The pettiest tech moments of 2021

This year was full of shade-laden tweets and not one, but two ego trips to space.

Photos of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos under a sprig of mistletoe that's on fire.

The tech sector saw its fair share of drama in 2021, and so very much of it was downright petty.

Photoillustration: Getty Images; Protocol

Click banner image for more holiday coverage for 2021

Billionaire beef. Redditor revenge. A melee in Miami. The tech sector saw its fair share of drama in 2021, and so very much of it was downright petty.

At their core, at least some of these moments have revolved around deeply serious issues. The future of space travel! Facebook’s impact on kids! Worker protections! But it’s the particularly shade-laden way some of the players involved have engaged — think Twitter trolls and conveniently timed photo ops — that landed them on this list.

Here’s a look at the year’s pettiest moments in tech:

Billionaires race to space

Jeff Bezos announced in June that he planned to hitch a ride to space on one of his own Blue Origin rockets and launched an auction to take one lucky (and überwealthy) winner with him. The Blue Origin flight was set to take off July 20, which would have made Bezos the first billionaire to blast himself into space on his own rocket. Then Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson stole his thunder, speeding up his own plans for takeoff and hopping aboard his own flight a full nine days before Bezos.

Rescheduling a flight to space just to beat your professional nemesis would be petty enough, but it didn’t end there. Days before Branson’s flight, Blue Origin put out a series of tweets arguing that, actually, Branson wasn’t even flying high enough for it to be considered space. “Only 4% of the world recognizes a lower limit of 80 km or 50 miles as the beginning of space. New Shepard flies above both boundaries,” it read. “One of the many benefits of flying with Blue Origin.”

Musk gives Bezos a medal

The Branson v. Bezos battle almost seems quaint compared to the mudslinging between Bezos and Elon Musk this year. The two billionaires have been waging a war not just over NASA contracts, but also their competing ambitions to launch constellations of satellites.

But none of that is what earned them this dubious distinction. This high honor stems instead from a single October tweet, in which Bezos shared a Barron’s article from 1999 that called him “just another middleman.”

“This was just one of the many stories telling us all the ways we were going to fail. Today, Amazon is one of the world’s most successful companies and has revolutionized two entirely different industries,” Bezos wrote.

It would have been another moment of cringey self-congratulation from the second richest man in the world, except that it happened to capture the attention of the most rich man in the world, who replied, simply:


Facebook heckles Haugen

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen had Congress rapt with her disclosures about the company’s impact on teen girls, misinformation and democracy itself. Her testimony in early October followed weeks of reporting by The Wall Street Journal on the internal documents she shared and a prime time appearance on "60 Minutes."

But rather than apologize and vow to do better, Facebook took the low road and went on the attack against Haugen herself. In a statement the day of her Congressional appearance, Facebook policy communications director Lena Pietsch called Haugen “a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports [and] never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives.”

It was basically “you’re a virgin who can’t drive,” but run through legal. Way harsh, Facebook.

Miami Tech Week v. Miami Tech Week

Things got extra hot in Miami this spring when a bunch of tech bros from Founders Fund traveled to the Sunshine State to check out the local tech scene. They declared their little adventure Miami Tech Week. But that name had already been taken for a decade by local entrepreneur Auston Bunsen, who’d been running his own Miami Tech Week for years.

Bunsen wrote a blog post about the “bizarro” experience of having his city and his event coopted by a bunch of Silicon Valley interlopers who declared it theirs. Delian Asparouhov of Founders Fund responded to the post, accusing Bunsen of having “beta energy,” which Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian replied to with a simple “shut the fuck up.”

The attack of the meme stock

Is there anything more petty than marshaling an army of anonymous strangers on the internet to exact financial ruin on people who would dare bet against your favorite childhood mall haunt?

That’s pretty much exactly what r/WallStreetBets did to hedge funders who shorted GameStop earlier this year. And it wasn't particularly subtle about it. "FOR ALL THE BIG FUCKING HEDGE FUNDS MONITORING US, THIS IS A MESSAGE FROM US TO YOU, WE FUCKING OWN YOU NOW, FUCK. YOU,” read one top post on the subreddit in January.

Meme stock mania got a lot of people in trouble — not least of all, leaders at Robinhood, who have had to fend off lawsuits and explain its lack of preparedness during that time to Congress. But as petty revenge campaigns go, it was a pretty powerful one.

Yes or No?

Robinhood execs weren’t the only ones forced to appear before Congress this year. Jack Dorsey was there, too, answering for Twitter’s role in the 2020 U.S. election. Dorsey came defiant, defending Twitter’s decision to ban former President Trump for life and often dodging yes or no questions from lawmakers, much to their frustration.

Then in the middle of the hearing, Dorsey tweeted out a poll.



The tweet didn’t go unnoticed. “Mr. Dorsey, what is winning — yes or no — on your Twitter poll?” asked Rep. Kathleen Rice upon catching Dorsey in the act.

The always prim and — we now know — occasionally petty Dorsey answered monosyllabically, “Yes.”

Mark and Sheryl take a walk

The New York Times published an extensive report this summer on the fraying relationship between Mark Zuckerberg and his second-in-command, Sheryl Sandberg. It argued the Trump era had been hard on their partnership and included an old photo of the way things were — the two leaders strolling side by side through Sun Valley, Idaho in 2014.

The story landed in July, when Zuckerberg and Sandberg once again found themselves in Sun Valley for its annual tech conference. And what did they do in response? Took another stroll, of course. How were they supposed to know there was a gaggle of photographers right there just waiting to snap another shot of their, of course, completely spontaneous and authentic united front?

Amazon’s Pee-R tweet

In March, Sen. Bernie Sanders traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to meet with Amazon workers who were trying to unionize. Amazon executive Dave Clark shared a news article about it on Twitter, writing, “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace.” (Disclosure: My husband works at Amazon.)

A shade petty, perhaps, but not the stuff of end-of-year roundups. What brings us here is what happened next. Congressman Mark Pocan of Wisconsin clapped back at Clark, tweeting that you can’t be a progressive employer when you “make workers urinate in bottles,” to which Amazon’s News account replied with what has to be the most regrettable tweet of its existence: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?”

It feels a little wrong to include this on the list, as worker conditions are nothing to joke about. But damn, that was a petty way to respond. Unfortunately for Amazon, the tweet became a case study in the Streisand effect and only drew more attention to the fact that yes, actually, workers do sometimes pee in bottles — something Amazon itself was finally forced to admit.

Roku rides the anti-Google wave

Back in April, Roku pulled YouTube TV from its channel store, charging Google with “attempting to use its YouTube monopoly position to force Roku into accepting predatory, anti-competitive and discriminatory terms” in contract negotiations. The decision was very public, capitalized on a surge in antitrust activity and was announced months before the existing contract ran out.

Google argued Roku executives were just being poor sports. "Despite our best efforts to come to an agreement in the best interests of our mutual users, Roku terminated our deal in bad faith amidst our negotiation,” YouTube wrote in a blog post.

This one, at least, has a happy ending. In early December, days before the contract ran out, the two companies reached a multi-year deal.

And that, kids, is How the Google Saved Christmas.

@pmarca blocks @jack

This one snuck in at the eleventh hour, but was so completely petty, we couldn't leave it off our list. After stepping down as CEO of Twitter and committing his life to Bitcoin, Dorsey embarked on a Twitter tirade against Web3, warning, "You don't own 'web3.' The VCs and their LPs do." The tweet prompted a backlash from just about every Web3 believer, including Andreessen Horowitz partner Chris Dixon.


To which Dorsey responded, "You’re a fund determined to be a media empire that can’t be ignored…not Gandhi." It's hard to say if that's what did it, or if it was one of Dorsey's many other tweets on the subject, but within a few days, the fracas earned Dorsey perhaps the pettiest honor on the internet: A block from Mark Andreessen.


Bah humbug!

Climate

A pro-China disinformation campaign is targeting rare earth miners

It’s uncommon for cyber criminals to target private industry. But a new operation has cast doubt on miners looking to gain a foothold in the West in an apparent attempt to protect China’s upper hand in a market that has become increasingly vital.

It is very uncommon for coordinated disinformation operations to target private industry, rather than governments or civil society, a cybersecurity expert says.

Photo: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just when we thought the renewable energy supply chains couldn’t get more fraught, a sophisticated disinformation campaign has taken to social media to further complicate things.

Known as Dragonbridge, the campaign has existed for at least three years, but in the last few months it has shifted its focus to target several mining companies “with negative messaging in response to potential or planned rare earths production activities.” It was initially uncovered by cybersecurity firm Mandiant and peddles narratives in the Chinese interest via its network of thousands of fake social media accounts.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Some of the most astounding tech-enabled advances of the next decade, from cutting-edge medical research to urban traffic control and factory floor optimization, will be enabled by a device often smaller than a thumbnail: the memory chip.

While vast amounts of data are created, stored and processed every moment — by some estimates, 2.5 quintillion bytes daily — the insights in that code are unlocked by the memory chips that hold it and transfer it. “Memory will propel the next 10 years into the most transformative years in human history,” said Sanjay Mehrotra, president and CEO of Micron Technology.

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Ripple’s CEO threatens to leave the US if it loses SEC case

CEO Brad Garlinghouse said a few countries have reached out to Ripple about relocating.

"There's no doubt that if the SEC doesn't win their case against us that that is good for crypto in the United States,” Brad Garlinghouse told Protocol.

Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse said the crypto company will move to another country if it loses in its legal battle with the SEC.

Garlinghouse said he’s confident that Ripple will prevail against the federal regulator, which accused the company of failing to register roughly $1.4 billion in XRP tokens as securities.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Policy

The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling is bad news for tech regulation, too

The justices just gave themselves a lot of discretion to smack down agency rules.

The ruling could also endanger work on competition issues by the FTC and net neutrality by the FCC.

Photo: Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision last week gutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions didn’t just signal the conservative justices’ dislike of the Clean Air Act at a moment of climate crisis. It also served as a warning for anyone that would like to see more regulation of Big Tech.

At the heart of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in West Virginia v. EPA was a codification of the “major questions doctrine,” which, he wrote, requires “clear congressional authorization” when agencies want to regulate on areas of great “economic and political significance.”

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Enterprise

Microsoft and Google are still using emotion AI, but with limits

Microsoft said accessibility goals overrode problems with emotion recognition and Google offers off-the-shelf emotion recognition technology amid growing concern over the controversial AI.

Emotion recognition is a well established field of computer vision research; however, AI-based technologies used in an attempt to assess people’s emotional states have moved beyond the research phase.

Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft said last month it would no longer provide general use of an AI-based cloud software feature used to infer people’s emotions. However, despite its own admission that emotion recognition technology creates “risks,” it turns out the company will retain its emotion recognition capability in an app used by people with vision loss.

In fact, amid growing concerns over development and use of controversial emotion recognition in everyday software, both Microsoft and Google continue to incorporate the AI-based features in their products.

“The Seeing AI person channel enables you to recognize people and to get a description of them, including an estimate of their age and also their emotion,” said Saqib Shaikh, a software engineering manager and project lead for Seeing AI at Microsoft who helped build the app, in a tutorial about the product in a 2017 Microsoft video.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins