Published in the Fall 2007 issue • Media Savvy
Boys’ Club 2.0
The media is obsessed with boy geek geniuses, but where are the women?
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, wears Adidas sandals to work. A trivial detail, perhaps, but one that’s regularly mentioned about the 23-year-old CEO of Facebook, the social networking website that’s worth millions of dollars, has millions of members and, at last count, was the sixth-most trafficked site in the United States.
Major newspapers and magazines have noted Zuckerberg’s footwear, often alongside other youthful qualities, such as his snack of choice (cereal), his apartment (rented, with a mattress on the floor) and the fact that he can’t cook. Similar details cycle through the media each time a new website developed by guys fresh out of university (or freshly dropped out, in Zuckerberg’s case) becomes a hot commodity.
The ubiquitous articles make the story sound exciting: the future of media is online, created in people’s garages and based on audience-generated content — from video uploads to Facebook profiles. These sites signal the end of media conglomerates run by stuffy, out-of-touch execs and barons who decide what we consume. The new media is created by regular folks who eat cereal from paper bowls and wear sandals to work.
As David Kushner gushed in Rolling Stone: “The long epoch of top-down culture… is fading faster than anyone predicted. The more vibrant world is bottom-up, powered by the people. Make a video, put it online; download a song, remix it, put it back up... With cheap computers, free software, broadband access and enough Mountain Dew, a kid with a dream can sit down and make it all happen.”
What quickly becomes clear, however, is that Kushner isn’t referring to any “kid with a dream.” He is talking about a very specific kind of a kid (hint: it’s not the female kind).
His story, “The Baby Billionaires of Silicon Valley,” begins with the phrase: “Did someone order a lap dance?” Set in a San Francisco strip club, the feature follows the antics of a group of young men who call themselves the “Young Guns.” Each has created a successful web company that is expected to make them rich.
The few women who appear in the story include a “towering transvestite in a slinky red dress,” a “bachelorette party of hotties in microminis,” waitresses who bring the Young Guns drinks, go-go dancers at site launch parties, and — the only time women are mentioned in the context of actually working for these companies — “hot young girls in booty jeans at their PCs.”
Men, on the other hand, are “Weird Science geeks at the high school prom,” or “dudes,” their appearances noted with descriptors such as “ratty jeans” and “pubescent mustache.” These details, like mentions of Zuckerberg’s shoes, do more than provide “colour” for a magazine story. They help to firmly establish the gender order in the brave new world of Web 2.0, a supposed boys’ club where women are mere accessories to the forward march of technological innovation and internet revolution.
Stories like Kushner’s position these guys — most of whom attended Ivy League universities and are backed by millions of investment dollars from venture capitalists — as geeks and outsiders, which mythologizes them while at the same time normalizes them; de-emphasizing their wealth, connections and power.
Studies have shown that when media companies are owned by a few powerful people, only certain perspectives and issues are aired, usually those in line with owners’ corporate interests. Now, with the exciting world of Web 2.0, utopian reports about the democratic potential of the internet mask the fact that this is big business. Remember, News Corp., the company responsible for right-wing network Fox News, bought MySpace for $580 million (US), and Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion (US). These hefty price tags are clues that these sites mean more to media moguls than places to participate.
So what does gender have to do with it? Access to information and tech knowledge carries with it great political, economic and social weight. If women are left out of the discourse about information technology and new media, you can bet we’re left out of the production and sharing of social and economic power, too. This means these so-called democratic media are based on the desires and ambitions of a few, yet shape the experiences and lives of many.
Sure, this portrayal of the Young Guns may be a one-off example of sexist reporting. But it may also represent the closed-group mentality that persists among the powerful young minds behind Web 2.0, whose message comes across loud and clear: no girls allowed.
Sites like Facebook, YouTube and MySpace have become integrated into our lives and are undeniably fun and entertaining. They provide ways to socialize, organize, share creative and silly endeavours, and, as some cultural theorists have argued, space to construct online identities in ways that can be liberating.
But cultural imagery is largely a reflection of who has power and control in our society. When media accounts of these sites only portray women as passive consumers or silly, over-excited girls posting naked photos of themselves, while depicting men as empowered, creative, entrepreneurial whiz kids, then we must take a closer look at the emerging gender order in Silicon Valley.
Nicole Cohen is the co-founder of Shameless and a graduate student in communication and culture at York University. She hopes that by the time you read this, she will have deleted her Facebook profile.