Five Questions With Jeff Berman (Public Defender Turned Kardashian App Builder)
I met Jeff Berman during my YouTube years. He was an exec at MySpace and we were probably talking about a host of different partnership-type ideas that I don’t believe went very far. Fortunate for me, the collaboration of our friendship has been more enduring. Jeff is huge brain, huge heart, huge presence. Involved across a variety of commercial and non-profit efforts, he’s quick to volunteer his help and always lives up to his words. It gives me great pleasure to introduce you to him as well via Five Questions.
Hunter Walk: You’ve got a perfect “dinner party” background — begins as a public defender, then Counsel to Senator Chuck Schumer. Transitions to social media with MySpace at their peak, and then, um, the less peak part. Then working with capital T talent at the NFL and helping the Kardashians create their digital empire. If someone just looked at your resume, what narrative do you think it tells?
Jeff Berman: Well it certainly seems random. And it definitely wasn’t planned. The reality is I made the leap from law, politics, and policy to the intersection of media, tech, and commerce because I fell in love and moved to LA to be with my wife. That required a hard reboot of my career. Over time, I realized one of the core skills I’ve learned across these industries is how to build teams capable of attacking problems that don’t have obvious solutions. I’ve also learned that I’m best when I have 14 plates spinning and 18 balls in the air at once. So I’m drawn to opportunities full of those challenges.
HW: Having been at MySpace 2006–2009 do you have empathy today for what Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are trying to solve (safety and abuse, manipulation)? Do you think regulation should play more of a role in guiding their forward plans?
JB: There’s a degree to which I have empathy and a degree to which I’m exasperated.
There’s a lot of grey in this. You have unwitting bad actors who should not be banned from platforms because of the honest mistakes they make or because they adhere to fringe ideologies which, while often odious, have a legitimate place in the public square. It is exceedingly difficult to establish clear policies to deal with that grey. So there’s empathy.
You also have a set of repeat bad actors where the only logical conclusion is that they intend to spread disinformation — where it’s patently obvious their mission is to sow hatred, fear, and division. Those parties are actively attempting to subvert our democracy and the platforms aren’t doing nearly enough to stop them. So there’s exasperation.
More broadly, this speaks to these corporations re-evaluating where stakeholders sit relative to shareholders. Reid Hoffman is among those who have argued that at a certain point in a company’s lifecycle, society becomes a key stakeholder. The major platforms are undoubtedly at that stage and their missions, values, policies, staffing, and investments need to reflect that. They have a long long way to go.
This only gets fixed when it’s properly prioritized by the CEO. Even then, it cannot be solved by algorithm alone.
You need clearly articulated policies and human beings exercising actual judgment in the process. You cannot be paralyzed by fear that your judgment may be criticized. It will be. And sometimes legitimately because your judgment will be imperfect. But it will be a heck of a lot better than it is today.
On the regulation front, there’s good and there’s bad. When I went to MySpace, Chris DeWolfe, our co-founder and CEO, made safety a company-wide priority and we owned up to what we were doing poorly. Then we proactively worked with Congress, state legislatures, state attorneys general, public interest organizations, and others to develop internal policies, promulgate best practices, and partner to craft regulation that would help protect customers without strangling business. That’s the best scenario.
Unfortunately, there come times when an industry is being irresponsible and facilitating such harm that government has to step in and act. Regulation can have major unintended negative consequences so it’s generally best when government can work with industry and public interest groups to craft solutions everyone buys into. I’m a born optimist and my hope is that as governments move to regulate the platforms, everyone will get onboard to craft the best solutions.
I’m also a realist and, like it or not, regulation is coming.
If industry won’t participate collaboratively and constructively and if we keep heading in this direction, that regulation is increasingly likely to be draconian.
HW: Whalerock, where you were President, is one of those stories where millions and millions of consumers have touched your products — such as the Kardashian apps — but probably never heard of the company itself. What did you do over there and how did it influence your understanding of what “influencer” means today?
JB: I’ve been incredibly fortunate to see how brands are built in a number of different contexts — politics, music, sports, celebrity, and even law. There are those who say that brand is dead in the age of Amazon. I would argue that reports of brand death are greatly exaggerated.
Identity is a core element of humanity and how we align with (or against) brands speaks to who we are. The music we listen to, the shows we watch, the teams we root for, the clothes we wear, the campaign bumper stickers on our cars, even the food we eat — these are all examples of how brands help us express identity. This is especially the case in the era of ubiquitous photo taking and social media.
The paradox of the current era is that it’s never been easier to build a brand (because the traditional gatekeepers have been swamped by the Internet) while it’s never been harder to build a brand (because it’s never been more crowded). At Whalerock, we were working with creative talent (you can call them influencers) who could organically break through the noise while working to build businesses that leveraged both the traditional and new worlds of media and commerce.
HW: Now you’re on to Magnet — I know you want to keep this answer high level (we’ll do a follow-up once the covers get pulled off), but what is it and why are the three of you working on it together?
JB: The next generation of great brands and businesses will be built on three pillars: content (watch, read, listen), community (engage, share, identify), and commerce (buy). My partners and I have all worked with transformational creative talent to do versions of this before and we came together with a very smart, very patient financing partner who agreed that the best way to do this in the 2020s will be a hybrid of venture and private equity. So we are set up to buy, invest in, and start businesses that will pull all this together. That’s about all we’ll say for now. More to come.
HW: You’re active in progressive politics — do you think the Democrats 2020 race will be about a person or a platform? That is, will the party’s platform ultimately be decided by whichever candidate catches momentum, or will the question of “centrist” vs “leftist” be answered first, and then a candidate selected from that ideological group?
JB: Modern politics really started in 1960 when television came into the mix. Since then, almost without fail, we have elected the president we more prefer in our living rooms. Social media only makes that relationship feel more intimate — for this new era, we are now more prone to elect the president we want two feet from our faces. We want an authentic and passionate communicator who says things that make us feel something real.
There’s a policy baseline, of course. But ultimately, it’s far less likely to be about which version of expanded health care she/he supports; it’s far more likely to be about whether we feel the candidate is genuinely committed to — and can communicate why we must have — high-quality, affordable, widely accessible health care.
At the beginning, middle, and end of the day, it’s about nominating someone who captures the energy of the moment not just to turn the page, but to start a whole new book. It cannot happen soon enough.
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