The name “Silicon Valley” conjures images of sprawling company campuses where employees are treated to round-the-clock food, foosball, and parties with endlessly flowing craft beer on tap. This seat of the technology industry, just south of San Francisco, is often regarded as the land of opportunity—a place where anyone can make it big, as long as they are smart and tenacious and work hard enough.
But a new book by Alice Marwick ’98, who majored in political science and women’s studies at Wellesley, takes a closer look at some of Silicon Valley’s prevailing myths—meritocracy, transparency, and authenticity—and finds it’s a little more complicated than that. With Marwick’s critical eye, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Branding in the Social Media Age explores a side of the tech industry that is overlooked and unacknowledged. Rather than an egalitarian utopia, the tech world is instead a place where money, status, and gender determine outcomes.
“The mythology of meritocracy has several ideological effects,” Marwick writes. “It denies the role of personal connections, wealth, background, gender, race, or education in an individual’s success.”
Marwick, an assistant professor in the communications department at Fordham University, conducted fieldwork in Silicon Valley from 2007 to 2010. She interviewed all levels of employees in start-ups and popular technology companies, from executives down to low-level workers. She frequented fancy parties in the elegant hotels of San Francisco, attended technology meet-ups, talked with journalists who cover the tech beat, and traveled to conferences where insiders networked, drank cocktails, and spoke of how they were changing the world.
Marwick provides thoughtful background of the social climate leading up to “Web 2.0,” which includes San Francisco’s vibrant history of activism; the Homebrew Computer Club, where Steve Wozniak has said he got the inspiration to design the Apple I; and the bursting of the dot-com bubble of the 1990s.
But Marwick found that the core values of Web 2.0 enthusiasts were more rhetoric than anything. “In studying this world closely, I found that, far from the revolutionary and progressive participation flaunted by entrepreneurs and pundits, social-media applications encourage people to compete for social benefits by gaining visibility and attention,” Marwick writes. “To boost social status, young professionals adopt self-consciously constructed personas and market themselves, like brands or celebrities, to an audience or fan base.”
In addition to the inauthenticity that Marwick observed, she also discovered there was rampant sexism in this field. “I didn’t intend on studying women in technology,” she says. “But I found that the baseline sexism was so egregious that I had to write about it.”
There are inherent structural problems for women in technology at every level, from biases in high school and college, to difficulty finding mentors as professionals, something that is necessary for career longevity and achievement. Often, as Marwick witnessed, successful women are accused of sleeping their way to the top. Or they’re simply considered adjuncts to a man’s success.
“I’d like to bring attention to the treatment of women in the technology world and how far we have to go before the people building our social technologies reflect the diversity of the global community,” Marwick says of her book.