A new social network makes an old bet: That we want to hear from rich people

Peter Thiel is claimed as an early backer of Column, a new social network.

But do people care anymore what tech billionaires have to say?


Billionaires have enormous influence in American society, whether we like it or not. Do they really need another bullhorn for talking to the non-billionaire public?
That’s one of the core questions surrounding Column, a work-in-progress social network that seems to be centered on leveraging the aphorisms of Silicon Valley billionaires (think Peter Thiel, Marc Benioff) to win attention from fans of the megarich.

Column is a proposal for a “democratized” version of a social media platform like Facebook, where influential people like Thiel — who Column has claimed as a backer — can spread their thoughts to the masses who sign up to join forums that they organize.

Here in the United States of America, we’ve got a long history of being fascinated by our country’s billionaires. We want to know what they eat for breakfast, what they drive, and the square footage of their homes.
But most importantly, we want to know how we can be like them. Their oft-identical, news-free, live-like-me biographies — books with titles like Donald Trump’s Think Like A Billionaire: Everything You Need to Know About Success, Real Estate or Life — sell well at bookstores and airports. These titans pitch themselves as thought leaders, offering a message in commencement speeches, on the conference circuit, and on Twitter as not just our wealthiest people but also our smartest.
But I don’t know if we hang on the words of the ultrarich the way we once did. America is reckoning with a billionaire class that exacerbates income inequality. Their philanthropic giving leaves a lot to be desired. Their political control over both parties now prompts questions on the campaign trail about whether they should even exist. And studies have shown that we feel as badly about billionaires today as we did during the depths of the 2008 financial crisis.
That’s what makes Column such a controversial, even antiquated bet. It operates on an assumption that billionaires remain, in effect, some of the original influencers. The service was widely mocked online yesterday after news of it first broke.
Even as they are publicly denigrated, privately the billionaires’ blessing is still strategically sought.
“We’re not targeting any billionaire. We’re targeting the public intellectual billionaire who stands for something,” Cone told me. “They’re not content producers, but they are similar to content producers in that they create a very distinct community around them.”
Yes, some of today’s robber barons have followings: Thiel, who was listed as an initial backer of Column but is now expected to withdraw his financial support for now, has a legion of young, libertarian acolytes who see him as a role model. Benioff has developed a routine as a pitchman for a new era of capitalism, with a generation of civic-minded leaders who eat up his big-hearted vision for government and business working together.
“I think a lot of billionaires’ thoughts are not important, and I think a lot of poor people’s thoughts are not important,” Cone says. “If you’re a poor mom making $20,000 in Akron and you can describe your thoughts in words,” she continued, “we want you on the network.”
Now, though, that network is imperiled. Cone said she planned to launch Column in about two months, but ironically, the new social network will lack much of the billionaire support that has so far defined it because of the early deck describing Column that leaked online and drew ridicule to Column.
“None of the billionaires in the world are talking to me anymore,” said Cone, who stresses she didn’t leak the deck. “They’re all incredibly worried about they brands and their lives and the risks — and they don’t want to talk with someone they can’t trust.”