Do you think the “neutral platform” argument is made in bad faith?
No. And I don’t want Facebook determining the boundaries of fair and legitimate speech. But we need to start breaking the problem down. I don’t really know what that looks like. But I think it’s a crisis that they can’t address without completely undermining their business model. That’s the thing. For the most part, I think people are arguing in good faith, but I think that if they were to really address what’s wrong with these platforms, the whole thing would fall apart. They’re stuck. I don’t envy them, but I also don’t think that should let them off the hook.
Twitter flagged some of Trump’s tweets for the first time this year. Is that a meaningful step?
To me it seems largely gestural. It’s a step, probably, in the right direction, but the content is still visible. They dropped a curtain over it and said, “Don’t look behind the curtain.” Obviously people are going to look behind the curtain. I don’t think this is the sort of thing that can be addressed on the one-to-one level. I don’t think what Jack Dorsey is saying to Donald Trump on Twitter is the sort of change we should be pushing for.
Your book talks about gender discrimination in the industry. With all the new criticism the tech industry is receiving, do you see things changing?
Maybe? No? I don’t know. I haven’t worked in the industry in two years, and I feel like a lot of the criticism has really not amplified, but intensified in the last two years. I do see a lot of bullshit about men being scared of women now, which is the laziest and most cowardly response you can have.
There are things in the industry that are sort of structural that serve to protect certain types of people. It tends to be men. I know a lot of women, and some men, but mostly women, who have signed really restrictive non-disparagement agreements upon leaving a company after being sexually harassed. That’s a decision that people have to make at that exit point where they’re basically being kicked out of the company.
They are being offered a ton of money to be silent, and they don’t know what their job prospects are, in part because it’s a very small network. People talk. If you are seen as making any trouble, especially if you happen to have been sexually harassed by someone who’s a rock star executive or some other valued reputation, your hands are tied, right? You take the money, especially if you have no other source of income or dependents. It’s really taking advantage of people who are facing some uncertainty.
There’s sexual harassment. That’s pretty clearly defined. Then there’s the sort of ingrained sexism that can manifest itself structurally, in terms of managerial personal development or career trajectories or opportunities that people offer. That is about power—and so is sexual harassment obviously—but I don’t think this is a moment where anyone wants to relinquish any power. So I don’t know how much traction we’re going to see, but I could be wrong. I’d love for people to read it and be like, “You cynical fuck. Things have gotten so much better for women since 2018.” I don’t see it.
Has the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement accelerated any changes?
I think everyone is behaving as you might expect given their structural position. One of these venture firms has spun out a nonprofit fund to cultivate black entrepreneurs. It seems like a generous gesture, several million dollars, but the criticism is, if you’re actually interested in having more black founders, put them in your normal pipeline. Don’t make this part of a nonprofit venture where you’re crowdfunding. People are doing a lot of things that bolster their corporate identities, but among the rank and file employees are pushing for more significant change inside of their workplaces, as they should. A lot of what people are talking about is not new, but attention paid to it and the collective effort behind it is new. In some ways it’s the same as it was before. Nothing at these companies will change until people in power cede some of that power and actually embolden employees to affect change.
How is that change going to happen?
I’m excited about some of the collective action we’re seeing inside of tech companies. If we’re going to see change in tech it’s going to come from the bottom up. There’s been quite a bit of discussion inside of Facebook since the conversation about racial justice and police brutality started, and with respect to the way companies handled posts by people like Trump and figures on the right. That’s heartening in part because it’s incredibly hard to organize remotely. I think collective action is hard enough as is at these companies. The fact that people are engaging at a distance is really impressive to me.