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.