Peter Thiel, an early Facebook investor and board member, has made a fortune off a company built on persuading people to share.
But that doesn't mean Thiel has to like it.
The billionaire investor, entrepreneur and philanthropist describes himself as a reluctant, distrustful user of social media. He doesn't tweet, he uses Facebook only in an "unstructured" way, and he painstakingly revises his emails, always bearing in mind that even his private correspondence could become public.
His key concern: the Internet's infallible memory.
"I don't actually tweet or do any of these short messages. I'm still probably very old-school in that I'm always being incredibly nervous about anything I say or write," Thiel said during a panel discussion on social media and politics hosted Thursday by The New Republic magazine. "Perhaps I've become even more nervous about these things in the last decade because there's a sense that everything you say will be with you for all of eternity."
"One of my friends once told me that writing a book was more important than having a child because you could always disown a child if it turned out badly, but you could never disown a book you'd written," Thiel added. "Now there's a feeling that's true of anything."
Even if Thiel doesn't share his thoughts via social media, he said he writes with the expectation that his words will be shared -- a view that seems especially sage after the revelations of the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell-Jill Kelley-John Allen love rectangle, in which indiscreet emails have brought down leaders at the highest ranks.
"I'm always meticulous, even in the emails that I write. I read them and reread them. I assume that every single email is something that will be in the public domain," Thiel said. "What will this look like if this is published someday? One has to be careful about these things."
He is not only wary of social media's potential for personal embarrassment, but dubious of the innovation it embodies. It's a complaint reflected in a treatise from Thiel's venture capital firm, Founders Fund. "We wanted flying cars," it reads. "Instead we got 140 characters."
Thiel is also the co-author of a forthcoming book, The Blueprint: Reviving Innovation, Rediscovering Risk, and Rescuing the Free Market, which, according to its Amazon description, demonstrates "that we have become a risk-averse society, hobbled by tort laws and government regulations, short-term financial thinking, and mind-numbing complacency." One of Thiel's two co-authors, Max Levchin, has declared innovation "between dire straights and dead."
Asked specifically about social media's influence on political discourse, Thiel said that technology's key effect had been to "corrode and undermine the sacredness of government and politicians."
"The effect of the digital age is this political atheism," said Thiel. "That's problematic because I don't know how we get things to work if nobody believes in anything, but it's a good thing because people believed in mistaken things before."
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