The empire strikes back

“2018 will be the year in which everyone in technology is obliged to look in the mirror and ask themselves not just whether their intentions are good enough, but whether their actions are strong enough.”

Last year, I declared that 2017 would be The Year of the Rebelpreneur. I believed that the seeds of the next great media institutions would be planted in 2017 — when things looked darker for our democracy than they had looked in a long time — by courageous entrepreneurs who made the leap to build ventures that speak truth to power, close the massive empathy gap that we have in this country, and take a radically inclusive approach to amplifying the voices of all people.

Rebelpreneurs — both outside and inside media institutions — have heeded the call to strengthen our media ecosystem. Journalists have never been stronger in the face of unprecedented political, cultural, and economic aggression. They have doggedly investigated a corrupt administration to the brink of collapse, and they have taken down men in power who have proven they don’t have the moral or ethical standing to continue to hold it. And readers who value quality journalism have stepped up and rewarded journalists for their good work by becoming subscribers in record numbers.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are taking big swings at solving some of the industry’s deepest problems. They are building more secure communication tools for journalists. They are amplifying voices that have been marginalized by the mainstream. They are finding new ways for facts to matter in a post-truth world. They are creating new ways for people to more deeply empathize with each other through new visual media. They are leveraging open data to build a more informed society and to hold those with power accountable at scale. And they are experimenting with new monetization models for journalists and other content creators.

The good work is being done. The Force is strong. But, in 2018, the Empire will strike back.

The competitive landscape for upstarts and innovators will, unfortunately, become much harder. Net neutrality is on the brink of extinction. Facebook, Amazon, and Google continue to build up that are harder and harder for new entrants and old media institutions to overcome. And the core values of a democratic society will continue to be chipped away until what was once considered abhorrent behavior will now be considered “just the way it is,” because we become more tired and less shocked every single day.

The work of Rebelpreneurs — from each and every position in society — will be harder and more important than ever.

In tech, the last year has starkly shown us that while technology can be leveraged for massive good, it can also be leveraged for massive evil. While we’ve built products with the intention of making the world a better place, it takes more than good intentions to make positive change.

2018 will be the year in which everyone in technology is obliged to look in the mirror and ask themselves not just whether their intentions are good enough, but whether their actions are strong enough. Some of this self-reflection will come through forced means, as the investigations into the platforms’ roles in allowing their content marketing engines to be weaponized will see more light of day. But much of it will also come from leaders in all parts of our industry who consciously make the choice to do a gut check on whether their company is making the long-term choices it needs to make to truly build a more informed, empathetic, and inclusive society.

They’ll need to make some tough, uncomfortable stands within their own organizations to ensure they choose a strategy that will build a stronger democracy. They’ll need to look beyond advertising at scale to deeper, more honest relationships with their users. They’ll need to finally realize that they are the very definition of a modern media company.

Those who take the long view will suffer short-term setbacks in quarterly financial performance, but they’ll set their companies on a track that builds valuable long-term equity and will establish themselves as critical institutions that amplify our democratic values and norms.

2018 will be the year when each and every one of us has to choose. Will we take the easy path and roll with it when the empire strikes back? Or will we choose to make a stand? To be uncomfortable. To risk short-term failure for immortal success. To be a Rebelpreneur.

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