Recently, I stumbled upon an amazing document—a near-perfect historical record of business bullshittery. It’s an article published on the website of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company about “building the next big experiences” in the metaverse. Its author, Brian Solis, is introduced as the “global innovation evangelist” at Salesforce. Now, I don’t know what a global innovation evangelist does, but a literal interpretation of such a job would suggest a primary component is to just get really excited about new technology. In this case, Solis is pondering the question “How will the metaverse drive value?”

As somebody who sees more hype than value in the current discourse around the metaverse, I was curious. Unfortunately, Solis doesn’t ever begin to define what he or his fellow innovation evangelists mean when they say “value.” In fact, he doesn’t really define anything. Instead, he starts by asserting that we are in the “early days” of the metaverse (which anyone who has spent meaningful time in metaverse projects like, say, Second Life will tell you is patently false). We’re in the hype cycle right now, Solis argues, but there’s still value to be gleaned from all this vague metaverse excitement! From the article, he writes:

I also think it’s our job to consider what value creation looks like as technology evolves—technology that doesn’t necessarily exist in the hands of consumers yet but will.

Okay! Pretty vague, but go on…

We need to design value in stages, developing the necessary expertise and infrastructure so we’re first to market or a fast follower. That value is in the eye of the beholder. The user doesn’t always know what they’re going to value 12, 24, or 36 months from now, but they’ll know it when they see it.

There’s a chance you may have entered Solis’ article about value creation in the metaverse with a specific or even just a vague idea in your head about what that “value” might entail—maybe a new revenue stream or, if you’re one of the good technologists, something to do with immersive communities for people to feel a sense of connection and belonging in a fragmented, pandemic-stricken world. But after reading those three sentences, whatever metaverse potential you had in mind has likely been replaced by confusion over what on earth the author is talking about. You may even have less of a concrete vision for what the metaverse might offer than when you started reading; you could even say you’ve consumed negative information.

The article is a phenomenal example of what I’m going to call “business-dude lorem ipsum.” It is filler language that is used to roleplay “thought leadership” among those who have nothing to say: the MBA version of a grade-school book report that starts with a Webster’s Dictionary definition. Advanced business-dude lorem ipsum will convey action (“We need to design value in stages”) but only in the least tangible way possible. It will employ industry terms of art (“We’re first to market or a fast follower”) that indicate the business dude has been in many meetings where similar ideas were hatched. Business-dude lorem ipsum will often hold one or two platitudes that sound like they might also be Zen koans (“That value is in the eye of the beholder”) but actually are so broad that they say nothing at all. In fact, in a previous draft of this newsletter, I had initially gone through the blog post almost line-by-line to point out shining examples of corporate gibberish in action, only to realize that the negative information quality of the writing actually bogged down and leeched clarity out of my own writing like an idea vacuum.

It’s fun to joke about all this. But this phenomenon of garbage business speak is also a scourge, especially in the tech world. It’s part of a very strange information economy of zombie thought leadership that has become a mind virus of LinkedIn influencers.

Just for fun, I searched the URL for the McKinsey post on Twitter. What I found was typical for content in this vein: a smattering of random executives with a few hundred followers who auto-shared the original promotional tweet from McKinsey’s blog with the same copied-and-pasted text and the #Metaverse and #Innovation hashtags. In other words, a kind of rote engagement. My guess is that nobody knows what the piece says or how to paraphrase it (because there’s no actual substance), but people are sharing it for the same reason it was written—as a way to discuss a subject without having to think about the subject in any meaningful way. This is what you share when you barge into a meeting and hurriedly ask, “Im hearing a lot about this metaverse. What’s our metaverse strategy?”

When delivered confidently by a person with the right credentials or charisma, the negative-information element of business-dude lorem ipsum actually takes away from good ideas. One place I see this a lot is in the crypto world, where, as I’ve previously written, the language of crypto marketing and white papers is purposefully confusing or vague and “intended to obscure how little meat there is on the bone of these arguments” (or in other cases to cover up outright fraud). There are plenty of people who, rather than being confused and simply calling bullshit, convince themselves they are missing something, out of either ignorance or lack of expertise. These people cede the space to the snake-oil salesman or join the cause because they don’t want to look foolish or miss out.

This pattern is what ultimately drives the worst part of a tech hype cycle: consultants and TED Talk types glomming onto an idea in the shallowest possible way, and modeling that mode of thinking for people who—sadly—may very well have the money, power, and influence to impact new technologies. Though many technologists themselves privately scoff at this kind of clear bullshittery, they rarely speak up about it because it is ultimately useful for such crap to exist. I don't mean to pick on Solis exclusively; he is not the problem, but merely a helpful example of a bigger problem of people looking to harness the enthusiasm of technologies they know little about, without doing any work whatsoever.

To read the rest, subscribe to The Atlantic.

Already a subscriber? Sign in