Of Groupon, Lindsay Lohan, and the envy of crowds

Whether or not you call what we’re in a bubble (which depends on what the meaning of the word “in” is), you can’t deny that Groupon’s June 2nd kimono-opening in advance of its IPO revealed, if nothing else, some interesting numbers.

Between the straight-up doublespeak of Adjusted CSOI and the chutzpah of trousering almost the entirety of their recent billion-dollar round, Groupon gave journalists plenty of material for scathing articles (including articles about the articles).

Of course, until recently, the preponderance of the press about Groupon was glowing.

Or, as Merlin Mann inimitably put it on Saturday:

For months, EVERYONE LOVES GROUPON! I didn’t care. Today, EVERYONE HATES GROUPON! I don’t care. If you were one guy, I’d totally punch you.

If Steve Jobs is Oprah for men, Groupon is Lindsay Lohan for tech journalists. Despite its German name, schadenfreude is one of the most American of pastimes. We love nothing better than to build someone or something up and then find reasons to tear them down. Are we that fickle? Does our adoration really turn to scorn that quickly? Maybe. But that scorn is an expression of something deeper and more powerful. Envy. If this is the land of opportunity, then there’s no reason you can’t be as successful as that guy. Except, shit, he got there first. He’s counting his millions while you’re reading an article about him counting his millions.

It’s not entirely in our heads. Lindsay made genuinely terrible choices, and Groupon’s numbers do indeed look like a trainwreck well underway, but lots of people screw up and lots of companies fail, and most of them go unnoticed. It’s not a rational Puritan thing—punishing the unworthy and praising the elect. It’s a much more fundamental, animal thing. If I can’t have what she has, then I’ll tell myself I don’t want it anyway.

We’re not going to stop celebrating people and then vilifying them. It’s what we do. But as someone who makes things, or sells things (or makes things that people sell, or sells things that people make), you shouldn’t take the hullabaloo for more than what it is. Having the media and the public turn on you doesn’t inherently mean anything. You’re not necessarily a victim, nor are you necessarily winning. Find another compass to tell you whether you’re doing well or poorly, doing right or doing wrong. The adulation or loathing of crowds is just noise. The only difference between Business Insider and TMZ is—well, actually there isn’t any.