Athena Talks
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Athena Talks

Are Tech Boy Geniuses Victimizing Our Girls?

Do social network creators not have moral responsibilities?

Image Source: Flickr

In her book, “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers”, Nancy Jo Sales vividly describes how today’s teenage girls are victims of objectification happening at scale in social media. The details are gory. And from my own experience interviewing and hanging out with teens on social media for the last couple of years, I know that is all true.

In her book, Nancy argues that the frat-minded Silicon Valley “boy geniuses” have contributed to this state through the social networks they’ve built. Silicon Valley has been the origin of several of these networks, no doubt, but it is not unique in its frat boys mentality and domination. In recent years, from Whisper in Venice to Yik Yak in Atlanta, we’ve seen social networks from around the country impacting our teenagers at unprecedented levels.

What is, however, interesting, is that the social apps are dominated by male founders and there is a dire shortage of women innovators in such a crucial sociological phenomenon.

Objectification of women has existed all along at different levels. Social media amplifies that, leading to emotional pressures impacting self esteem.

A part of the tech community is directly responsible for promoting objectification of young women. Snapchat’s Discover stories regularly display scantily clad women discussing their bodies and expectations of the opposite sex. This is what our young teens are being subjected to. It ends up normalizing objectification of girls in a casual manner.

A recent app gaining popularity, After School, takes it to a whole new level. It’s branding explicitly suggests to high school students that life is about sex, profanity, drugs and gross topics!

“Sex sells” and that’s not news! The Internet would not be what it is without pornography. That said, apps like this cross the moral boundaries and signal to teenagers that this is, in fact, the in thing to do!

After School touts several tools to offer supportive services to students that need it and to report abuse and so on. But, at a fundamental level, the impact that such branding and content leave on the tender teenage minds is that girls must expect to be objectified and that boys have a right to see girls as objects rather than as peers!

The tech community must be ashamed of being part of this misogyny! Whereas there are many recent efforts to promote body positive behaviors, Snapchat seems to push the type of content that promotes anxiety among teenagers about body image and other related issues.

The investment community must be equally ashamed for being parties to the growth of such apps. After School, for one, is funded by some of the who’s who of the investment community — the likes of Naval Ravikant and Gary Vaynerchuk who have otherwise had a brilliantly positive impact on the community. This seems to be a testimony to the “boy geniuses investing in the ideas of other boy geniuses” observation that Nancy makes in her book!

On the bright side, several prominent investors including Marc Andreessen, Mark Suster and Hunter Walk raised the ethical issues surrounding anonymous apps back in 2014 when Whisper and Secret were high profile apps. Anonymity itself is a complex topic — one for another post.

So, what are the social and moral responsibilities of the tech community towards shaping the next generation’s social media behaviors?

First, we need the tech community to own up to the moral responsibilities that come with building a social network.

The impact of social networks on our perspectives and actions IRL is deep and real. More and more people consume their information via social networks and that behavior is not about to change.

Social media will continue to be the medium of information exchange of tomorrow.

With it comes the responsibilities of abstaining from promoting misogyny, objectification and sexualization of girls. The responsibilities of teaching the citizens of tomorrow the fundamental tenets of equality, empathy and core values must be acknowledged by the creators of such networks.

Knowing that social is the backbone of information exchange means building the right tools for encouraging positive behaviors. This means balancing the dopamine inducing tools with tools that naturally weave checks and balances into the system. In addition to using social networks to seek validation, users must develop a responsibility to keep out offensive, misogynic and hateful behavior.

Founders and investors must rise up to this challenge to build technologies that will carry the torch into the next decade of social!

In an age where we’d rather swipe right sitting across from each other than share our feelings directly with the person in front of us, these networks must subliminally encourage positive and empathetic behaviors.

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Vidya Narayanan

Vidya Narayanan

Building Rizzle (rizzle.tv), the future of video! In past life (@Google, @Qualcomm), I built stuff that you’ve likely used!