The Myth of Magical Futures

Despite its (now frequently mocked) claims to meritocracy, Silicon Valley loves its hierarchies. However, because these hierarchies often look somewhat different than old-time corporate ones, they are often opaque to outsiders looking in. My book The Boy Kings is among other things a diagram of hierarchy as it was architected at Facebook in Facebook’s early years, where the closer one was to a Mark-Zuckerberg-when-he-started-Facebook combination of age, race, and gender qualities the higher one was in the hierarchy (a hierarchy that appears not to have changed much given the industry's recently released diversity data). In the past year tech's particular version of hierarchy has been more widely acknowledged and critiqued, and thus we are now in the situation where people as powerful as Peter Thiel are being asked to comment on tech’s diversity and misogyny problems, as in yesterday’s Reddit Ask Me Anything interview with Thiel.

Peter Thiel’s answer to misogyny in tech was that we need more women founders, and this answer struck me as interesting on a number of levels, and also somewhat opaque to someone looking into this world from outside. Why women founders? On the one hand, the possibility that a woman founder would construct the hierarchy at her company differently than Mark Zuckerberg is compelling. On the other, the idea of women founders as a solution to tech misogyny also makes existing male founders and investors unaccountable for misogyny as it exists today. Thiel is saying that he and his funded companies are not responsible for the misogynist environments they themselves have built, and furthermore, that they can’t fix them-- only a woman founder can.

This is a problem, because the misogynist hierarchies that exist in tech today are not mystical outcomes, but very real products of the values of the people involved at the formation of a company, which are investors and founders. Investors and board members in addition to founders influence everything from how much equity goes to individual employees, to perks and play budgets (which often are not evenly distributed across the company), to the construction of departments, their relative importance, and the resources accordingly allocated to them. And not coincidentally the privileged departments, on this model, tend to be those occupied by people who look most like the founder and investors (at Facebook this was product engineering, which dominated other forms of engineering, which dominated non-engineering departments, which tended to have the largest degree of race and gender diversity).

But when Thiel is arguing for more women founders he isn’t just deflecting responsibility from himself and his fellow investors. He is also doing something else that I want to unpack: he is re-inscribing a form of hierarchical thinking that is part of the reason tech is such a mess regarding diversity. That is, when Thiel points to “more women founders” as a solution, he is asking women to become founders in order to possess a status that would allow Thiel to acknowledge women in tech at all. That is, all of the women who are currently working in tech, up and down the employee stack, many at companies that Thiel may be invested in, do not seem in Thiel’s formulation to really exist to him. They do not have a seat at the table. They are not acknowledged as agents of change, or as subjects of discrimination (for example, in the AMA, Thiel cited the Bay Area “housing crisis” as a worse problem than sexism in tech, not knowing that the housing crisis disproportionately affects women and people of color because of the wage discrimination marginalized people face at work).

That is, according to Thiel’s “women founders” logic, he can only imagine women as agents/subjects if they are the founder of a company. And this, in the end, is exactly why and how tech is such a diversity disaster: because there are so many ways powerful people in the industry have of ignoring that marginalized people are working at their companies and are experiencing multiple forms of discrimination right now. This is why many powerful people in tech can only conceive moves to “change” the industry in terms of magical futures like “more women founders” or “getting young girls to code”. The women working in the industry right now are being written off in favor of these magical futures, and as long as this is the case, the now of tech (whether the now is today or twenty years from today) will be unchanged.

This is why you should be skeptical whenever you see powerful men arguing for magical future outcomes in regard to diversity. Instead, ask what they can do right now to affect discrimination in their companies. For example, what are they doing to rectify across the board pay and equity discrepancies between men and women, or white men and people of color? What do their harassment policies look like? Investors like Peter Thiel directly influence these decisions at startups they fund (even if “influence” means “failing to advise founders to avoid discriminatory practices”, which is a form of influence). So when men like Thiel speak of magical futures, we should always be asking them: what are you doing today?

Memes, Selfies, Money: Why the Ice Challenge Worked

As many have commentedat no point in recent social media memory has the difference between Facebook and Twitter been so apparent: over the past week, Twitter users have used the #Ferguson hashtag over 3.6 million times to raise awareness of protests against the police killing of unarmed Michael Brown in St. Louis, while in the same period Facebook has been dominated by videos of people performing the "Ice Bucket Challenge", where they dump ice water over their heads in exchange for avoiding making a charity donation. I've spent more time on Twitter lately, so upon learning of the ice bucket meme and its popularity, it took a minute for me to untangle the logic of the challenge. 

Since the point of the challenge is to raise money, the meme's creators probably intended the "ice" part of the challenge to be more unpleasant than donating money, and were likely surprised that dousing yourself with ice water is as popular as it is. But rather than paying money to avoid the ice water, participants endure the ice water in order to have a socially-sanctioned reason to take a video selfie (because while photo selfies are much more acceptable than they once were, the video selfie is still less common). And the design of Facebook (as opposed to Twitter) works precisely to make the video-selfie aspect of the challenge its viral draw, causing the challenge to become more of an awareness raiser than a direct way of soliciting the maximum donations (in the end, some still pay something, and the viral spread multiplies those small donations).

That's to say that Facebook is designed to make personal content-- like photos, which have driven site usage since Facebook began-- spread most rapidly. It does so by making the primary nodal interface on the site be between "friends" rather than between, say, news sources and individuals, or other sources of content and individuals. People and their images and updates are the primary content that is being served on Facebook. 

Because Facebook is so tightly defined by the transaction of personal content, it actually creates a content production issue. Unlike Twitter where one can happily share impersonal links to news (though Twitter is developing an algorithm to move closer to Facebook's more opaque, personal model), the Facebook user must be prompted to post personal content, and that content must be broadly socially appealing. This is why weddings and babies are the main types of content on Facebook at present, and why Facebook perpetually experiments with the "status update" question, to find questions that prompt the widest range of people to post a personal update or even better, visual content, which performs best in News Feed.

The Ice Bucket Storm

If the Ice Bucket Challenge had not been invented as a fundraising drive, it would make an excellent social media site engagement driver, because it solves the problem of getting people to post and share personal, visual content. It does so first by providing an excuse to make a video selfie-- because in the age of ubiquitous cameras, the biggest hurdle to content production is self-consciousness, which can be overcome by being commanded by friends or philanthropy. Second, the ice bucket meme's format includes a prompt to friends to create their own video selfies (this is the human equivalent of when Facebook apps used to ask you to invite people to the app before you had used it). The Ice Bucket Challenge is thus a perfect viral storm that, while generating millions of page clicks and new content for Facebook and other sites, happens happily to also generate awareness and donations for a good cause.

As such one could imagine a philanthropically inclined Facebook feeling moved to make its own donation to the cause; or even for its own benefit, building products that contain some incentive to produce and share personal content a la the Ice Bucket Challenge. Slingshot, Facebook's Snapchatty app, does a version of this by forcing people to share content in order to see content.

Direct v. Algorithmic Curation

Meanwhile, on Twitter, the motivating factor for #Ferguson tweets is of a different order: concern with the injustice and overwhelming force shown in Ferguson by police against Mike Brown and unarmed residents. The news is urgent and the desire to share it is equally urgent and direct, along with the IRL responses of people organizing and sending supplies. Fortunately, a selfie isn't necessary to spread the news on Twitter; while on Facebook, due to algorithmic curation, it may be. But just the same, this viral sharing benefits Twitter insofar as it drives content and usage. As such one could imagine Twitter, like one could imagine Facebook for ALS, acknowledging the cause with a financial contribution. Because if paying producers for content is no longer on the table, perhaps the next ethical step will be to pay the meme's original creators (or their causes) for the engagement they drive.

What Tech Offices Say

My new essay on Tech Aesthetics is up at Aeon Magazine.

The tech industry has reimagined the office as a vehicle for conveying workers’ social and professional prestige.
— http://aeon.co/magazine/altered-states/what-tech-offices-tell-us-about-the-future-of-work/

Further Notes on Kink as a Platform

"Be the porn you want to see in the world," said our tour guide at the Kink.com studios in San Francisco's Armory, deploying repurposed inspirational slogans as readily as any Silicon Valley CEO at a #TCDisrupt talk. Thus began a tour that, the farther along we went, started to seem like a revelatory mirror of the trends that are driving San Francisco's tech and business culture generally. As Melissa Gira Grant's recent piece in Dissent argues, porn like all other media these days wants to jump from content production to content platform-- not just publishing, but mediating and distributing user-generated content. I left the Kink.com studios feeling that, in wanting to be a platform for sexual content like others are for social content, Kink has interesting things to teach us about platforms and our relationship to them.

The first thing our tour guide wanted to make sure we understood was that not only is tourist photography fine at Kink, it is also encouraged, as is posting photos from Kink to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. "If you feel inspired to enter a cage and pose for pictures, please do!" the guide said enthusiastically, cautioning us only that the professional performers in the building were not fair game for photos/friend requests unless asked. "Just because you've seen someone's asshole doesn't mean they want to be your friend on Facebook," our guide admonished.

This was the first of many uncanny moments I felt during the tour, where a porn platform representative was laying down rules for social media that are more explicit than those of social media companies themselves. When was the last time a social media platform told you the house rules for friending or distributing information? For social media platforms, all information flow is good flow. At Kink, there are rules, and the proprietors of the platform wanted to make sure we knew them.

"If any of the information I am telling you is too much, I'm going to teach you the safe words," our guide told us. "'Yellow' means that you are reaching your limit; 'Red' means that your boundaries have been reached and I should stop immediately." "Hmm", I thought, increasingly interested in the platform analogy. What if when I went to a website and it placed cookies on my browser, it would tell me what information it was registering, and if I said "yellow" it would slow down, or "red", it would stop? Why don't media platforms have safe words? What does it mean that they don't? Would we 'play' more freely on social media if they did?

At Kink, having safe words means that all possibilities for play seem realized, because within the "platform" people have boundaries that they can set and have respected. We went to the "electrosluts" room, which simulated a brightly-lit futuristic space where people could play with all kinds of electric gadgets. Aesthetic specificity is important at Kink: there are actors-turned-auteurs and set designers, and the Electro room was apparently modeled off of a science fiction movie, all white walls and bleeping consoles. Earlier we had visited the Abattoir room, a room decorated as a meat locker with meat hooks upon which could dangle enormous slabs of fake meat (there was confusion among the tourists about whether the "fake meat" was edible vegan meat or foam; it turned out to be foam).

fake meat for the "meat locker"

fake meat for the "meat locker"

crumbs as props on the "kitchen" set

crumbs as props on the "kitchen" set

cool vintage drinking fountain in the prop room

cool vintage drinking fountain in the prop room

Law & Order set under construction

Law & Order set under construction

The uncanny valley of fake and real within the Armory-- is the meat fake or real? is the creepy crawlspace just a creepy corner or a creepy dungeon set? is the drinking fountain real or prop?-- evoked other interesting resonances to social media. When we perform "pleasure" on social media is it "authentic" or show or both? What if our performance and our possessions are "props" in a show we are creating for our social media voyeurs-- not unlike the voyeurs who pay to watch people play on Kink.com? Does it matter? What "is" authenticity anymore? If not paid, for whom are we producing content, and for what reward?

"this corner was too creepy not to use," the guide said, speaking about an area of the Armory where Mission Dolores creek bubbles up from underground, creating a dank atmosphere.

"this corner was too creepy not to use," the guide said, speaking about an area of the Armory where Mission Dolores creek bubbles up from underground, creating a dank atmosphere.

Kink.com plays with the real-fake distinction as much as any social media platform: it invites people to play, for free, in its spaces, along with performers who are paid, in order to create "authenticity", a sense of unscripted fun. Unscripted fun, of course, is what social media platforms traffic in as well, and the unscripted amateurism of the production is what draws us to social media: anything can happen. On mainstream social media, porn is the one thing that can't happen, via the Terms of Service; on the other hand, at Kink, porn is the terms of service, a space of play that is created when the field around it is defined and made safe, and when the platform has been built and furnished so that the resulting content can be broadcast to paying customers.

The "Speakeasy" set, where bottles are filled with colored water due to regulations around serving alcohol in conjunction with nudity. However, according to our guide, the actors have monthly "employee appreciation parties" where they bring in real booze.

The "Speakeasy" set, where bottles are filled with colored water due to regulations around serving alcohol in conjunction with nudity. However, according to our guide, the actors have monthly "employee appreciation parties" where they bring in real booze.

I was left to wonder what else Kink, the porn platform, has to teach social media platforms. What if a social media platform was created where we did know our privacy boundaries, where we could play freely because we knew where our information would go, and that it would be safe if we said "red"? How much do we curtail our social media play because we don't have those safe words and we don't know where our information is going? What would a social media platform built on consent look like?

What's in a Free Fjallraven Backpack

I read Mat's piece on F8 (taking its place in the pantheon of Mat tech fever-dream pieces) and the symbology of the backpack got stuck in my head: why this backpack? Why give this out for free to conference members, beyond the obvious affiliation with a European hipness? And I started free-associating the things that the backpack conjures: #scandinavian #schoolkid #youth #healthy #europe #healthcare #socialservices #import #expensive #utility #high-end-utility #boyish #play #fjords #crisp #modern #picnic #hostel

And then I realized why the backpack was selected as the conference gift for F8: as our own American economy crumbles, the tech economy becomes a kind of substitute/fantasy of a privatized European model of nationhood in the midst of America's deepening socioeconomic crises. If one joins the private nation of the tech company, one can have healthcare, healthfulness, youth, innocence, travel, pink-cheeked men in floppy haircuts, modernity, utility, luxury, hope. Or you can just be an attendee with a backpack that evokes the possibility all of these things.

This reminded me that the original Facebook-employee logo bag was the Jack Spade messenger bag -- a very newly optimistic post-99-crash kind of bag, evoking a kind of youthful-yet-adult professional masculinity [in the Facebook model, which has been amplified by the media and Hollywood, the model is always a man]. Now the company's bag of choice is a backpack, evoking nonprofessional pursuits like travel and school. It's as if the effort is to imagine a company in which the ideal employee is perpetually a young man on his gap year, never quite professionalized, never quite here nor there, but always in the flush of a cresting youth and prosperity, only to be replaced, like a new school class or stock or app, when he peaks or settles down.

And like all of tech's other contemporary stylings, the European backpack is both precious and basic-- a more expensive version of an everyday thing. Tip to the procurement team: to be truly hip in this #normcore age, Facebook would have to have given out Jansports.