the physiognomy of the startup

I’ve spent most of my adult life looking for significance in patterns and tropes, whether in words on a page or tailed logfiles on a terminal, motivated by a common goal: what is going on here?

In that spirit, I present to you the six-customer coin-arbitraging borderline-self-parody Washboard, apotheosis of laundry revolutionaries; the Bostonian meatpuppet haulage service Bridj; and the peer-to-peer tarmac tout Monkey Parking.

A few examples don’t make a trend. These companies are minuscule: the internet magnifies them, and fleeting attention turns them into the Thing of the Day. But there are patterns in the shared web templates, the Vimeo promos, the notable quotables from the people in charge.[1] It’s a sense of performance, of self-conscious or semi-conscious adaptation to perceived norms, the kind of thing we’ve seen before on a smaller scale with the dutiful homogenisation of Kickstarter project pitches.

It reminds me of the late eighteenth-century study of gesture and posture, the Age of Sentiment’s attempt to construe a universal language of raised eyebrows and bent elbows, grounded in a Newtonian sense of concordance between outward expression and inward emotion. Smile yourself happy; learn how you’re feeling by looking in a mirror; bring tears to an audience by projecting the appropriate gestures from the stage. That interest ultimately evolved into the pseudosciences of physiognomy and phrenology, where the flexibility of gesture gives way to a notion of character carved into the body.

If you think you know what a startup’s founder should look like, and have power and money behind you, then you might make a truth of it. If you think you can divine a company’s character from the way it sells itself, and believe that it represents the future because there’s a smartphone app, then you have the capacity to make it so.

Action slips into enactment: emulation, in the name of disruption.

[1] Douglas Wolk wrote somewhere (and I badly paraphrase) that bad records reveal more about musical genres than good ones, because they’re attempts to produce a successful example of that genre or movement or mood, and their failures lay bare the assumptions about those templates.