Apology agonistes? Don't blame Snapchat -- blame yourselves

Snapchat's middle-finger salute in the aftermath of a massive security breach is par for the course in an industry with the attention span of a hamster.

Snapchat CEO and co-founder Evan Spiegel at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in September 2013. Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch
What's the value of an apology when we live in an industry with the attention span of a hamster?

I got reminded of that after a hacker earlier this week posted a database containing about 4.6 million Snapchat user names and phone numbers. This constitutes one of those Very Big Screwups that usually invites at least a modicum of contrition from the company responsible for the sloppy coding. But Snapchat wasn't playing along. Instead, it responded with a tone-deaf post that invited no small amount of derision.

Yes, we do love our tech dramas, and there seems to always be a minor novella somewhere ready to explode into somebody's righteous cause. But this wasn't your garden-variety PR gaffe. This was the equivalent of a raised middle finger to millions of Snapchat users. How bad was this? Well, consider that it inspired Fortune's always-excellent Dan Primack to suggest that CEO Evan Spiegel consider a new line of employment.

If Evan Spiegel is disinclined to apologize, or doesn't feel he should, then perhaps he really isn't up for the job. Whenever a 20-something CEO is replaced in Silicon Valley, people often say that he has been replaced by an "adult." It's usually both paternalistic and patronizing, but perhaps appropriate when the 20-something is not mature enough to say "I'm sorry."

I doubt Spiegel's about to follow the advice. After all, we're talking about someone who reportedly turned down a $3 billion buyout offer from Facebook last year. He obviously has strong ideas about how to run Snapchat, kibbitzers such as yours truly notwithstanding. That doesn't mean he's doing the right thing. Without mentioning names, PR doyenne Brandee Barker tweeted on Friday the advice she might have offered had she been in the executive boardroom with Spiegel: "PR Tip: apologize if your company messes up. Humility and empathy goes a long way."

That's entirely sensible, but here's the rub: Fact is that memories are short, especially in the technology biz, and whether Spiegel received poor advice from his board or if this was his call, the fact is that five years from now -- assuming that Snapchat's still around -- few people are going to recall any of this.

Let's be honest. Despite all the griping which attends one of these inevitable security lapses, we're a forgiving lot. Maybe we're just suckers, or maybe we're simply unable to resist our addictions to particular apps or services. The track record speaks for itself. How many of you remember that big Facebook privacy breach in 2008? What about the 2009 episode in which a hacker accessed the accounts belonging to millions of Twitter users including those of Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher? What about Foursquare, when it came out in 2012 that users' personal address book information was being sent to its servers without prior user notification? Or the same year when Twitter was found to be keeping data on its servers for 18 months after users selected the "Find Friends" feature on its smartphone app?

Yeah, thought so.

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About the author

Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.

 

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