2014 LA Hacks Keynote

The following keynote was delivered by Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snapchat, during LA Hacks at Pauley Pavilion on April 11, 2014.

I am very grateful for your time and attention this evening. It is absolutely incredible to see so many young people gathered here together to build things. I really appreciate you including me.

People frequently ask me about the keys to success and I’ve always been a bit curious myself.

But it wasn’t until recently that I found the answer. I was fortunate enough to have my palm read by a wise old man in a Hong Kong temple. In addition to learning that I will be married and have a son before I am 30 - he also gave me the three keys to success.

They are as follows:

1. Hard Work

2. Ability

3. Human Relationships

Given that you are all here together at ten pm on a Friday night with the intention to work together for the next 36 hours - I don’t feel the need to elaborate on hard work or ability. You clearly have those in spades.

So what I am going to focus on here tonight are human relationships, not the kind that are developed by exchanging business cards or adding each other on LinkedIn, but the kind that are formed over time, through deep, passionate, and spirited conversation.

I thought I’d share something that we do at Snapchat that I learned at my high school, Crossroads, which they in turn borrowed from The Ojai Foundation - the practice of council. It may sound hokey to some of you, but it is really important to us. It means that once a week, for about an hour, groups of 10 or so team members get together and talk about how they feel. And just like there are three keys for success, there are three rules for council. The first is to always speak from the heart, the second is an obligation to listen, and the third is that everything that happens in council stays in council. We’ve found that this particular combination is incredibly useful for learning not only how to express what we feel, but for understanding and appreciating the feelings of others.

A friend told me that you know you love someone when they’re the person you want to share your stories with and I’d add that they’re likely the person you most want to listen to.

So without discounting the importance of speaking from the heart or listening thoughtfully, I want to talk about the notion that what happens in council stays in council. Ensuring that the feelings expressed during council aren’t shared publicly creates a space for us to make ourselves vulnerable. It allows us to share our deepest, most unique thoughts - thoughts and feelings that might be easily misunderstood in a different context. Put more simply: we respect the privacy of council.

Unfortunately, privacy is too often articulated as secrecy, when, as Nissenbaum points out, privacy is actually focused on an understanding of context. Not what is said – but where it is said and to whom. Privacy allows us to enjoy and learn from the intimacy that is created when we share different things with different people in different contexts.

Kundera writes, “in private we bad-mouth our friends and use coarse language; that we act different in private than in public is everyone’s most conspicuous experience, it is the very ground of the life of the individual; curiously, this obvious fact remains unconscious, unacknowledged, forever obscured by lyrical dreams of the transparent glass house, it is rarely understood to be the value one must defend above all others.”

In America, before the Internet, the division between our public and private lives was usually tied to our physical location – our work and our home. The context in which we were communicating with our friends and family was clear. At work, we were professionals, and at home we were husbands, wives, sons or daughters.

There are few better at understanding the difference between public and private expression than celebrities, whose public personalities can generate significant interest in their private lives. When ones privacy is threatened, when the context in which one shares is collapsed, public and private become clearly distinct.

While walking through an airport recently, I was struck by a Newsweek Special Issue that promised to reveal Marilyn Monroe’s “Lost Scrapbook.” Indeed, a journalist had found a scrapbook that she had created for a photographer and friend.

The journalist writes about the scrapbook, “It’s Marilyn being natural, having messy hair and not worrying about what somebody might think of her or how they might look at her. She’s not looking at the composition of the pictures. She’s looking at what she’s doing in the pictures. She likes having fun.”

The pages are colorful, with Marilyn’s thoughts and feelings scrawled beside the imagery. Next to one photo of herself in a bathrobe surrounded by production gear, she writes, “a girl has no privacy when she works.” Marilyn felt that her scrapbook was a private place to share with her photographer friend. It wasn’t part of her public persona.

The Internet encourages us to create scrapbooks of our feelings that are shared, potentially without context, for the enjoyment of our friends, or our “audience.” Our feelings become expressed as information – they are used to categorize and profile our existence.

On the Internet, we organize information by its popularity in an attempt to determine its validity. If a website has been referenced by many other websites, then it is generally determined to be more valuable or accurate. Feelings expressed on social media are quantified, validated, and distributed in a similar fashion. Popular expression becomes the most valuable expression.

Social media businesses represent an aggressive expansion of capitalism into our personal relationships. We are asked to perform for our friends, to create things they like, to work on a “personal brand” - and brands teach us that authenticity is the result of consistency. We must honor our “true self” and represent the same self to all of our friends or risk being discredited.

But humanity cannot be true or false. We are full of contradictions and we change. That is the joy of human life. We are not brands; it is simply not in our nature.

Technology has perpetuated the myth of the transparent glass house and created a culture that values popular opinion over critical thought. We have allowed ourselves to believe that more information equals more knowledge. And increasingly, we live in a time when, as Rosen describes, “intimate personal information originally disclosed to our friends and colleagues may be exposed to—and misinterpreted by—a less understanding audience.”

Every time we express ourselves, we do so with the understanding that things we say might become permanently and publicly known. We are encouraged to express ourselves in ways that are accepted by the largest possible audience. We lose our individuality in favor of popular acceptance.

My concern is that we have developed a generation of people who believe that successful leaders are those with followers. I believe that the best leaders are those that stand for something, who have a point of view. And that point of view must be developed, not alone, but in private, or risk becoming normalized in search of popular support.

For encouragement, I’ve often relied on these words spoken by Roosevelt at the Sorbonne, who declares, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

We have built a society where all too frequently the men the in the arena are fighting not for their lives, not for their family, nor for their point of view – but for the spectators and for the applause. And we, the spectators, sitting in the arena, happily entertained, drunk and well fed – we are full – but are we happy?

Kundera writes that “when it becomes the custom and the rule to divulge another person’s private life, we are entering a time when the highest stake is the survival or the disappearance of the individual.”

I believe that time is now.

I will leave you with words from the final paragraph of a speech that was to be delivered by President Kennedy, on the day he was assassinated. On that day, Kennedy would have spoken during a time of war. Tonight, I ask you to listen as we face the battle to prevent the destruction of the individual.

“We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.”

We are all here to erase the stigma that says hacking has to do primarily with exposing things that others do not wish to have exposed. I challenge all of you to create a space this weekend, during this very important time, which honors and respects the thoughts, feelings and dreams of others. We have come here to find comfort and joy in sharing and creating – we must build thoughtfully for our future generations that they may discover the joys of human relationship and individual expression, as protected by privacy.

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