Silicon Valley’s Rich People Should Beware of This Website

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Aug. 29 2013 5:39 AM

Would You Just Look at All Those Rich People!

That’s Valleywag’s editorial vision in a nutshell, but it could be so much more.

Peninsula Creamery for the Dreams Happen auction sold on June 1st, 2013.
The Peninsula Creamery playhouse bought by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer for the Dreams Happen auction on June 1, 2013.

Courtesy of Square Three Design Studio

It was a day that ends in Y, so last week Sam Biddle, editor of Gawker’s tech-gossip site Valleywag, decided to post a quick hit on Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. In a profile of Mayer in Voguea piece by The Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg that had already merited a Valleywag post—Biddle found a nugget proving that the chief executive of a multibillion-dollar company does not live like you or me.

In June, Mayer and her husband bid $33,000 at a charity auction for a children’s playhouse designed to look like the Peninsula Creamery, a popular hangout spot for Stanford students. (Mayer studied at Stanford, lives in Palo Alto, and loves the Creamery’s pineapple malts.) The playhouse was big enough to require a forklift to deliver it to Mayer’s backyard. Valleywag was scandalized. “While Yahoo! struggles to recreate itself, aimlessly, out from the shadow of the 1990s, its glam CEO is forklifting mini-houses,” Biddle wrote. “How the other half of a percent lives!” Biddle’s headline hemorrhaged populist ire: “Yahoo! CEO's Backyard Playhouse Is Bigger Than Your Apartment.

There are two problems with this post. First, Biddle glosses over some important facts about Mayer’s playhouse. She bought it at a long-running Bay Area charity event called Dreams Happen, where local architects donate their time to create elaborate play structures, and local millionaires and billionaires compete with one another to bid on them. The event is a win for everyone: The playhouses sit out at Stanford Shopping Center for a few weeks, raising awareness for the sponsoring charity, Rebuilding Together Peninsula, which pays for home repairs for seniors and low-income residents across Silicon Valley. The architects get to show off their creativity. And the wealthy people get to keep playhouses in their backyards. Dreams Happen has raised more than $3 million to fix up low-income housing. (Also, the playhouses aren’t bigger than your apartment: Their maximum footprint is 8 feet by 10 feet.)

Peninsula Creamery playhouse bought by Marissa Mayer for the Dreams Happen auction.
The Peninsula Creamery playhouse

Courtesy of Square Three Design Studio

Second, let’s aside these mitigating factors. Mayer bought a $33,000 playhouse—so what? What’s wrong with a wealthy woman spending a tiny fraction of her riches on her kid? Is it really newsworthy—any more newsworthy than, say, a wealthy person taking a private jet, sending her kid to private school, or buying an expensive car? Biddle didn’t elaborate in his post, though on Twitter, he argued that “buying your kid a play mansion is obscene, period.” But Mayer’s $33,000 playhouse wasn’t even the most expensive structure at this year’s auction; several sold for more than $50,000, and the top-earning playhouse, a replica of AT&T Park, went for $101,000. (The list of other winners isn’t public.)

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But Valleywag didn’t need to explain to its readers what was so terrible about Mayer’s playhouse, because according to its worldview, a rich techie doing rich-people things is self-evidently worthy of mockery.

I was excited when I heard, earlier this year, that Gawker Media was resurrecting Valleywag, which it founded in 2005 and later shut down. Valleywag is necessary. The tech industry is a hype-fueled wonderland of money and ambition, a place as central to the world economy as Wall Street, and one whose globe-changing ambitions are often ridiculous. When I heard Biddle would be running the site, I was even more thrilled. A longtime Gawker Media writer, Biddle worked for Gizmodo for many years, and even when I disagree with him, I find him to be a lively, hilarious writer and a dogged reporter.

But in the few months it’s been online, the new Valleywag has been a disappointment. Too often, it squanders its resources by shooting designer fish in a gold-plated barrel, rather than taking on more important problems in technology and the tech industry. In a profile of the site in the New York Times by Nick Bilton on Sunday, the writer Paul Carr—a frequent target of Valleywag—summed up its failings this way: “Valleywag’s mission was to expose criminality, hypocrisy and corruption, but it isn’t doing any of that. ... Instead you have a guy in New York pointing to Silicon Valley from thousands of miles away saying: ‘Look at that rich guy. Isn’t he rich? That rich guy is a loser.’ ”

A stroll through Valleywag’s archives bolsters this assessment. Here’s one rich guy having the sort of expensive wedding you’d expect a rich person to have. Here’s another rich guy who paid to have his daughter meet Miley Cyrus. Here are rich techies paying for boat rides to avoid a transportation strike, and here’s a company hoping rich people will pay for laundry service. Rich techies are especially vulnerable to a Valleywag attack when they engage in that favorite rich-person pastime of giving away their money. Whether they donate to charity auctions, go on African charity expeditions, or try to teach homeless people computer programming, rich techies are ridiculed for what’s taken to be their obvious insincerity, naïveté, and clear efforts at self-aggrandizement.

My primary beef with Valleywag is the way it spins the smallest bits of tech gossip or punditry into a larger, stereotypically skewed narrative about the tech industry. The narrative is generally about the amoral politics of techies or, as Biddle calls them, the “techno-libertarian goon squad.” In Valleywag’s worldview, every civic confrontation in Silicon Valley is a Manichean choice between the interests of techies and nontechies, and the techies are always cast as rich, tax-and-government-hating baddies who want to pull one over on the rest of us. Not only is this simplistic; often, it’s just wrong on the facts.

Here’s an illustrative case. This summer, the union that represents workers of Bay Area Rapid Transit—BART, San Francisco’s commuter rail system—went on strike for four days after talks broke down on wages, pensions, and health care. The strike was annoying to commuters and costly to the region; one estimate put lost productivity at $73 million per day. In an interview about the tech industry’s reaction to the strike on the public radio show Marketplace, Sarah Lacy, the founder of the tech-news startup Pando Daily, made a clumsy statement about BART workers. “People in the tech industry feel like life is a meritocracy,” Lacy said, walking right into Valleywag’s punch. “You work really hard, you build something and you create something, which is sort of directly opposite to unions.” (Disclosure: I wrote a column for Pando Daily for a few months after its founding, though I know Lacy about as well as I know Biddle—i.e., mainly from the Internet, not real life. Also, in 2008, I wrote a positive review of Lacy’s first book.)

Sarah Lacy Is a Free Market Monster,” Biddle stormed, and went on to put a lot of crazy ideas in her mouth. “How dare the transit workers have made life inconvenient for the only people who really matter, the ones who are changing the world with their startups?” Biddle imagined Lacy saying. For Lacy and her “techno-libertarian” friends, “The BART strike is yet another case study in the failure of public goods—fresh agar for startups to colonize,” he declared. “Is college unaffordable? Go to an internet school. Or don't go at all. Subway unavailable because of a labor dispute? Just take a private car, dialed in via iPhone app.”

From a single clumsy quote, Biddle extrapolated an entire storyline about techies keeping nontechies down. That narrative didn’t match the facts. Lots of people in the Bay Area—not just tech heavies—were down on the BART strikers. Every single poll conducted about the strike—even the ones by union-friendly polling groups—found public opinion strongly against the workers’ demands. So, at best, Biddle was half right: Yes, techies didn’t like the BART strike—but that was only because pretty much everyone didn’t like the strike.

Biddle’s idea that Lacy was advocating for BART to be replaced by private cars was also false. In a Pando Daily piece published a few days before Biddle’s—one that he references but doesn’t link to—Lacy argued that “there need to be real options if you want people to ditch cars” and suggested that San Francisco’s city government should do more to foster public transportation. What’s more, Pando Daily has actually been one of the more vociferous defenders of city government and city infrastructure against libertarian interlopers like the car-hire service Uber. Last October, when New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission forced Uber to pull its taxi service in the city, Pando Daily called Uber’s reaction “downright adolescent.” This was an unpopular position. (Even Slate couldn’t muster enough contrarian passion to fight Uber.) But Pando Daily pressed on. Last December, in a sprawling attack on Uber’s libertarian disregard for city regulations, Carr—Lacy’s close friend and Pando contributor and thus supposedly a member of her techno-libertarian goon squad—skewered Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s Ayn Randian politics. Carr vowed to quit using Uber “while the company’s founder continues to celebrate the ugliest face of capitalism.”

Right—so Lacy published a stirring paean to big city government. If she really is a “free-market monster,” she’s a pretty toothless one.

And let me add one brief word about Valleywag’s central premise—that the tech industry is infested with Ayn Randians. It’s bogus. I understand why this myth persists; some of the industry’s biggest luminaries, like venture capitalist Peter Thiel, are proud libertarians. But they’re not representative of most people in the industry or even most tech executives. According to every metric, most people in Silicon Valley are Democrats. They vote like Democrats, they donate like Democrats, and they certainly talk and eat and shop like Democrats. If one of the hallmarks of libertarian politics is an aversion to taxes, you’ll strain to find that here. Just last year, residents of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties—the epicenter of the tech industry—voted for a tax hike on the wealthy by double-digit margins. People here routinely vote for more money for public infrastructure. In 2008, 78 percent of residents of Palo Alto—home to many tech execs—voted for a $378 million school bond. You don't see that in Rand Paul country.

I don’t bring all this up just to show that Biddle sometimes gets things wrong. We all do. Rather I want to point out that, in straining every story through Valleywag’s anti-tech filter, he tends to miss the deeper, more interesting issues lurking beneath the quick hits. For instance, if car-sharing services become legitimate replacements for public transport, will they drain funds for buses and destroy public transportation? Which other tech innovations might have unexpected boomerang effects on the public good? And—why do Web users say that they care about privacy yet never act that way? And—is tech promoting inequality or reducing it?

I wish Valleywag would take on some of these real issues. I’m not saying it has to become Wonkblog. But I do think it can be funny, snarky, and substantive rather than strident for stridency’s sake. I know it’s fun to mock techies. But as Marissa Mayer’s kid will soon find out, even the biggest playhouse eventually becomes monotonous.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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