Milo Yiannopoulos reviews last night’s Moshi Monsters ‘Music Rox’ album launch party, remarking that Mind Candy founder Michael Acton Smith appears to be one of the few European entrepreneurs with the personal qualities to take on America.
The challenge one faces when writing about Moshi Monsters is a temptation to gush over the uniqueness of a European consumer technology brand that has so successfully diversified into dozens of other products and verticals. It’s a challenge the tech blogs have been canny enough to dodge: TechCrunch’s European staff, for example, have not written about the company for over a year.
In some ways, Mind Candy is a depressing spectacle, because it is a parable of the inadequacies of, and hideous derelictions of duty by, Europe’s supposed start-up champions: the tech bloggers. I know I shouldn’t bang on about it, but as a reader I really would have liked to know more about this start-up as it grew. I’d have liked to learn from its successes and be gifted glimpses into its future.
Because there’s little a technology publication can do now but gush, and perhaps bask in the reflected glory of a start-up that emerged triumphant from the ashes of earlier failure and seems now to be on course to become one of the titans of digital (and perhaps traditional) media in the coming decades. I’d have liked to see it coming, is all. It’s a story that would have been told brilliantly by those with their noses closer to the ground.
Fortunately, such has been its stratospheric rise, Moshi Monsters’ parent company, Mind Candy, has not suffered as a result of the neglect. Indeed, the negligence of publications that ought to have been its champion through adolescence is now an irrelevance, given the global power of an entertainment brand that is proving Europe’s doubters wrong. Well, it is to a point. More on that in a moment.
It’s especially difficult to write about Moshi for those of us who know the chief executive, Michael Acton Smith, personally, as we’re faced with the dual conundrum of doing objective justice not only to the accomplishments of Mind Candy, but also to Michael’s extraordinary personal gifts, which exist in intricate symbiosis with his start-up’s commercial success.
You see, Michael is an internet entrepreneur who, perhaps more so than any other on the continent, closely resembles the heavy hitters in Silicon Valley. There are executors, strategists and technologists his equal in Europe, but no one, I don’t think, with quite the same insight into human psychology. No one who has created a platform so sticky and irresistibly habit-forming. No one who innately, instinctively understands fun, and has teased out from that understanding a ruthlessly addictive platform business and media brand.
No better analogy can I find for him than Willy Wonka, a comparison I know will have been made before. His eyes, altered to a clear blue by WIRED magazine for its latest cover, are more chimeric in real life. There is a sparkle in them, part innocent wonder and childlike exuberance, part otherworldly and seductive mastermind.
Michael has created a children’s social network that has a spin-off album with more impressive pre-sales than Madonna. A catalogue of minor celebrities appears at the parties he throws. And his company has the sort of world-conquering vision that ought to shame those in Europe who have ploughed the same amount of resources into building middling customer service platforms and clunky productivity tools.
Indeed, Moshi Monsters is a brand with practically limitless ambitions. (Not for nothing is Michael referred to as “Walt 2.0” in investor circles.) It secures a significant new high-level commercial or merchandise partnership practically every week. And this is the crucial difference between London and San Francisco, and it’s what I mean when I say that Moshi isn’t exactly proving that Europe can do it. No. It’s the exception that proves the rule; a glaring reminder of the mediocrity of its peers.
That said, Mind Candy is no Valley start-up in character. There’s none of the sociopathy of San Francisco evident in Mind Candy’s approach. It has consistently led the way in child safety and the entire product seems preoccupied with joy in a way that American social software products at heart rarely are. I think that’s largely down to the personality of the founder.
There’s also no reason to suppose that this company deviates from its stated intentions like the social networks in the Valley are wont to do, grin-fucking their users with vague soporifics about “connection” and “openness” while ripping off their address books. Moshi is what it advertises itself to be: a safe and enjoyable environment in which children can learn, play and connect with one another.
The Moshi universe is almost demonically compelling, its characters drawn with the perfect degree of ambiguity. Every smile is a smirk from the right angle; every entreaty an occasionally foreboding demand. The paradox of the monster as friend and avatar is exquisitely played out in the network’s visual identity, which is at once sinister and mesmeric, adorable and inviting – a perfect proxy for Michael Acton Smith’s own duality. He has even given expression to his alter ego with a name his young customers use to refer to him: Mr Moshi.
Whether Monstro City, the virtual space Acton Smith’s Moshlings inhabit, as a mediating platform that parses fragile and youthful new relationships, is a positive influence on the psychosocial development of its young users is the subject of another column, to be written by someone with more expertise in psychology than the present author. I suspect most of the questions it raises can be answered with: “quality parenting”.
But what seems clear from spending time with Mind Candy’s employees is that they seem preoccupied with little besides bringing happiness into young people’s lives. The infectious joy and enthusiasm of this company can strike cantankerous hacks as mildly emetic. But it is clearly sincerely felt.
Last night, Michael and his team celebrated the latest in a series of improbable watermarks: an album launch at which Sophie Ellis Bextor, a smattering of reality television show contestants and at least one member of the band McFly showed up to pay obeisance to the phenomenon he has created.
It was – yet again – a profoundly significant milestone for European technology, if that is not too bombastically expressed. One of those moments one’s own horizons and ambitions are broadened and raised. And a bloody good party for those children lucky enough to be invited. It was also the moment that Moshi Monsters, in colonising London’s Hard Rock Cafe, became a cultural and artistic institution to be more closely and intelligently examined.
As for the album itself, cutely titled Music Rox? I’m not best placed to judge. I was, after all, embarrassingly keen on the Pokémon theme tune. But to my ear it sounds like Moshi Monsters is about to dominate – or liberate, depending on your point of view – the pop charts for some time to come. And why not. We could all use a little youthful abandon.