A new social network makes an old bet: That we want to hear from rich people

Billionaires have enormous influence in American society, whether we like it or not. Do they really need another bullhorn for talking to the non-billionaire public?

That’s one of the core questions surrounding Column, a work-in-progress social network that seems to be centered on leveraging the aphorisms of Silicon Valley billionaires (think Peter Thiel, Marc Benioff) to win attention from fans of the megarich.

Column is a proposal for a “democratized” version of a social media platform like Facebook, where influential people like Thiel — who Column has claimed as a backer — can spread their thoughts to the masses who sign up to join forums that they organize.

Here in the United States of America, we’ve got a long history of being fascinated by our country’s billionaires. We want to know what they eat for breakfast, what they drive, and the square footage of their homes.

But most importantly, we want to know how we can be like them. Their oft-identical, news-free, live-like-me biographies — books with titles like Donald Trump’s Think Like A Billionaire: Everything You Need to Know About Success, Real Estate or Life — sell well at bookstores and airports. These titans pitch themselves as thought leaders, offering a message in commencement speeches, on the conference circuit, and on Twitter as not just our wealthiest people but also our smartest.

But I don’t know if we hang on the words of the ultrarich the way we once did. America is reckoning with a billionaire class that exacerbates income inequality. Their philanthropic giving leaves a lot to be desired. Their political control over both parties now prompts questions on the campaign trail about whether they should even exist. And studies have shown that we feel as badly about billionaires today as we did during the depths of the 2008 financial crisis.

That’s what makes Column such a controversial, even antiquated bet. It operates on an assumption that billionaires remain, in effect, some of the original influencers. The service was widely mocked online yesterday after news of it first broke.

Column is asking some of Silicon Valley’s richest people to sponsor a new social network that would allow them, if they choose, to host their own private chat rooms. An early draft deck that was obtained by MIT Technology Review suggested that 500 tech billionaires would pay $100,000 to host a “Column” to share commentary with their fans.

But I spoke with Sarah Cone, Column’s founder and top executive, and she says that the one-month-old deck is outdated — and that instead it is merely an option to host one of these private platforms. (The $100,000 buys them, at a minimum, an equity investment in the company.) Cone said that while some of these billionaires would be its first public supporters — and effectively anchor some of the early content on the site — she hoped that only around 2 percent of the Columns would be hosted by billionaires.

It sounded like Cone was still determining whether these billionaires will prove to be the site’s stars or merely its flashy ornaments. But what made her proposal so unusual — and divisive on the internet since the initial deck leaked — is that it peeled back the curtain on how lusted-after these Silicon Valley billionaires have become, in politics, in philanthropy, and in startups.

Even as they are publicly denigrated, privately the billionaires’ blessing is still strategically sought.

“We’re not targeting any billionaire. We’re targeting the public intellectual billionaire who stands for something,” Cone told me. “They’re not content producers, but they are similar to content producers in that they create a very distinct community around them.”

Yes, some of today’s robber barons have followings: Thiel, who was listed as an initial backer of Column but is now expected to withdraw his financial support for now, has a legion of young, libertarian acolytes who see him as a role model. Benioff has developed a routine as a pitchman for a new era of capitalism, with a generation of civic-minded leaders who eat up his big-hearted vision for government and business working together.

Are there others? The case is less convincing that there are thousands of Americans willing to follow Jamie Dimon to a social media platform. Or Mike Ovitz. Or Barry Diller. Or James Murdoch. (These are some of the billionaires being targeted by Column.)

Billionaires are not sports stars or fashionistas or Instagram stars. But Column seems to assume that there is still untapped demand for their wisdom in 2020 — enough demand that these rich sages would pay to gain access to an audience on a new social media platform. Cone tells me that she actually likes most billionaires, despite the zeitgeist. “Billionaires are people,” she said at one point.

Cone also said she’s worried that the outdated version of her plan makes it seem like this is for billionaires and billionaire-strivers only. Her attempt, she insists, is just to bring the most interesting voices to the fore, rich or poor.

“I think a lot of billionaires’ thoughts are not important, and I think a lot of poor people’s thoughts are not important,” Cone says. “If you’re a poor mom making $20,000 in Akron and you can describe your thoughts in words,” she continued, “we want you on the network.”

Now, though, that network is imperiled. Cone said she planned to launch Column in about two months, but ironically, the new social network will lack much of the billionaire support that has so far defined it because of the early deck describing Column that leaked online and drew ridicule to Column.

“None of the billionaires in the world are talking to me anymore,” said Cone, who stresses she didn’t leak the deck. “They’re all incredibly worried about they brands and their lives and the risks — and they don’t want to talk with someone they can’t trust.”