How White Male Tech Writers Feed the Silicon Valley Myth of Meritocracy
As a counter-argument to a much discussed post on why white males dominate the tech blogging world, white male tech blogger Jason Calacanis took to Twitter today in using his own successful experience — and pretty much only that — to prove that such racism doesn't exist.
As a counter-argument to this much discussed post on why white males dominate the tech blogging world, white male tech blogger Jason Calacanis took to Twitter today in using his own successful experience — and pretty much only that — to prove that such racism doesn't exist. Ignoring all the financial and institutional barriers that non-white writers might encounter — like the benefits of an unpaid internship and networking — Calacanis invoked the great Silicon Valley meritocracy myth, suggesting that anyone, regardless of race or socioeconomic background, can make it as a tech writer if they work hard enough. Why? Because that's how he made it. As Calacanis explained in a series of tweets that erupted into a conversation with other tech personalities including the author of the original post (Storified below via Buzzfeed), it only took a "simple" formula for him to transform from a lowly newsletter writer to the successful founder of Weblogs, which he later sold to AOL for $25-$30 million. Calacanis, now a 42-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur, said you just need 3,000 hours or so of blogging and you'll be fine:
1. start a blog, 2. Write daily for 2-3 hours for 1,000 days 3. Do that for 1 topic & you break in. -- it is that "simple" #hardwork— jason (@Jason) February 5, 2013
Calacanis went on to explain how he broke into the tech world as an "outsider" and how black and latino writers can do the same. He put in "10K" hours and "worked as a waiter to keep myself fed and wrote on nights and weekends" in order to write his popular dot-com era newsletter Silicon Alley Reporter, which led to Weblogs, where the formerly influential Engadget was the mothership. Much like the libertarian individualism that Silicon Valley (claims) to live by, Calacanis suggested that the tech world rewards hard work. Which, of course, coming from a white man, doesn't mean much for the plight of minorities.
Using such a singular experience as a successful white man to prove a point about a trend with black and latino writers is problematic, to say the least. But it's also upsetting that Calacanis's thesis reflects the general attitude of Silicon Valley, which fancies itself a true meritocracy, as this tweet exemplifies:
. @jengallardo @jbouie I can tell you the tech industry & tech media space are both largely post-race. Pure meritocracy... Page views rule.— jason (@Jason) February 5, 2013
Update 5:51 p.m.: Calacanis reiterates this point in a full blog post here, which starts with Kanye West lyrics followed by "I'm a white guy so I’m not allowed to talk about race." Further down he then states "the tech and tech media world are meritocracies.
Silicon Valley likes to think that it exists as some paradigm for equality, rewarding intelligence and hard work over class, race, sex, and pedigree. But that's not quite true. Rich kids had no problem infiltrating the culture with people like the Mall of America heir and David Tisch buying their way into the club, as chronicled in The New York Times last year. Money and an important (Stanford) education can buy access. Also, think about all the Harvard people Mark Zuckerberg hired to work at Facebook and then think about what it takes to get in to Harvard. Meanwhile, the notable lack of female and black faces out there suggests that other barriers — not hard work and smarts — have limited entry of minorities and women.
Tech media is arguably even more high-walled — if less high-stakes — than Silicon Valley. As explained by Jamelle Bouie, the author or the original post, which first appeared on The Magazine, that got Calacanis going, the unpaid internship or low-paid writing gig are more difficult for would-be black and Latino writers to justify because of social and economic barriers, and they continue to be the key gateway into journalism for many writers. And Calacanis may have used "hard work" to climb the wall, but his experience is a statistical outlier. How many of the names on the mastheads at The Verge, TechCrunch, Engadget, Gizmodo, and other tech blogs put in 10,000 hours blogging before getting a job? Take Gizmodo Senior Writer Sam Biddle, who came up as an intern, admitted he got there because he could write for free for a "non trivial" amount of time. I had a low-paid Atlantic fellowship for a full year before coming on full-time. How many tech writers put in 10,000 hours blogging and never made it? How many black and Latino writers can afford that gamble?
To change the state of race and class in tech writing, Bouie suggests the tech blogging world give up this farcical, merit-based system: "The first thing is for tech writers to show that they're aware of the problem," he writes. Today's conversation showed that this step will be tougher to take than anticipated with people like Calacanis refusing to admit that any problem exists in the first place.