Internet Etiquette: The Rights & Wrongs of Publicly Criticizing a Friend

Public arena vs private channels can be tricky. I’ve definitely been half-way done writing a blog post, only to delete or turn into an email upon realizing it would be more appropriate to handle offline. Publishing provides the opportunity for broader discussion/learning — you can make a case for common good — but sometimes at a cost by shining a harsher glare on a person.

Earlier this week Ben Horowitz of namesake VC firm a16z, wrote an analysis of Zynga’s recent management change. Called “Shared Command,” it blasted the way founder Mark Pincus and incoming exec Don Mattrick intended to divide responsibilities. Ben cautioned that he didn’t know the details but from all accounts it sounded like a terrible arrangement. As Ben wrote, “Mark reports to Don who reports to the board where Mark is Chairman. Who makes the final decision on products? If a product decision impacts revenue, who makes that decision?”

If you haven’t read “Shared Command” you really should. Typical of Ben’s writing it’s thoughtful, timely and about real people in real situations, not just hypotheticals. There’s no doubt that the tech community as a whole benefited from absorbing and considering his assertions. But something remained a little off for me, nagging while I finished it and then reviewed a second time. I realized it all tied back to the opening sentence.

“Zynga recently put a new management structure in place where Don Mattrick is the CEO and my friend Mark Pincus, the founder and former CEO, will be the Chairman of the Board and the Chief Product Officer.”

There it was. “My friend Mark.” Juxtaposed against the lack of a similar statement about Ben’s feelings towards Don, it suggested a direct personal tie between Ben and Mark. They are friends. As such I kept wondering why Ben didn’t just write this as an email and send directly to Mark or otherwise communicate his concerns privately? The Zynga management changes come at an important juncture for the company and certainly transitioning the CEO role is an emotional time for any leader. How does Mark benefit from having Ben publicly question the strategy while Zynga strives to improve investor sentiment? If the answer is “he doesn’t,” then did professional opportunity trump friendship?

Additionally, Ben published first on All Things D, then the next day on his blog. So that’s very much a sequence of events which suggests not only am I going to write something which could be viewed as critical, I’m going to maximize distribution.

At this point you might be thinking a two things:

a) Am I totally wrong about Ben’s motives and their implications

b) Aren’t I entering the same questionable territory that I speculate about Ben – publishing speculation that could have better been an email? [Hold aside the fact I don’t really know Ben personally.]

The answer to both is YES, which I why I decided to take the risk and make this public. In some ways it’s a lesser mirror image to the very question I wonder if Ben asked himself with regards to “Shared Command.”

Earlier this year I faced a similar situation in writing about the failure of video discovery startups. It was a stance I wanted to take for quite a while but needed to wait until I was no longer at YouTube. My reason was not to call out those who I thought were wasting their time but instead to get people building these companies to be thoughtful about their solutions. However I knew at least one friend – ShowYou CEO Mark Hall – was building a service I was essentially asserting would never be a big VC success. Since I was addressing a larger group of entrepreneurs than just Mark, I knew I wanted to publish the article, even if it bruised him a little. As a solution I approached him to write a response which I linked from my piece. I think our relationship is fine – maybe even stronger because of it.

So where do I end up on Ben and “Shared Command?” Left wondering was the message right but the medium wrong. It’s a situation I often consider myself – how to write thoughtfully but critically about people I consider to be a friend.

Update: Ben took the time to comment via LinkedIn

“Hunter, this is a good post and, to your point, I very nearly did not publish my post. Here’s why I did: – It was about shared command and not Zynga in that (as I pointed out in the post) I am not at all sure that the Zynga structure is actually going to be shared command. The Zynga anecdote made the post relevant, but certainly wasn’t the point and I think that the point is important. I’ve both worked in shared command structures and deployed them and they are never a good idea. I wish somebody would have said something a long time ago as it would have saved me quite a bit of grief. – If Zynga really is deploying shared command, then it’s hard for me to imagine this was Mark’s idea — shared command is almost always thrust upon you and never opted into — and the post will be helpful in assisting him to resolve what will become a far bigger problem than a blog post from me. Maybe all of that is wrong, but that’s how I thought about it.”