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How Much Tech Can One City Take?

Shaken by the latest digital gold rush, San Francisco struggles for its soul.

 Photo Illustration by Peter Belanger

“It’s true that it’s more efficient and productive to have your staff stay indoors to eat,” acknowledges Wickre. “If you unleash a thousand people on the neighborhood, there aren’t enough restaurants nearby to handle them, so they would have to fan out through the city, which means lost time.”

Nonetheless, Wickre insists, “we’re interested in this neighborhood. We’ve sent volunteers to Glide Church and invited other nonprofit groups to come speak at the offices. We encourage our employees to get involved. The manager of our food service comes from Project Open Hand, so he brings that perspective to the company.”

Wickre, who is a longtime resident of San Francisco, is sure that the Twitter workforce (a significant percentage of which lives in the city) takes advantage of the urban surroundings. “Techies are attracted by the same things that everybody else is,” she says. “San Francisco is a hive of bright people and ideas. This is where Burning Man started, where the locavore movement began. There are literary events every night, pop-up restaurants opening all over the city. There’s an energy here you just can’t find in suburban office parks.”

She rejects the idea that social media companies like Twitter promote a culture of selfish isolation. “How do Occupy activists find out that demonstrators are gathering in Dolores Park? They use Twitter. Foodies in San Francisco tweet to promote meet-ups and farmers’ markets. Twitter is nothing if not a vibrant canvas of human expression and engagement.”

But not every veteran of San Francisco’s digital-media world is as sanguine about the city’s increasingly geeky sensibility. Susan MacTavish Best became so exasperated with everyone being glued to computer screens and smart-phones that she turned her rented Pacific Heights Victorian into an old-fashioned salon, where her friends and acquaintances engage in face-to-face conversation. Best, 38, who runs a public relations firm for tech clients such as Craigslist and Klout, moonlights as something of an alternative Martha Stewart, hosting eclectic dinner parties, growing kilos of kale and other nutritious vegetables in her backyard, and producing a cookbook that combines her maternal kitchen wisdom with the organic consciousness she picked up while living on a hippie farm in Mendocino. The Chronicle has anointed her as “the hippest party hostess in the history of Silicon Valley’s pocket pen-protector set.”

Best is determined to drag her tech friends away from their keyboards and make them mingle. “Everybody is hungry for human contact these days. I send out emails at 4 p.m. announcing a dinner that evening at my house, and 40 to 50 people show up hours later.”

The hostess splits her time these days between her Pacific Heights digs and a loft in New York’s SoHo district, where she also regularly entertains. She always finds herself happily pulled back to San Francisco. “Money is not the No. 1 thing in San Francisco,” she says. “I like that about this city. People come here to make money, but unlike New York they’re also here to see new ideas come to fruition.”

Best has always been drawn to tech entrepreneurs; she finds their “awkwardness” charming. But she has taken it upon herself to turn these engines of the San Francisco economy into social beings. “I will not tolerate people who think they can behave rudely just because they’ve been told their whole lives that they’re special,” she says. “I think that sort of Asperger’s behavior, that super self-absorption, should be discouraged. I don’t care if you’re a Rhodes scholar and you just got VC funding for your new app, you still need to wash the dishes.”

 

Best’s Salon might succeed as a geek finishing school, making the city’s young entrepreneurs fit for polite company. But what will the larger impact of this ambitious generation be on San Francisco as a whole?“

Maybe, in the end, their greatest contribution will be to the city’s tax base,” observes writer and cultural entrepreneur Dave Eggers. “And I don’t minimize the importance of that. Pumping new money into the city will allow us to patch up the streets, fix the parks, improve our public schools.”