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Mar 15, 2018

Tech’s Reputation Problem

The biggest companies in Silicon Valley are facing reputational crises. Here’s why.

In San Francisco a few weeks ago, I had a chance to speak to the editor of the Chronicle, Audrey Cooper. She spoke about how the Gold Rush caused a population explosion in the city and the biggest ever migration to a city in peacetime in world history. She said that in 1848, there were just 350 people in San Francisco. A year later, there were 25,000.

In modern times, the tech boom has drawn huge numbers of entrepreneurs to the city. Silicon Valley has become a byword for all things tech-related. In London, the area where tech entrepreneurs converge has been dubbed Silicon Roundabout. In New York, it’s Silicon Alley. But tech, arguably the most exciting industry in the world today, is finding it has a reputation problem.

Not long ago, there was nothing Silicon Valley could do wrong. Steve Jobs was a modern American hero whose ideas put iPhones in everyone’s pockets. Mark Zuckerberg was the wonderkid who had changed the way the world connected without ever having to put on a suit. Uber changed city life for millions. And then everything changed.

First, there were the sexism allegations. Susan Fowler, a site-reliability engineer at Uber, wrote a 3,000-word blog post just over a year ago detailing her experiences with sexual harassment at the company. “I’ve got a lot of questions over the past couple of months about why I left and what my time at Uber was like,” she wrote. “It’s a strange, fascinating and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind, so here we go.” Fowler described harassment, discrimination, humiliation and arbitrary punishment. She was excluded and belittled. Fowler’s post was called “Reflecting on One Very Very Strange Year at Uber,” and it kick-started a movement that began in Silicon Valley and eventually spread to Hollywood, the media and elsewhere.

Soon the shortcomings of even the most respected companies began to be revealed. Twitter angered its users by claiming to be a free-speech platform and yet stifling free speech. Then it angered users who thought there was still too much free speech on Twitter. Today, it’s grappling with removing bots from the platform. Facebook was accused of missing Russian hackers who had penetrated the platform to meddle with Western elections. Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook, admitted that the site was made to exploit human vulnerabilities. A former executive, Chamath Palihapitiya, went one further, saying Facebook was “ripping society apart.” The list goes on. Facebook is reeling from what, in its eyes, was an abysmal 2017; Bloomberg writes that 2018 will be worse. Emily Chang’s Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, was published to rave reviews. In just a few years, the public perception of tech has gone from positive to negative.

What’s the common theme here? From a reputation management perspective, it’s lack of transparency. None of Silicon Valley’s big players have done anything differently to merit their criticism. They have simply faced further scrutiny. Sexism in tech just wasn’t talked about loudly. Facebook chose not to mention that its platform had a detrimental effect on its users’ mental health and was vulnerable to being leveraged by political groups. Twitter’s troll problem simply took time to make it into the headlines.

If tech’s biggest companies had been more open, would public opinion of them be more positive? Maybe they would have lost the impression of infallibility that they once had, but in the long term, we can be confident that they would not be seen with the suspicion that they are now wrestling with.

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