The elephant and the mouse

October 20, 2015

Over the past week I witnessed one of the most uncomfortable and unpleasant controversies of the past few months unfold before my very eyes, and it’s left me feeling uneasy ever since.

On October 13th, precisely one week ago to the day, Marco Arment published an explanatory piece, titled “Pragmatic app pricing”, on the reasons behind his change of business model for Overcast 2.0. You should go read it now if you still haven’t, because the rest of this article largely hinges on what you make of Marco’s words from that piece. Here’s a relevant fragment:

Similar reasoning as last year guided me on this year’s model:

  • I’m not doing anything that other developers can’t do.

  • Nobody is entitled to keep their market share, including me. It’s a constant battle to get and keep customers in a crowded market, and I need to ensure that I don’t fall behind.

  • My previous headlining features are being implemented by more competitors, and this will only increase over time.

Some might say those are the words of a smart businessman doing what he needs to do in order to give his app the best possible chance at long term success. There’s a bit of nuance to that argument, but in my opinion those people would be mostly right. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Other people, however, might argue that Marco’s piece is uncharacteristically defensive and somehow feels off right from the start. They would be right, too.

Both groups have a point, but admittedly I’m leaning more towards the latter. I can’t help but feel that Marco’s second post was unnecessary, mostly because he had already explained his reasons for the change when he announced Overcast 2.0, back on October 9th. This is what he wrote then (emphasis his):

80% of my customers were using an inferior app. The limited, locked version of Overcast without the purchase sure wasn’t the version I used, it wasn’t a great experience, and it wasn’t my best work.

With Overcast 2.0, I’ve changed that by unlocking everything, for everyone, for free. I’d rather have you using Overcast for free than not using it at all, and I want everyone to be using the good version of Overcast.

That right there is all the explanation anyone needed. Of course, many were left wanting to know more, but here’s the thing: we’re not entitled to know any more than Marco feels comfortable sharing with us at any given time. All good businessmen keep a few cards close to their chest because, guess what, that’s how the game is played.

As Elbert Hubbard once said:

Never explain — your friends do not need it and you enemies will not believe you anyway.

What, then, compelled Marco to write and publish his explanatory piece? He’s a smart man, surely he must have known he stood to gain very little from elaborating any further than he already had, right?

I don’t think Marco had a problem with people judging his business decisions, it’s the implied character judgement that goes with it that got to him. The notion that, even if it made sense from a business standpoint, his actions were somehow ethically wrong, and what that says about him as a person.

When you’re attacked on a personal level, defending yourself is an instinctive reaction. And so he did.

However, the more you explain yourself, the more opportunities you give people to poke holes in your narrative. And when someone does so successfully and others seem to agree, the feeling of being under attack only intensifies, as does the instinct to respond in kind.

Samantha Bielefeld was one of those people. On October 14th, she published a piece on her blog, titled The Elephant in the Room, where she thoroughly dissected Marco’s argument from the day before. Again, if you haven’t read her piece, you definitely should.

Samantha made the perfectly valid point that no, what Marco is doing is not something any developer could successfully do, and is instead made possible by the privileged position — totally earned, but privileged nonetheless — he occupies in the iOS development scene.

That’s a fair point, even if it was made somewhat harshly. There was one particular section in her piece that many considered in poor taste, where she discussed Marco’s finances. This was unfortunate, mostly because it wasn’t really necessary to make her point, and all it achieved was polarizing many people against her. You see, for all the talk about transparency and honesty on the web, nobody likes to talk about actual money.

It may have been an unfortunate move — and she admitted as much — but it shouldn’t detract from the validity of her point. Marco does, in fact, enjoy a position most iOS developers can only dream of and as such, the opportunities available to him and the impact of his actions in the community cannot in good faith be compared to those of the vast majority of indie developers out there.

The legitimacy of Marco’s position was never in doubt, mind you: Samantha explicitly acknowledged that he has earned every bit of his success, and I have enjoyed and admired his work for years, ever since I first installed Instapaper on my iPhone 3G.

It’s been a long road, but it’s only fair to acknowledge that Marco’s stature as an indie developer has grown dramatically since the early days of the App Store. Whenever he does or even says something these days, there’s a ripple effect that can be felt throughout the entire community. With many thousands of well-deserved customers, followers, readers, and listeners, he is very much the elephant in the room now, as Phil Schiller so adequately put it.

And yet, even something as big as an elephant can feel threatened by a mouse.

Perhaps that explains why Marco felt the need to respond to Samantha, instead of merely ignoring her. We’ll never know what would have happened if Marco had just gone on with his day instead of engaging her, but count me in with Ben Brooks: if past Internet history is any indication, I believe the whole thing would have probably died out without causing much trouble for him.

But he did engage her, and so the storm began. What followed was perhaps one of the most uncomfortable and, frankly, appalling public exchanges I’ve seen in a long time.

Samantha initially held her ground, no doubt emboldened by conviction in her argument. She may have felt strong against Marco, but at the end of the day she remained a mouse, and Marco an elephant. Their relative strengths were never equal, and so when Marco’s followers joined in the fight, it was all over for Samantha. Any hopes she may have had that her point would be fairly considered went out the window the minute the @-replies and emails started coming in, and every minute Marco and the rest of his high-profile Twitter friends stood there and watched — if not actively encouraged it — made matters much worse.

Of course, the aforementioned passage where Samantha discussed Marco’s income didn’t do her any favors, and soon the whole conversation centered exclusively around that, ignoring her greater point and giving everyone an excuse to have a bit of fun at her expense. Then it became a matter of joking about Marco’s money and/or popularity, something I’m afraid I’m also guilty of.1

But it wasn’t all fun, certainly not for Samantha. Soon after the jokes, the threats started coming in. And that’s just something you don’t let happen, whether you’re responsible for it or not. If you have an inkling at all that something like this is going on around you, it is your obligation — your responsibility even, as Matt Gemmell put it — to try and put an end to it any way you can. Which is why Marco’s silence during all this was, and continues to be, so deafening.2

I know none of this will probably make a difference — I am, after all, just another little mouse in a world filled with elephants with much louder voices — but I do want to make my position clear to my readers. I don’t want to remain silent or ambiguous on this; I think it’s the very least I can do.

If you’re harassing Samantha over something as petty and inconsequential as this, you seriously need to stop. It’s not something any civilized person should ever do, and there’s no scenario where such actions could possibly be justified. So, please, just stop.

I love Marco’s work, and have the utmost respect for him as a developer. In my opinion, he is in the wrong here, and though I could perhaps understand the reasons behind his actions, that doesn’t justify them in any way. I do hope he reconsiders and publicly calls upon his followers to stop such a horrible behavior immediately.

As for Samantha, I’m sorry my unfortunate tweet contributed to the misdirection that was going on, even if it was unwittingly. I hope she continues to write and speak her mind, because I’ve genuinely enjoyed reading her words. Great, honest writing is too scarce a resource these days, and I definitely hope she sticks around.

This was all deeply regrettable, and it should have been handled much better by everyone involved, myself included. There’s still time to make things right, though, but now the ball is in Marco’s court. I just hope he picks it up before it’s too late.

  1. 1) Yes, that typo will haunt me forever. 2) In my defense, I have to say I had no idea what was going on then, which should tell you just how effectively the noise created by Marco’s followers managed to drown out Samantha’s initial point.

  2. Much to his credit, John Siracusa did publicly ask his followers to stop harassing Samantha.