’t you hate looking at the long list of search results that happen when you type a query into google? (“The problem is…the list.”) Isn’t it awful, having an abundance of news sources? Do you have too many tasks? One pitch begins with a simple, honest mission statement: ““There’s a big problem we all face every day: Information.”
They praise the “cool ecosystem” between a traveler and a concierge. They assure each other that ““Our retail metrics are cost-effective.” They use “input” as a verb, as in, “They turn to our app and input the selections.” “Mobile multitasking in real time” is a promised result. Nobody communicates, they “engage.” Everything is “curated.” They pronounce “integral” like “in-trickle.” They ask each other, “What’s the biggest challenge going forward?” and they decide together that “it’s a marketing challenge, at the end of the day.” They discuss how one app is “a purpose-built tool” with “added value.” There are no words, no photographs, no graphic design. It’s all “content,” which is “consumed.” The event’s website features a Twitter testimonial that reads, “Startup Riot was so good yesterday I couldn’t tweet. I was just deeply engaged in meaningful 1-on-1 conversations.” It’s linguistic nihilism, in which everything means nothing and nothing means anything at all.
In between sets of ten pitches, the Showbox’s sound system blares the Rolling Stone’s “Start Me Up,” or Katy Perry’s “Firework,” and people gather to talk about what they’ve just seen. They’ve paid $40 to $80 a head so that they can “network” and “ideate” together. Every name tag has one of four color stripes at the bottom—red, yellow, blue, and green. During “Lunchtime Chaos,” Startup Riot founders encourage us to get together with strangers in groups of four (one of each color) and share opinions and experiences about relevant “use cases”, preferably over an artisanal grilled cheese sandwich purchased from the food truck parked out front. I hide my name tag (red, for the record) and head off to eat lunch alone.
I know, I know: It’s not like any of this is new, or even that complaining about it is new. Over lunch, I check Twitter. A “promoted tweet” bobs to the top of the feed, asking a question that deserves no answer: “We know you're familiar with cash. But what about CASSH? Learn more on the iShares blog!” The marketers have triumphed. Movies are franchises, politics are relentlessly market-tested, and everyone talks like an idiot. Hell, as I check my e-mail, I notice with a resigned shame that my coworkers—smart people I consider to be excellent writers—are unironically using the word “spearhead” as a verb in an e-mail thread.
I don’t mean to say that these Startup Rioters are bad people, or that people like this have never existed before. Nostalgia is a cunning trap. These are men and women who want to make a living, and they have ideas they believe are valuable, and they want to communicate those ideas, just like everyone else who has ever lived. And I don’t mean to imply that these are all bad ideas. Despite the fact that it has maybe the worst name of the batch, Microryza is a startup idea I could get behind, a Kickstarter for scientific research. If you buy into a specific project, you get access to the research and data as it is recorded, a kind of reality show for science nerds. The startup has already funded a $2000 Uhaul rental to transport a triceratops skeleton from Wyoming to Seattle, as well as a penguin-tagging project. Based on the roughly six minutes of information I have to work with, it sounds like a worthy business model.
The big problem is the cliches and extraneous words. This world of business, these job creators, have specialized to the point where they have developed their own language. This is normal, but the problem is that their language is as tepid and lifeless and dumb as any language that ever existed. It personally bugs me that most of these ideas are for apps, for tiny little pretend squares less than an inch on any side that sit on jittery screens in people’s pockets. And as a critic, it bugs me that these apps are presented in charisma-free pitches, dumbed-down versions of the evangelical corporate slide show that Steve Jobs popularized starting in 2001 when he unveiled the iPod. Everybody knows the routine so well by now that you can practically ignore the whole thing.
You can do anything you want with an idea. It can be as big as you want. It doesn’t have to solve a minor problem that nobody ever really realized was a problem. It doesn’t have to fit into something the size of a button crammed into a “folder” the size of a button on a screen the size of a playing card. But everywhere I look, I see tiny little ideas, ideas that are almost petty in their inconsequentiality. And I come back to those cliches, and I think the real problem is in how little thought goes into the language these people use. When the language you employ to communicate your ideas is small and boring, your ideas are going to be small and boring. And when all your ideas are small and boring, your future gets dimmer and dimmer and more claustrophobic until it’s finally just a pinpoint of light on a dark screen, in danger of going out at any time.