Here’s What Happened When I Emailed Twitter Tops About Race & Its Connect To The Trump Tech Meltdown
Most all the tech world is reeling after the presidential election results. I read a piece the other day in Recode that went as far as to say that the tech world is actually in deep shock regarding the Trump win and all that the next four years might or might not entail. The piece went on to say the “meltdown” is due in large part to the fact that Silicon Valley just had (has) no idea about true public sentiment outside of its own world, that its powerati are out of touch, and that they are sorely in need of additional “tools” to truly understand neo-America. Think it’s true? And if this theory is true, could Silicon Valley and the entire tech industry be in for even greater shocks in this fast-paced and disruptive world? This is story about how that and more could actually happen based on an experience I had with Twitter HQ.
So, once upon a time, I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post. It was about the lack of diversity at the legendary SXSW at the time.
Here’s the link, if you wanna peep the entire thing. Yup, I wrote the piece back in 2010, and yet we are still talking about diversity and tech seven years later, while certain kids are planning to go to Mars. Anyway…
I decided to do a follow up piece and ask the heads of various tech companies what their plans were to not only help bring diversity to such conferences; but to their own teams, corporate cultures, and overall social missions. My first pick was Twitter. “Why not,” I thought. “What do I have to lose, and I love the platform. Maybe they will actually answer me.” (keeping in mind that this was when Twitter was really exploding and the study was released that a greater percentage of the African-American whole was on Twitter more than that of the White population. Remember that? And everyone was freaking about the numbers ’cause once again, people outside of the demo were, um, out of touch.). Through research, I found then VP of comms at Twitter, Sean Garrett. For whatever reason, he decided he should try and answer the questions instead of Ev, who I originally requested. I decided to take what I could get. There was a bit of dodging, to say the least, but I’m a persistent Pisces. See for yourself just a bit of the exchange, below:
I was definitely curious. Him? Well, here is the response:
Hmmm… so is 150 and under is a number means that companies do not have to consider such concerns? Is that written somewhere as like a law or something? Also, even though we see who was driving the bulk of the traffic back then and literally building their brand, demographics were simply not a factor. Hmmm… I felt I wasn’t getting a direct enough response for my story, so I gently pushed a little more.
Oh, and notice that this is all so back in the day that it says, “sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry” at the bottom. LOL (You may also notice that the messenger and the message are apparently such a blip on the screen that even Sean gets my name wrong. Luckily, I have a pretty thick skin.)
Guess from these responses that Twitter knows best. The call reflected that as well, in case you wondering.
But fast forward to today and the elusive growth numbers, the potential positioning for sale because of it, and seems as though there is a 360. My friend Ann emails me the below quote (which also triggers me outlining this Medium piece, btw) and link to the article which says:
“In the last year or so, Twitter moved away from focusing its outreach efforts solely on celebrities and started partnering with black influencers. The company threw its support behind the Blackbirds, its African-American affinity group. Guests like Luvvie Ajayi, Chance the Rapper and BET’s Debra Lee were brought into the building. Google and other Silicon Valley mainstays have ushered their African-American employee resource groups into the public eye.”
Hmmm…guess that we-don’t-focus-on-demos thing SG notes above is played out? Sure, any company can change tactics but it could make one wonder why not just be open to considering including new possibilities and information about important and varying public sentiment and behavior when they are presented? Why not consider that the brand might be missing something vital because the team is simply unaware and has little or no social interaction with important, passionate groups outside of its own small circle? Anyway, here is the article from which the above quote was taken, if you wanna read it for yourself.
What’s the take-away from all this is? Well, if Twitter missed this with me nearly seven years ago with me, it’s gotta make us all wonder just how much more thought, suggestion, offer, overture, proposal is being offered to various power players in the tech space today to help expand public sentiment — what I call Cultural Intelligence — awareness on demos outside of Silicon Valley that is being overlooked and, thereby, contributing to a next series of shock waves that potentially could damage their brands, revenue, citizenry, and image?
Just look at the below dot connecting I’ve been doing over the last couple of months alone as some interesting convergence is happening.
Peter Thiel: PayPal god, Palantir overlord, and now Trump transition member seems to come under more fire each month for issues that are massively important in the cultural narrative right now. The scenario around reported Asian discrimination and Palantir hit the media just about at the same time that Thiel was criticized for the dumbed down comments about diversity and Stanford (let alone the comments about rape) in his book “The Diversity Myth.” And even his own book “Zero to One” seems to suggests that success comes from all of a start-up team being the same, wearing the hoodie, eating, sleeping, playing, working together 24/7. All others need not apply? (Seems like an echo of Y Combinator’s Sam Altman during the Stanford course “How To Start A Start Up” when he cautioned, “work with people you know.” And if your circle is insular? Then, what?) Now, don’t get me wrong, Peter may be right on some things, and I thank God every time I use PayPal, but no one can know everything. And I could bet, given from many of his past comments and writings, that he doesn’t have many long, deep, personal ties to those who are within the fastest growing US population segments to truly understand the hyper-sensitivity to fairness and balance and the depths of what that emotion can do for positive or negative results on a national level. This will be one to watch.
Next up, the latest in a series of inclusion snafus is Facebook. Anyone read about the advertising algorithm and exclusion claims?
The Black Congressional Congress is now involved, and we are all back to discuss fair housing like it’s the ‘60’s. The question is, who is providing the intel and probable impact of certain FB data codes, business tactics, approaches, and more on various societal segments and policy and public response to potential results so that things don’t have to get to this level? This is not a diversity division task. It’s too big. Who is minding this part of the store?
Then we move on to Airbnb. Yes, the company still has customer-facilitating discrimination issues though they are trying to work through them, but it seems there was never enough cultural intelligence to understand that this could even be an issue and how to prepare from the jump. Even co-founder Brian Chesky recently said to a conference audience, “When we designed the platform, three white guys, there were a lot of things we didn’t think about.”
Hmmm… so why not get some quick consult from those outside the same gender, race, class just to ponder worst case social scenarios that those with limited POV might miss? That could be fun and amazing! What happens if cultural intel is added early and often? (also, quick note: same can be applied to gender, which also seems to be a current thorn in the Airbnb side too, reportedly, given that female employee numbers are down. Could there be messages about bro’ culture trying desperately to get through that “three white guys” are also missing?) Again, love and use Airbnb, but imagine how much more we could all love it when wounds don’t have to heal in the first place.
Then there is the ultra-hot Uber. Yet now, the ultra-hot Uber stained by stinging studies about racial profiling. It’s like a mobile Airbnb scenario. Here’s a funny — or maybe so not funny — tweet about it, in case you don’t have an ear to the streets.
If you missed info on the full study about names and rides, here’s an example I’ve pulled for ya here. But the thing is, who, if anyone is part of the Uber team fore-thinks issues like this given how various public segments may see, use, and be impacted by the product so that these kinds of things can be dealt with before it becomes an internal crisis? There seems to be nary a thought abut such possibilities. Or are they, too, shunning helpful information as in the Twitter example above?
According to Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology, Virginia Commonwealth University and a Faculty Associate, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, none of this out-of-touch scenario is a coincidence. Professor Cottom just released a killer work on how intersectional inequalities shape technologies and vice-versa in work, higher education, and culture. Co-edited with Jessie Daniels and Karen Gregory, “Digital Sociologies” is an interesting work for an interesting time.
She told me, “Tech doesn’t just fall from sky as is treated by policy and academics as just something from the well spring of human ingenuity. As sociologist, we know that inequalities shape tech and vice versa. We ask such things that it seems many companies do not yet do. Who was able to shape and create it? Is it Western or not? We ask because different groups of people will use things differently. The usage inequalities happen at same time and also shapes other realms of inequality. Here’s an example,” she says, “Most BETAs are only tested with the same types. I saw this while at Stanford. Naturally the group is going to only use in one of few ways. Contrast this with those, say, at a poor college in Oakland, and one will get very different BETA results. But this won’t be done.”
When I asked how and if such understanding could apply to all the above tracking I’ve done from a cultural intelligence analyst POV, she tells me. “The Uber situation? Well, we are actually seeing what has happened in nearly every other form of transportation. If things are unregulated, yes, discrimination can and will happen. Tech simply speeds up discrimination. It only took Uber 1.5 years to get to where it took other forms of transportation much longer to exhibit such actions.”
“And I used to think this was all just the nature of things and that the major players in tech were just unaware of the differences in various social segments of our society. But after having spent time in Silicon Valley, I feel like there is a willful ignorance. There is no real incentive for them to broaden views and teams unless they experience much deeper shock as well as begin to shamed by the public; and given the times we are living in, this is extremely likely.”
In short, it seems that what is happening now is that the sector is data-rich, but culturally-intelligent poor. I’ve just gotta be real. You can’t be outraged at the Trump win if you didn’t know how so many people feel left out of the latest house-cleaning app need and frenzy. Or maybe worse, how those who are building the tech brands and platforms that are the most popular feel not only un-heard but sometimes hated. There’s simply a need for some new positions — maybe something like a cultural intelligence officer — at these companies. What will it take for that to happen? Something even greater than Trump surprise? Loss of market share from backlash and acceleration from all the sub-groups that are busily organizing to ensure their diversity interests are protected from that of the anticipated new administration? And believe me, they are heavily organizing and strategizing now which will fast-forward the diversity in tech convo like a hurricane. But few if any tech insiders know that.
But as Ice T once said on a track, “I ain’t new to this.” The social need and business benefit from true cultural Intelligence and foresight, is something about which I have been writing and speaking for a minute. It’s better to get it right early on rather than doing a scramble like Twitter, as you saw above and witness today.
LOL — here’s me speaking about this cultural intelligence stuff and yes, I notice the some empty chairs, too. This was a year and a half ago. I was either ahead or am crazy. But something tells me, now I may be right on time.
One of my connects, Bill Strauss, exec producer of the massively successful film “Straight Outta Compton” says to keep at it ’cause I’m on the money and reminds me that the movie took time to get off the ground, but when it did…. (this is me and him after a fun Q&A “salon” I did with him in D.C. for politicos about the film, politics, police, and the killer meme marketing of the film, btw.)
Anyway, perhaps it’s time to think differently (to borrow from Apple and make grammatically correct), for the Trump scenario is only first of major shocks to come. American demos are changing, the former power demos are beyond anxious and angry, certain segments have reached breaking points, and one needs boots on the ground to truly understand and forecast nuances that will have massive effects, not just reliance upon data points. This is not about an easy route like secession like some CA techies are calling for now. This is about actually trying to figure out how to listen, engage, and envelope all people because stats are still showing that this need is still trending this way. Now that’s the ultimate in the tech holy grail of scalable, isn’t it?
# # #