David Heinemeier Hansson

March 10, 2022

The silent majority's reply

When so much of the American political discourse and agenda is being set and performed on Twitter, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking this forum accurately represents the voice of the people. But not only do the majority of people in the US never tweet, they're also increasingly disconnecting from party affiliations. Here's a quippy summary from Axios:

Most people you meet in everyday life — at work, in the neighborhood — are decent and normal. Even nice. But hit Twitter or watch the news, and you'd think we were all nuts and nasty. 75% of people in the U.S. never tweet, Independents would be the biggest party.

These facts are solidly confirmed by media consumption. Joe Rogan's independent podcast is vastly more popular than even the most popular weeknight primetime show on the biggest cable news channel (Fox News). Even Russell Brand brings more viewers to his daily commentary show on YouTube than MSNBC can muster for their weeknight primetime shows.

This reality, as Axios puts it, of "decent and normal" people not expressing their preferences on the big topics online means they appear silent. Until suddenly they reveal their big stick as a belated reply, and the commentariat is surprised by the force.

Look at the debate over critical race theory, anti-racism, wokeness, or whatever you want to call what's going on in some American schools. The push to redistribute admissions away from Asian Americans at elite public schools to other minorities that are deemed under represented. Or the push to rename schools in San Francisco with the names of historical figures that are being accused of racism, like Abraham Lincoln.

If you only took the pulse of these debates, especially in the beginning of either phenomenon, on Twitter, you'd be convinced that both causes were very popular. That forum was full of proponents of these policies, and nearly void of opponents.

But then came the reply.

First in Virginia, where the silent majority of parents opposed to the school policy changes managed to swing a solidly Democrat state red in the governor's race by electing Republican Glenn Youngkin.

Then in San Francisco, where an unheard of 70%+ of voters recalled three school board members who were seen as being focused on these divisive policy changes instead of, as major London Breed noted, "[being focused] on the essentials of delivering a well-run school system above all else".

Or how about the clash over whether Chapelle should be allowed to perform his comedy in specials on Netflix. For a while, Twitter was ablaze with indignation, calls for cancelations, and there were even a few small protests at the company headquarter. What was the silent majority's reply to this outrage? To keep watching Chapelle and to keep subscribing to Netflix.

Same story at Spotify, which dominated several news cycles over Joe Rogan's supposed transgressions around pandemic discourse. That even got a few old rockers to pull their music. And the reply? Even more people listening to Rogan, no real blip in the subscription business for Spotify.

None of this is a verdict on the virtue or not of these activist campaigns against Chapelle or Rogan, Netflix or Spotify. You can make up your own mind about that. What's interesting is to look at the silent majority's reply. In politics they vote with their ballot, in commerce they vote with their wallet.

Now it's fair to be suspect of those voting wallets. Especially in realms dominated by monopoly power. Even if someone disliked something Apple or Google did, it's very difficult to switch ecosystems (and there are only two choices anyway!). But streaming music and streaming video? Two of the most competitive arenas on the internet! Scarcely any friction in hopping from Spotify to Apple Music or from Netflix to Amazon Video or HBO or whatever.

Same story within the world of developers. GitHub took tremendous heat for a while for keeping their contract with the American immigration authorities during the Trump years. How many developers moved their projects in protest to GitLab or some other source repository? I can't even recall one. Today you really have to look to find folks expressing this old grudge, even though I believe the contract is still ongoing, but I guess the agency is now under different political management so 🤷‍♂️.

You could run the same argument with Coinbase or Shopify and their respective controversies. The loud minority loom impossibly large for a brief moment in history, and then change or not comes on the basis of the silent majority's reply.


About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.