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Nobody's Listening: What the Crunchies Taught Us About Both Sides of the Tech Debate
Ian Eck | Photo: Courtesy TechCrunch | February 12, 2014
Protestors and techies have one thing in common: they love to talk over each other's heads.
The annual award show for tech startups and VCs, called the Crunchies, took place on Tuesday, and the feud between the city's noisiest groups—the techies and the activists—was primed for maximum entertainment. What ensued that night was a microcosm of the whole obnoxious affair: that is, a whole lot of sound and fury with very little interaction. San Francisco, it's 2014. Can we start talking to each other already?
The front of Davies Symphony Hall bursts with activity: spotlights trace the sky above, suited up techies step out of Uber black cars, walking arm-an-arm with a surprising amount of ladyfriends, and, on the corner of Grove and Van Ness a motley assortment of picketers, chanters, and chuckling onlookers have gathered around an impromptu stage for "The Crappies," where one can witness a "Twitter rep" accepting a trophy in the form of a toilet brush to uproarious jeers and giggles. Pithy signs skirt the edges of the crowd, among them a blown up picture of Yahoo CEO Marisa Mayer's face, with her news-anchor good looks overlaid with a Walmart logo and the words “Act Now” scribbled over her mouth. The mood of the crowd is relatively light-hearted but rowdy, with plenty of chanting, bongo drumming, and mock-booing aimed at the stage’s mock tech elite.
Going unacknowledged in the background of the whole hokey affair, there looms two gigantic QR codes plastered on posterboards being held by guys who look suspiciously like engineers. The codes, alien and imposing at such a scale, take scanners to the website wardrobe.me, a tech startup that calls itself "Your closet, online." The unassuming sign-bearers have been hired through TaskRabbit, and are getting paid $25 an hour to stand behind the protestors and stage the coded photobomb.
That's right, at an event where protestors are using Crunchie press to spread their anti-tech agenda, the techies are using protestor press to advertise their startups...by outsourcing it with another startup. So what’s the deal here? Is the tech-world giving the protestors the finger, or are they merely taking advantage of opportunity with the savvy use of technology?
“I think the tech workers just need to be educated about the system they’re taking part in,” says one protestor carrying a sign that reads, “We don’t envy you.” Hours later, inside the Crunchies, the VP of Scoop.it Andrew Fedirici told us, “I think education is the key to all of this. If us in the tech industry can help build a better educational system to help people learn about technology, which isn’t brain surgery, we can make a difference.”
This seems to encapsulate the dialogue between these two groups—which isn’t so much a dialogue (Almost none of the people inside the Crunchies said they witnessed the protestors, much less spoken with them) but more of a collective shouting into the air. While the protestors use drum circles to inundate the atmosphere with socially charged songs, the techies transmit their own visions for social action by inputting code into “the cloud.” Thus they address some of the same issues of social change without actually talking with one another. And if you doubt that the tech community (or at least portions of it) is trying to address the protestors’ concerns—i.e. gentrification, the widening income gap, etc.—then you weren’t at this year’s Crunchies, which felt at times almost heavy-handed in its posturing to clean up their image as money-grubbing gentrifiers.
Admittedly, the prototypical techie is an easy target. At best, they come off like the teacher's pet at the science fair. At worst, they play the role of smartest guy in the room—big brains, little charisma. They’re not quite as bad as the archetypal Wallstreet douchebag—jocks good with numbers—but there's something about the new Digerati of San Francisco that inspires an easy blanketing of resentment. Beyond the obvious queasiness that comes with seeing a 22 year old make more money than you will ever make in your life, there's something else. That Steve Jobs brand of smug self-importance. That well-crafted modesty which attempts to gloss over their belief that they are destined to change the world forever. Go ahead and act all understated with your sneakers and hoodies. We know how highly you esteem yourself.
But are we being too hard on these nerds? If the Crunchies of 2014 showed us anything, it's that the tech industry is perhaps more self-aware than they're given credit for. The goofy but razor-smart John Oliver, emcee of the event, helped a great deal in establishing this tone. Quipping on the tech-world's snarky self-regard, the uselessness of so many "innovations" (the burrito-copter bit was a personal favorite), and the obligatory knock on the room's lackluster sex life—the British comedian proved the perfect comedic vehicle for Crunchie ego-checking and endearment.
But even the Crunchies presenters themselves, industry notables whose gawky, flat delivery often proved funnier than the jokes they tried to tell, seemed to show a healthy degree of self-criticism. And not just in the spirit of comedy. The Crunchies’ opening speech by Ron Conway, founder of the non-profit sf.citi, sounded like a political address as he insisted on the tech industry's obligation to utilize their newfound power to spur civic action in San Francisco. Though he congratulated the tech-boom with helping to halve the city's unemployment rate from 10% to 5%, he also referenced the protesters outside the building (“Who we don’t always agree with”) and the widening income gap that's become too big to ignore. He lauded charitable activity like Marc Benioff’s 1/1/1 Model and ZenDesk’s cleanup efforts in the Tenderloin, but he also demanded more, saying repeatedly that “Actions are louder than words.”
Indeed, all these proactive words are not nearly enough. One tech employee we spoke with (who preferred anonymity) spoke critically of Jack Dorsey’s efforts to clean the streets and Benioff’s 1/1/1 model, saying that most startups simply don’t have enough time or energy to devote to charity, and if one did, well, they’d “probably be going out of business soon. And how much would that 1% equity be worth to charities then?” Admittedly insular, he claims to work 70+ hours a week at a startup company that always feels like it’s on the brink of failure. And in an organization of less than 10 people, he sees no room for relegating work towards charitable projects. But wait, haven't tech workers solved this problem before? Wardrobe.me used TaskRabbit to hire cheap 3rd party advertisers without lifting a finger. Would it be possible to figure out a similar platform to outsource charity?
This is the niche Theresa Preston-Werner hopes to fill. The enthusiastic 30-something entered the stage after Ron Conway and immediately encouraged the audience to donate money through their cellphones to her multi-charity platform Omakase, a data-driven enterprise that she described as a “Charity of the Month Club for Tech”. As the wife of GitHub co-founder Tom Preston-Werner, Theresa is quite close with the tech community (as well as, she admits, to its financial rewards) but she is by no means a tech apologist. After the event Theresa told us that she was “a little bit con-tech.” But at the same time she claimed that “most people in the tech community really want to do good. They only lack the proper platform to connect with effective non-profits.” Theresa, armed with a Phd in Cultural Anthropology and nearly 15 years of non-profit experience in the third world, feels poised to bridge this gap between the techies and the non-profit community. In other words, she is trying to be the third-party techie sign-bearer in the midst of charitable protestors. She might not be perfect, but at least she's trying
When what seems to be the entire tech industry shows up in a room together, the optimism can get overbearing. And in between the synth-pounding bro-step and techie in-jokes, the 2014 Crunchies had all the tactful talking points. Kickstarter, a true do-gooder in the app world beat out the profit-hungry Uber for “Best Overall App of the Year.” The new category of “Best Health Startup” featured a promising array of candidates whose ambitions ranged from personal fitness to streamlining the entire healthcare system. And the “Best Education Startup” featured more competition than ever before. It's hard to see how any of this hand-wringing ends soon.
Even Bill Gates claimed in a recent reddit AmA that he was surprised at how early on in their careers many of these Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are getting involved in charitable efforts. Recall that Bill Gates, once a fiercely hated monopolist, has gone on to become one of the greatest philanthropists in recent history. So I guess the question we might ask is: do we wait for all these tech dreams to congeal into something real, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or have we seen too many of Larry Ellison’s yachts to not shout bullshit?