In the summer of 2019, Jeffrey Wernick, then a 63-year old investor and self-described anarcho-capitalist, was living above a hotel in midtown Manhattan and hosting regular lunches at Fred's at Barneys, where he’d extol bitcoin and rue the sunset of free speech in America. It was at one of these gatherings that he got to talking with John Matze, 26, the libertarian who had recently founded Parler—a Twitter alternative for conservatives fed up with what they considered to be the suppressive policies of mainstream social media.
Wernick doesn’t particularly like social media (“It’s antisocial,” he told me), but he appreciated Parler’s purity: The platform showed posts in simple chronological order with rather laissez-faire content moderation. A few months after the encounter, Wernick invested in the start-up and became a strategic adviser. “I thought it would be really perverse if the World Wide Web existed without there being a real public forum,” he said. “The town square has been hijacked by private actors, and a public square no longer exists.”
Wernick, who has a shaved head and has been photographed wearing both fashionably thin and fashionably chunky eyewear, was speaking by phone from California at a moment when it’s quite easy to imagine a world without Parler. Since some of its users were in the insurrectionist crowd that stormed the Capitol on January 6, the social network has borne nearly fatal consequences. Apple and Google removed Parler from their app stores, Amazon Web Services booted the company from the cloud, and smaller tech partners it depended on, like Okta and Twilio, also severed ties. Parler, whose app had surged from about 12,000 downloads a week to 268,000 in the three days after the riot, now exists as an unusable, static website. Recently, Parler’s controlling shareholder, Rebekah Mercer, fired Matze, leaving Wernick as one of the few grown-ups remaining in the effort to get it back online. As we spoke over a series of calls, he sounded remarkably calm for a sexagenarian swept into cleaning up a technological, legal, and political debacle of the highest order.
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