Reflections on Web Summit: Out of the frying pan, and out of the fire? | TechCrunch

Paddy Cosgrave, the co-founder of the Web Summit tech conference, is returning to his role as CEO after resigning in October over controversial statements he made about the Israel/Gaza war last year on social media. Rumors of his return began to surface over the weekend; Cosgrave confirmed the move in a post on X today.

Notably, in his announcement, Cosgrave does not make any mention of the political remarks he made that led to his departure seven months ago (with the social media posts he wrote at the time deleted as well). Instead, Cosgrave goes for de-escalating with a planned shift in focus to smaller groups.

“As Web Summit becomes bigger, our aim should be to make it smaller for our attendees. More intimate. More convivial. More community focused,” he writes.

In doing so, the move is reiminiscent of Mark Zuckerberg’s shift to “community” at Facebook in the wake of the social network’s huge post-2016 election scandal (Cambridge Analytica, election manipulation, Congressional hearings and the rest).

Smaller groups, of course, gives a larger entity — whether it is a social network or an event — a way to cater to different agendas and opinions. More opportunistically, as with Facebook, the emphasis on community is a counterweight to Web Summit’s bigger business aim: scale, in Web Summit’s case growing its conference empire by getting as many people and companies as possible paying to attend its events.

Web Summit runs a number of global tech conferences, the best known and biggest of which is in Lisbon, which in recent years attracted upwards of 70,000 attendees. The list also includes smaller, invite-only events under the brand F.ounders.

That flagship event went through a tumultuous period last year after it was engulfed in criticism from its large tech sponsors, who pulled out of the event in the wake of Cosgrave’s remarks.

The controversy started when, shortly after October 7, the day of the Hamas massacre of Israeli citizens, Cosgrave posted data on X of the human cost of the Israel-Palestine conflict between 2008 and 2023, but omitted the events (and casualties) of that weekend.

In face of an outcry, Cosgrave continued to double-down in subsequent posts.

Cosgrave also posted support for the Irish government’s criticism of Israel’s implied plans to cut off water and electricity to Gaza as part of its plans for the war.

Cosgrave tweet

Cosgrave tweet

This was the last straw for many of Web Summit’s speakers, with the loudest voices of criticism coming from Israel-based VCs and founders, who were then backed up by U.S.-based tech founders and investors.

Large sponsors, including Microsoft and Google, then pulled out of the conference.

Under pressure, Cosgrave apologised for offence caused by the posts and resigned as CEO. (Later, Israel indeed did cut off water and electricity to Gaza.)

Scrambling in the lead-up to the Lisbon event, Web Summit quickly appointed Wikimedia CEO Catherine Maher as Cosgrave’s CEO replacement, even as Cosgrave retained an 80% ownership of the business.

It was a very short tenure: Maher left Web Summit a few short months later for the CEO role at NPR, leaving Cosgrave’s company rudderless once again, but also setting the stage for Cosgrave’s return.

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