For 20 minutes or so today, Gmail was unavailable, and a million corny tweets flitted in and out of white-collar attention spans. Among them was a short, subtle, teasing message from Yahoo!, ribbing its chief corporate competitor with a simple notice that "Gmail is temporarily unavailable" and a screenshot of an error message. Hours later, it apologized. This is pathetic.
Companies have competitors. If they don't, the government usually intervenes, because that's usually what we call a monopoly. Google is a competitor of Yahoo!, and vice versa. Yahoo! tries very hard to be better than Google in the various businesses both corporations conduct—Yahoo! wants Yahoo! Mail to be better than Gmail, and so on. You could call this a rivalry, and you would be right—this is a competition that's gone on for a long, long time.
There are probably some people at Yahoo! who really hate Google's guts. That's fine. Rivalries do that to people. Sometimes thinking your rival is a real jerk will motivate you to be better. It's healthy emotional response.
We know there are few things Silicon Valley fails harder at than mustering normal human emotional responses to anything. And so we have this:
A lame, lifeless apology over a non-event, the sort of I'm sorry you issue when your gym teacher forces you to stick out your tiny sticky hand after you tripped someone. It was insincere, of course—and rightfully so, because Yahoo! did nothing wrong. No one was offended. No one took umbrage. Yahoo!'s email joke was a tepid ribbing in the middle of the day to entertain bored office workers—nothing more.
But because Silicon Valley is so deeply mired in smarm, this sort of internet glad-handing and witless back-patting is status quo. When rival investors close deals with startups, they congratulate each other in saccharine shows of faux-friendship. When Microsoft and Sony launched their new game consoles, they congratulated each other via social media, to the great adulation of gaming bloggers. Startup founders are continuously congratulating their peers (and rivals!) on new ventures, no matter how shitty or pointless, because of some overwhelming sense of being in it together. We don't need more rudeness for its own sake, but the sickening compulsion to be sportsmanlike is as cloying in tech, an outrageously cutthroat industry, as anywhere else in America. Uber's corporate ethos is cutthroat asshole-ism, to kill the competition dead at any cost. It's fucked up, but that is the spirit of Silicon Valley, and of capitalism.
So, fucking enough. Microsoft and Sony wake up each morning wanting nothing more than to annihilate one another. Yahoo! has no deeper desire than to scrape Google away from the surface of the Earth, to plunder its ranks, to siphon its users, and it generally kick its ass from atop the victor's hill. Good! They should! Google is much better at what they both do!
So, Marissa Mayer is free to send a strangely blunt, company-wide email firing her right-hand man, but that kind of sincerity is reserved for her post alone, it appears. Fire a man before thousands, but God forbid anyone sends an impolitic tweet. The techno-cult of changing the world can only handle so much honesty in a 12-month span.
Art by Jim Cooke