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Popular Culture Has Soured on Silicon Valley's Hotshots

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News

Are tech entrepreneurs replacing Wall Streeters as the rich bad guys in the popular imagination? It’s starting to seem that way, at least in the media.  The clearest example of this new rich-guy-bad-guy casting shift was the summer’s hullabaloo surrounding Sean Parker’s wedding. A fictional Parker, an early investor in Facebook, played the role of corrupting influence in the Aaron Sorkin-David Fincher film The Social Network. The real life Parker held a haute-ren-faire-ish wedding in a California redwood grove, described in the press as an “ecological disaster” and reported to cost as much as $10 million. He replied by writing a 9,500-word reply to the journalists who had violated his privacy by writing about his wedding. Not long after, Vanity Fair ran a lush, authorized photospread of the event. In other words, Parker went from jerk to jerkier to jerkiest in the online court of opinion. A screenwriter inventing that character would have gotten notes from the studio that the assholism was too ridiculous to be believable.

And yet Parker has quickly become an archetype. Just as the story of one Goldman Sachs daughter’s over-the-top bat mitzvah became a Wall Street morality tale, Parker’s wedding has been covered that way, too, across sites that seem to be, lately, more sharply attuned to covering tech culture critically. “Tech is something like the new Wall St. Mostly white mostly dudes getting rich by making stuff of limited social purpose and impact,” economist Umair Haque argued on Twitter. Tech-world denizen Jesper Andersen tweeted a similar sentiment: “Change ‘startup’ to ‘hedge fund,’ ‘ecstasy’ to ‘cocaine’, and ‘douche-bag’ to ‘douche bag’ and you too can see SF is just another Wall St.” Or this, from Mother Jones’ Clara Jeffrey: “I saw the best minds of my generation building apps to send sexts and brag about fitness and avoid the poors.”

Like finance, tech has become the aspirational career for ambitious young people. Plenty of people walked out of The Social Network wanting to be the next Zuckerberg or Parker, just as college seniors reading Liar’s Poker or watching Wall Street missed the point and decided they wanted to be big swinging dicks. But not everyone. Americans have a complicated relationship with the idea of capitalistic meritocracy. For every Horatio Alger, there’s a Mr. Potter. In other words, those news reports of startup Uber offering helicopter service to the Hamptons, and all the other rich-tech-person problems that (some) apps set out to solve are both execrable and enviable.

 “They’re young and monied and kind of obnoxious in the way that young and monied people almost always are,” said Mat Honan, a senior writer at Wired, of tech’s consumption culture. What is different about this scene, though, is the level of exposure. Now there are social networks that encourage flagrant displays of enviable lifestyle. (It’s a feedback loop: guy invents social network, gets rich, takes pictures of the fruits of his wealth, posts on said social network.) Or posts a rant about homeless people and ugly girls on Medium. Sharing is part of the fabric of the industry. Wall Street, on the other hand, still has a culture of privacy (at the office, anyway) and so its denizens’ most immature impulses are less likely to be published online via blogs or Twitter. (Banking shenanigans more often arise on Facebook, where many people think they're posting for their friends and not the public.)

Tech world conspicuous consumption isn’t quite the same as Wall Street conspicuous consumption. A Silicon Valley executive isn’t likely to spend his cash on bottle service and a Porsche; a trip up Kilimanjaro and a Tesla is far more the norm. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, who lives in San Francisco and is hardly a kneejerk critic of wealth, told me he plays a little game with himself where he counts the number of Teslas he sees in any given day. It used to be one a day, now it’s up to five or ten. That kind of lifestyle is certainly expensive (Teslas start at $62,000 or so, without any of the add-ons), but there’s also an element of virtuousness to it—which to some can be more grating than the unapologetic materialism of a stereotypical banker: I spend a lot of money, but it’s to save the earth, not to burnish my own image. And then there's Google Glass: an unsettling-to-the-rest-of-us status symbol that only a tech-head could love.

One of the things that makes the Parker-esque tech villain grating in a different way than the Wall Street villain, according to Valleywag’s Sam Biddle, is self-awareness, or lack thereof. “My friends in finance are all very cynical,” he said. “We’re the ones everyone hates. They’re fine with taking the paycheck.” But tech founders tend to think that they’re saving the world in addition to getting wealthy, an attitude that can rub white-collar grunts the wrong way. Even the language—no one simply sells a product, they “disrupt”—is part of that.

“People in tech believe that they’re going to change some part of the world,” says Biddle. “They’re so self aggrandizing they can’t have any kind of sense of humor about it. They can’t just say, I hope my app ends up being super successful.” You can pick fulfillment or money or do-gooderism, goes the post-liberal-arts logic; only entitled jerks think they can get it all. (Of course, there’s a strain of tech founder that doesn’t believe a college education is a good use of time—another thing that can rub some people the wrong way.) Seeing people convinced that they’ve cracked the code often incenses those who haven’t. There is a let-them-eat-organic-authentic-Mission-style-burritos attitude to the whole scene.

When people talk about bubbles in tech, they’re usually talking about the inflationary kind—but there’s the protective kind, too. There is an insulated effects of a community in which everyone tends to be youngish, relatively well-off, and like-minded. For instance, one Palo Altan complained to a local newspaper “It seems to me that a billionaire can come in and run roughshod over average millionaires like myself.” (That’s from a list of 23 Things That Could Only Exist in Silicon Valley, which also includes a church advertising with “Google can’t answer every search” and a laptop discarded as litter.)

“We're in this app economy where there are lots and lots of small business making products of questionable value are getting enormous amounts of money to make these products,” says Honan. Non-tech small businesses typically don’t get that kind of investment. “These companies don’t even have a product you can put a finger on, when they talk about how they're changing the world.” Bustle, much-derided outside the valley, is a case in point of the bubble in action: Founder Bryan Goldberg declared that there were no highly trafficked websites for women, which was why he was starting one. He was mocked in the non-tech press.

It’s not just personalities that irk critics. Manjoo, who is at work on a book about Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, points out that it makes sense that tech hate, at least as measured through Internet comment sections, has begun to pick up as those companies have grown. These former startups are now just more stylish, casual corporations with shareholders to think of. (It’s the Man in the Grey Flannel Hoodie these days.) Tech companies are becoming an inescapable part of our lives. We interact with them in ways we can't avoid, Manjoo says. The resentment that was formerly directed at then-ubiquitous Microsoft has faded. Now, says Manjoo, “People are very suspicious about Amazon in particular because it's tied up with their physical world in a way Apple and Google aren’t.” For those already inclined to dislike that kind of corporatism, this year’s revelations that many of the biggest tech companies are sharing their private data with the government only magnifies their distrust.

“The things got rusty, the newness wore off, and the anxiety set in,” the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal said in an email. In other words, any mature industry will attract its share of critics. And, in a weird way, Wall Street’s collapse helped tech buy a few years of goodwill. TechCrunch’s Alexia Ttotsis pointed back to 2008, when tech “was positioned as bright shining light in dismal economy”—as it is now in floundering Greece, for instance. Now that tech has matured, there’s an inevitable backlash, which Tsotsis has written about. “People’s natural inclinations to disrupt accumulation of wealth are now focused on the tech industry,” she told me. “If we're looking at sentiment analysis,” she added, referring to the latest iteration of Valleywag—a highly critical look at the culture of Silicon Valley— “since when is there a market for negative posts about tech men?” That market has probably grown, roughly, in tandem with tech valuations.

Not everyone agrees that this is new, or particular to 2013. Sarah Lacy, the founder of PandoDaily and one of tech’s most vocal defenders (and one of Valleywag’s most frequent targets), told me that “Anytime the Valley is perceived to be doing well there’s a backlash.” She argued, too, that the amount of money in the tech world is dramatically overblown in the coverage. “It’s a small percentage of people who are actually rich,” she says. “Most people are on startup salaries and will never make any money from their company … It’s a twisting and distorting of reality that I think is tied to the Occupy thing,” she added, referring to the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. “People really want to be mad at people who are 1 percenters.”

Lacy doesn’t think that, outside a group of vocal critics on an increasing number of sites, there is really all that much hate for tech in America. Although the way she described the reaction to the aftermath of the last tech crash in terms that sounded to me an awful lot like the wake of the subprime mortgage crash (“you had a lot of real everyday people who were invested in these things and when the bottom fell out underneath it, there was just a sense of rage and just being cheated”) but denied that tech was in any way like Wall Street. “We’re nowhere near that scale [of backlash] at all,” she said, citing letters she gets from  “kids sitting in the back of the classroom in Omaha somewhere in middle America” who want to work in tech.

Lacy is right in at least one sense. Americans, broadly, don’t hate the tech world in critical masses. Gallup data shows, in fact, that “the computer industry” remains the most popular one with Americans, while “Internet” companies are the fourth-most popular. Banking, along with oil/gas and the federal government, is among the bottom three on the list. It makes sense. After all, people love their iPhones and the Internet. At least for now, that matters more than any negative coverage they might be reading of tech bros on their mobile browser.

Noreen Malone is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow her at @NoreenMalone.