VCBrags, Pasquale, Mitchell, and Bhoka: A Roundup

This story is about the Twitter account @VCBrags and two men associated with it:

  • Pasquale D’Silva, who, after spending months winking about a connection, denied being behind VCBrags when I accused him of it in August

  • Mitchell Wakefield, who came out from the shadows this past weekend to claim primary ownership (he says along with two others, neither being Pasquale)

But more importantly it’s also a story about a woman, Bhoka, who (1) has become the face of a renewed resistance to VCBrags, and (2) is the first of three women to make public allegations about Pasquale’s private behavior. 

This story sprawls a bit. So to make this as clear and easily parsed as possible, I’ve divided the writeup into six sections:

  1. A chronological TLDR summary in bullet form

  2. A recap of my conversations with Mitchell 

  3. A recap of my conversations with Bhoka

  4. A provided statement from Pasquale

  5. A correction to my original reporting from back in August

  6. Links, receipts, and extended commentary to flesh out the story

(This newsletter pays for corrections. As the one I’m making here requires setting some context first, I’ve placed it near the end. I just wanted to flag it up front. As anyone notices further things that need correcting, let me know here.)

Timeline / Summary:

  • VCBrags was/is a novelty Twitter account purportedly created to take the piss out of venture capitalists / tech investors who get too self-involved

  • While this idea itself was/is somewhere between fine and needful, I and some others felt that the account sometimes crossed into punching down on less powerful people who were just expressing healthy/positive/normal emotions (where subsequent harassment by VCB fans sometimes followed)

  • VCBrags’s identity has been a subject of minor fascination within tech

  • In late August the account posted and then deleted a tweet in such a way as to frame founder/VC @shl as the man behind the curtain

  • While those more familiar with VCBrags’s most popular (and least line-crossing) posts had a positive view of the account, others in tech were more sensitive to how it had negatively affected some targets, which led me to share the concern that the frame-up, if believed, could meaningfully hurt @shl’s reputation

  • Over the early hours of August 31st, I began writing a post to clear @shl’s name, as evidence made available to me suggested it almost certainly wasn’t him

  • My own conclusion from looking at the evidence (some public; some private) was that Pasquale D’Silva was a “major/culpable” presence behind the account

  • This confidence was bolstered by Pasquale having left a lot of breadcrumbs connecting himself, where the only plausible explanations were that he either was VCBrags or had some knowing/meaningful partnership there (thus making it reasonable in my mind to call on him to take responsibility and clear @shl)

(Note: I was inconsistent in my original writeup, varying between “he is the guy behind the account” and “he is a guy behind the account; this was a serious mistake I should have corrected, which I’ll get into more at the end.)

  • As I was in the final stretches of writing that post, someone nuked the VCBrags account, leaving me with a pile of now-dead links to both offending VCB posts and several tweets explicitly connecting Pasquale as unusually involved

  • I foolishly decided to publish my story anyway, as my sense was that the account’s deletion was itself an admission of guilt, and thus Pasquale would likely take the nudge and come forward to say something like “yeah, I/we got carried away and I’m sorry; that’s why the account was deleted”

  • I was half right, in that the VCB account did restore itself an hour or two after my story dropped, seemingly for the purpose of publishing a PSA/apology

  • In parallel to that move, Pasquale engaged me on Twitter to deny being VCBrags (while eliding my concerns about the degree and culpability of his connection)

  • In parallel to that move, the VCBrags account messaged me to say (condensing here): “I’m not Pasquale, though we did jam on ideas sometimes and liked to keep folks guessing; anyway I’m going to do a reveal post to clear things up”

  • Since the VCBrags account was now active again, and since many readers had fairly noted that my original post was light on substance, I decided to beef it up with screenshots of the tweets I’d now regained access to

(Substack unhelpfully forked my article when I submitted my major revision, creating two versions with different links. I didn’t clue in until a reader tipped me off hours later, which means most only ever saw the unrevised version. More on that at the end.)

  • As I was displeased at how I’d handled the story, I decided I’d write a retrospective once the promised VCB reveal post made its way to me

  • That post didn’t arrive in the day or two after, at which point I’d left for Europe for some medical procedures, which ate up my attention for about a month

  • I thus didn’t send a nudge to VCB until October 5th, which went unreplied to

  • Somewhere in the intervening time VCB deleted their PSA and resumed posting

  • I decided to update my original story with an editor’s note on Nov 10th to say that I was going to publish a retrospective within the month whether or not anyone else behind VCBrags got around to clarifying/revealing

  • Unrelated to that deadline, VCBrags this past Saturday posted (and then quickly deleted) a screencap showing that a female designer, Bhoka, had blocked them

  • This was superficially a normal enough thing, in that VCB would regularly post screencaps of venture capitalists who’d done the same

  • But Bhoka is not a venture capitalist (or anything close), and she interpreted this as driven by motives connected to her personal history with Pasquale

  • In the hours following, others in tech/design came forward to share their own experiences/observations with/about Pasquale

  • Given that many of these posts portrayed Pasquale as being connected to VCB, said account added this on Sunday:

  • When I saw the above, I reached out to Mitchell to ask him a few questions, notes from which follow

Mitchell’s Side

Harassment is a spectrum of ranging severity. There are the worst VCB tweets, and there is what Bhoka and others have described being subjected to. While it’s not my place to tell anyone where to locate those things on the spectrum, my sense is that Mitchell had a certain explanatory burden here. I thus suggested to him that he was likely to be judged by his answers to the following questions. 

(While he’s since written his own post, we discussed these questions both on a call and through DMs, and he okayed me sharing these recaps.)

  1. What evidence do you have that you were the primary person behind VCB? (While he has yet to provide any receipts, he claims VCB was run by him and two unnamed friends, neither of whom are Pasquale. Their inspiration apparently came from watching Russ Hanneman on HBO’s Silicon Valley.)

  2. What role did Pasquale and others have in suggesting/adding their own tweets? (He says he and those two friends would generally post anything that both seemed brag-y and had been submitted three or more times. As for Pasquale specifically, he’d expressed early support for the account, leading to him and Mitchell becoming internet friends who collaborated on some posts and videos.)

  3. Whose idea was it to post the screenshot of Bhoka’s block? What was the logic there? And why was it deleted so quickly? (Mitchell claims they’d post these regardless of whether the blocker was strictly a VC, and that he took this one down because Pasquale messaged him to say there was personal history there.)

  4. Were you aware of any history between her and Pasquale? (Mitchell says he wasn’t up until that message, and stressed that he and Pasquale had never met in person or discussed anything that would have given him insight there.)

  5. Why the Sahil thing? (Mitchell says it was a poorly executed joke. His purported view at the time was that VCB wasn’t regarded in a way that would cause anyone harm in being associated with it, therefore he didn’t think it would be a big deal.)

  6. Did you write the PSA/apology back in August? Why was it deleted? (He says he and his two friends co-wrote it. Then, after a few weeks, they decided to resume posting with a more careful focus. I found this the least compelling answer, but will leave it to him to articulate why they wouldn’t have just announced their new stance publicly vs quietly deleting their prior admission.)

  7. Do you think that you/VCB have harassed anyone? (Mitchell didn’t think so at the time, then was brought to see a different enough perspective to have co-written the PSA. His linked post articulates his views on how he sees that today.)

I leave it to the reader to both decide how compelling those answers are and to contrast Mitchell’s views with those that follow.

Bhoka’s Side

(As a point of context, Bhoka reached out to Mitchell after he published his post. She described their conversations as good-willed.) 

Her main statement:

I blocked the VCBrags account months ago the minute it was clear that Pasquale had an established connection or possible access to the account based on his contribution of content, the constant promotion of his work and the uncomfortable familiarity of pointed harassment behind layers of tech-empowered anonymity. While the VCBrags account may not be owned by Pasquale, any harassment from him or from his associates is still harassment under his banner. The VCBrags trio fails to understand that their intentions at humorous dunks can fall short when the style & impact is aligned so closely with this style of serial harassment. After years of being inflicted with “anonymous” threatening messages, when you see a bridge troll you don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when the outcome is the same either way.

Three more things from discussing the statement/situation with her:

  • She still questions how a block she made months ago just surfaced last weekend, and why it was ever VCB’s policy to highlight blocks from individuals who didn’t hold significant positions of power (especially those not in VC)

  • It still isn’t clear to either of us exactly why the VCBrags account cooperated with Pasquale’s red herrings

  • While she appreciated Mitchell coming forward and condemning the behaviors that Pasquale has been accused of, she feels there’s still more reflection needed

Speaking for myself now, I agree. While my subjective sense (with residual question marks) is that Mitchell is who he says he is, my encouragement remains that he reflect further and use this as an opportunity to grow in public. Good intent requires good guardrails, as there’s often a significant gap between what we intend to get across and how our signalling affects real people, both in how it makes them feel and how it can induce dogpiling from less restrained individuals. His argument that VCBrags was equal-opportunity targeting (because it was based on follower submissions) doesn’t account for the biases within that audience, nor how harassment compounds / has asymmetric effects on those subjected to it. And these are not small things. 

Basically, my sense is that VCBrags was a good idea conceptually and that lots of their tweets were funny, but that they didn’t give enough thought to the line between positive and negative trolling, nor to how the latter can enable and further harassment. Everyone with a platform (especially an anonymous one) has a responsibility to consider negative impact, and the passing praise of the many can never be a justification to be incurious about the costs borne by the few.  

(Mitchell’s final pre-publication comment, following his conversation with Bhoka, was that he wanted to stress solidarity with any victims of the harassment she described. My final comment, put gently, is that this solidarity is likely best expressed in further reflection and comment. But I do take it as a genuine statement all the same, and I’ll out myself as someone who wouldn’t have seen the problem here with much clarity had people not labored over many years to help me with my own blindspots, which they did with a grace that was expensive for them and transformative for me.)

Pasquale’s Statement

I shared a draft of this story with Pasquale, who offered this statement:

I am very aware and troubled by the allegations being made against me.  This is something that should have been solved privately. I take accountability and am working to resolve things on many levels so we can all move forward.

[EDIT: Shortly after this post went live, Pasquale, in seeing his statement with fresh eyes, asked that I amend his middle sentence to “I wish we could have resolved this privately”, which he says better reflects his intended meaning.]

I imagine Bhoka and the others may share their own thoughts in reply. For my part I’ll note, speaking broadly without an authoritative view of any specifics here, that things tend to become public after private mediation has already failed. I’d also suggest that the court of public opinion is wise to take allegations that reach it both cautiously and seriously. We’re right to be wary of mobs, just as we’re right to be wary of indifference.

Correction Time

My big mistake was that, though I said in the main text of the original (speaking of Pasquale) “while it’s possible that they’re not the only one behind the account, they seem to be a major/culpable part”, I had added this caveat somewhat late in the game once it dawned on me that his winks could have been red herrings that overplayed his involvement. But what I didn’t do is go back and revise the opening lines of the article to match, the first and third of which still implied a single person. Given that some readers may not have gotten below the break, this means that I left that subset with the mistaken impression that the evidence pointed solely to Pasquale.

I made this mistake because I wrongly prioritized speed. I wanted to get the story out while it would have the most effect, and so instead of sleeping on the draft like normal I pressed ahead. While not waiting was justifiable in some contexts, waiting would have given me fresh eyes to catch such a major framing error (and also would have helped me see how thin the piece looked without the tweets I lost access to). This was ultimately both hypocritical to my past stances and a significant error in judgment. I thank all readers who called me to account. In recognition of my error, I’m making a $100 donation in Pasquale’s name to each of Girls Who Code and Muttville Senior Dog Rescue (the pet charity that VCB listed in their PSA). Receipts will be posted in my public corrections log.

(A side point here is whether this story was ever a fit for this newsletter to begin with. Basically I thought the story would be net useful in clearing an innocent man, and that it would interest my readers, most of whom are in tech. But in retrospect that wasn’t a good enough set of reasons, and future posts will be narrower to the mission here)

Receipt Book

  • My original post can be found here

  • Sonya Mann added her own take a few days later, which went into more detail on VCB’s problematic tweets. (She also interrogated Pasquale on Twitter about his connection to VCB. He at some point deleted all his replies to both of us.)

  • Here are screencaps of my DMs with VCB (timestamps are based on my current timezone, CET, not the one I was in when I received them):

  • And finally screencaps of a reader DM informing me that my original post had forked (just including this because of this thread with a tech journalist):

PS - For any who wish to support this newsletter, note that it’s not not yet a full-time project. Combine that with ADHD and a high research bar and you get an erratic posting schedule. Sometimes it’s a longform investigation every week. Sometimes it’s nothing for a month.