Week in Failed Businesses

by Ben Bienstock & Sara Van Horn

Illustration by Eve O’Shea

published September 15, 2018



This past week, more than 11,000 tourists visited Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, home to the idyllic lakeside cabin that inspired the transcendentalist musings of Henry David Thoreau. Although this nineteenth-century naturalist built his home on Walden Pond in an attempt to live closely with nature, for the pond’s many tourists Thoreau’s writings inspire perhaps too intimate a connection. According to a scientific study published in the journal PLoS One and released last spring, high levels of cultural eutrophication—too many nutrients from too many humans—have been damaging the pond’s fragile ecosystems for the past century.  When translated from scientific jargon into the PR campaigns of concerned conservationists, the cause of this damage becomes (paradoxically) clear: Too many people have been peeing in Thoreau’s pond.

Walden would’ve looked—and smelled—quite differently in 1845. For two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau lived with Spartan simplicity on Walden Pond, striving to capture in his journaling the sublimity and spiritual wisdom of his natural surroundings. In the time spent between entertaining his visitors and handing his mother his dirty laundry, Thoreau sought to convey what was as “intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening” and to document the life that “emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs.” The conclusion of these reverent writings was part memoir, part instruction manual, and part spiritual guide:  Walden, or, Life in the Woods is praised as an American classic and continues to be taught as an exemplar of cushioned asceticism and escapist naturalism in high school English classrooms across the country.

Yet, as the report concerningly shows, his writings seem to have too deeply impressed upon the American public the importance of living in nature. According to the PLoS One swimmer exposé, more than half of the summer phosphorus found in Walden Pond can be attributed to human urine. In addition to the growth of certain freshwater algae, the consequences of this repeated swimming indulgence include the declining water clarity of a pond previously described by Thoreau as “blue at one time and green at another” and “[partaking] the color of both [earth and the heavens].” In describing Walden’s growing algae populations and decaying animal life, the study emphasizes the difference between the pond of our present-day and the one Thoreau eulogized. “I went to the woods,” Thoreau famously wrote, “in an effort to live deliberately.” Too many tourists, the report implies, went in the pond without any similar purpose or concern.

Anxious tour operators and environmentalists alike have taken steps to clean up a pond that many credit with the birth of the Conservation Movement. Even before it became obvious that the mass of men lead lives of quiet urination, Walden Pond State Reservation upgraded its septic facilities, closed town dumps, and reinforced shorelines in an attempt to stop the pond’s contamination. Similarly, the Friends of Walden Pond, a local conservation organization, has dedicated itself to clean-up efforts since 1990.  Yet this National Historic Landmark continues to receive thousands of visitors per week. One can only wonder at Thoreau’s hypothetical commentary if he could see his pond now, contaminated by the beauty of his writing. Professor Curt Stager, co-author of the study, believes Thoreau’s feelings (like the current colors of his pond) would’ve been mixed. “I think he would have been sorry,” Stager said, “to see his pond teetering on the brink of being loved to death.”




For every thing there is a season, and it now seems as if MoviePass too shall pass away. Since the company’s rise in 2017, online snark-jocks and explainer videos have tried to suss out whether the service—which, in the halcyon days before July, loaded subscribers’ debit cards with the price of admission to one movie per day in exchange for $9.95 a month and users’ personal data—is “too good to be true.” But following the company’s disastrous summer, online commentators no longer ask if MoviePass will fail, but instead lust over its now imminent demise. (It’s unclear why supposedly objective ‘journalistic’ enterprises so plainly have it out for a service that literally pays subscribers to go to the movies, but the hit pieces keep on coming.)

Hints of MoviePass’s trouble emerged this past April, when the company announced that it was limiting new customers to four tickets per month and preventing users from attending repeat viewings. The e-rags came out for blood, eagerly employing biting metaphors of curtains closing and credits rolling to report the impending death of the company. Yet within a week, the original ten-dollar-per-month one-movie per-day plan was back. Foiled in their attempts to besmirch the company’s name, these web-narcs moved on to obsessing over MoviePass’s introduction of peak-hour pricing on blockbusters and the debacle of its foray into film distribution: the universally panned John Travolta scowl vehicle, Gotti. Although both surge pricing and Gotti were embarrassing public failures, the narrow-minded trendmongers who laughed and spelled doom for the company failed to see that these new policies did not change the fact that MoviePass was still a service that literally pays subscribers to go to the movies.

But now over a month has passed since the fateful July day when MoviePass borrowed $5 million after its app stopped working (because the company ran out of money), and even here at the Indy, with our rigorous commitment to journalistic objectivity, we must admit the writing is on the wall. With prices raised and ticketing limited to three movies per month, MoviePass is no longer the swaggering upstart with an obviously unsustainable business model, but rather the battered embodiment of philanthropic hubris. (And yet, the service still literally pays subscribers to go to the movies.) As the neo-Thatcherite YouTube commenter some call me tim reminds us, “Sooner or later you run out of other people’s money...”

Perhaps some call me tim is right and MoviePass—a multibillion-dollar corporation—was actually creeping socialism all along. Either way, we now find it necessary to remove the shroud of objectivity: Although it is hard to sympathize with a company that tries to turn a profit on leveraging subscribers’ data (including their locations, spending habits, and restaurant preferences) through its app, the Indy deeply admires the inherent anti-corporate verve of a service that loses money every time its users swipe their red cards. The magic of MoviePass lies in the power of the customer to reverse the scam the company thought it was pulling; we hold the cards, and as long as we keep swiping, MoviePass can’t survive.