Silence of the masses

photo by Dmitry Popov via Unsplash

I started a company two months ago. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, and if it weren’t for the embargo we’re under, I’d be shouting about it from the rooftops. (I just realized shouting from the rooftops might be the only loophole in said embargo…)

When you start a thing, your todo list is huge and looks a lot like this:

And yet, I’ve spent the better part of the last two days thinking about how contrarian billionaire Peter Thiel donated $1.25M to the Donald Trump campaign. Amongst other things, Thiel is known to have cofounded Paypal and big data “startup” Palantir, he’s an early investor in Facebook, and a part-time partner at Y Combinator. A big reason why I think I can’t get over it when DHH, Marco Arment, and Sam Altman all seem to have moved on, is because this topic is uniquely applicable to me. Here’s my identity in the form of a four-way Venn diagram:

Here’s how it played out:

  1. Thiel announces $$ support for Trump
  2. Pinboard (Maciej) takes to Twitter to complain to FB, YC
  3. Ellen Pao’s Project Include calls out and denounces YC due to their support for Thiel
  4. Basecamp CTO, DHH, gets into a Twitter argument with YC founder Paul Graham
  5. Altman responds with a tweet storm
  6. Zuck’s letter to Facebook employees gets “leaked”

Paul Graham, Sam Altman, and Mark Zuckerberg all come to the same conclusion: Thiel is free to support any candidate he wishes. He cannot be fired or reprimanded for having an opinion. Makes sense.

During all of this, however — the only female voices are of Pao or Erica Joy, both from Project Include. I know lots of strong, women of color in tech. I also happen to know a few PoC applying for YC’s Winter cohort. Why hadn’t I seen any of those people speak up? I called some of them up to ask just that.

“Of course I have opinions, but I won’t say anything, especially not on Twitter”

“I think it’s stupid, but who cares what I think?”

“What did you expect YC’s response to be?”

“If I were accepted to YC, I’d still go for it. It could be the difference between my startup making it or crashing and burning.”

“He’s not going to win, so does it matter?”

Well… yes. Yes it does matter. It matters if you’re a religious, female person of color in technology and you’re considering or going through the Y Combinator program. If the staggering homogeneity of the San Francisco landscape wasn’t enough of a deterrent, perhaps the knowledge that a partner of the accelerator you’re applying to is supporting a bigoted politician will do it.

I agree that nobody should be fired for their political opinions, I think it sets the wrong precedent. It moves us closer to a world where tomorrow, someone could refuse to hire me because I wear a religious symbol they consider oppressive.

But Thiel isn’t an employee. He’s a very powerful figure in the Valley. And even if we don’t fire him for daring to have a different opinion, what are we doing to counter the environment that his actions create?

Y Combinator has acknowledged and tried to work on some of the issues that continue to plague technology — lack of any kind of diversity. As an organization, it has put itself firmly in the spotlight and in the past, has even called companies and organizations out for their political support. Like the time they banned anyone who belonged to a company that supported the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2011.

If YC hadn’t taken such a strong stance on SOPA, I would buy Altman’s blog post on why he won’t dismiss Thiel from his board. But given the history of the organization, I question if “stances” are all just for PR.

I also find myself uniquely disappointed with leaders like Sheryl Sandberg — a woman best known as the COO of Facebook and founder of the Lean In movement. She has a huge platform and often speaks about the plight of women in technology. But when something like this happens, incidents that directly threaten the very existence of women of color in tech, she chooses to stay completely silent.

The Project Include article, too, only goes so far. Pao calls for completely distancing herself from anything related to Thiel. Given the name of their organization and the basis on which it’s formed, it seems strange that difference of opinion would be punished with alienation. It plays right into the Trump rhetoric of divisive politics. The entire piece sounds like a thinly veiled PR stunt. Why aren’t we talking about what we’re doing and not just what we’re not doing (i.e., burying our heads in the sand)?

To add to my turmoil over this issue, was the discussion at Twitter Canada’s first #PositionOfStrength event earlier today. Headed up by Patricia Cartes in the company’s Toronto office, the event brought together a rather powerful group of women attendees including Scaachi Koul, Kristyn Wong-Tam, Hannah Sung, Yusra Koghali and others.

(left to right) Yusra Khogali, Kristyn Wong-Tam, Erica Ehm, Jennifer Hollett

Yusra, a young, Muslim black woman who spearheaded the Toronto chapter of #BlackLivesMatter shared her experience of online harassment on the first panel. She talked about her one tweet that was misconstrued by right-wing media to spread Islamophobic sentiment.

Erica — a former media person, responded to Yusra’s account with an off-hand comment about carefully measuring every tweet out for perfect media coverage effect. Because, “everything you say can and will be used against you.”

In other words, “If your skirt is that short, you’re clearly asking for it.”

In fact, the overarching sentiment at the social media company’s #PositionOfStrength campaign event was telling women to silence themselves. A pamphlet on every seat suggested victims of harassment “consider using a different name online,” while presentations dove deep into instructions on how to block and mute repeat offenders.

When asked what Twitter was doing about online harassment, the answers centred largely around how small the team was compared to the amount of content produced on the platform every day. #ifonly

Replete with videographers, hashtags, and photographers, the event felt like a press event masquerading as an open platform discussion with the community.

Is that really where we’re headed? Taking stances that look “good” in the media? Is that why companies like Pandora and Snapchat use people of color in their ad campaigns, but never hire any of them to build their products?

If Twitter, so closely woven into the fabric of our society, would rather put on a show for the media instead of making real change happen — where does it leave the rest of us?

Is media the reason YC was so quick to dismiss SOPA, but will not condemn Peter Thiel’s support of Trump? Do we only make calls that put us in the safest position possible? Thiel is powerful, and dismissing him is not easy. But if he weren’t so powerful and so rich and so connected — would we be more vocal against his actions?

On the flip side — are we now moving towards a meta echo chamber? Our actions are not all that different from what Twitter asked all those women to do. We’re muting/blocking/carefully measuring what we say and who we say it to IRL.

If we weren’t so worried about tarnishing our personal brands or putting our book deals in jeopardy, would we actually consider being authentic for a tweet or two?

Many thanks to Urasz, Paula, Mb, and Jenn for listening to my incoherent (and sometimes, ill-timed) rants about this over the last little while.