Over the past decade, large internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple have generally enjoyed a positive relationship with their users. Because people generally enjoy using social media and their lives benefit from the utility of services like Google, those companies have had a pretty easy time garnering the goodwill of their users and customers, as well as positive press from most of the media.
But that seems to be changing. Fast Company just declared “The Public’s Love Affair With Silicon Valley Might Be Over”, and we’re seeing the likes of Facebook dominating headlines for topics that would have been unimaginable a few years ago, such as questions around Russian election meddling and the problems of hate speech on the platforms. All of a sudden, big tech seems to have a big PR problem. As Fast Company put it: “Silicon Valley’s reputation is taking its worst battering ever. And it’s probably not just a temporary dip in esteem. In the past two years, and especially the last six months, media coverage of technology, the industry that produces it and the people who control it has skewed negative.”
So what are the causes of this perception problem, and perhaps more importantly, what can be done to fix it? The first and most glaring problem is one of representation. While the public has become used to seeing the figureheads of large tech companies all be white men, what’s less visible is the fact that nearly all the investors, venture capitalists, and other decision makers are in that demographic too. As TechCrunch reported: “More than 90 percent of the decision-makers in the venture capital industry are white men. Less than 5 percent of the new ideas that get funding are founded by women, and less than 1 percent of venture funding goes to Latinos and African-Americans.”
This results in ideas, solutions, and even entire companies that miss the mark in terms of what the public actually wants. To fix this tone deafness, Silicon Valley needs to get serious about its culture of inclusion and diversity, and make sure there are a more wide range of experiences in every decision-making room.
The second problem plaguing the Valley’s image is that large swaths of the tech world have become monopolies. Where once the tech world was synonymous with scrappy, small-scale startups trying to hit it big, it’s now dominated by the “big four” tech companies—Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon—who seem to buy up any small-stage startup that poses any kind of threat. As TechCrunch said: “If a startup is raising money today, one of the first questions they’ll be asked is, “What’s your exit strategy?” Specifically, that means, “Whom among Google, Facebook and a few other companies will acquire you?” A few tech giants are dictating which problems founders want to work on, and how we’ll solve them.”
This means that the perception of power has shifted; where tech used to be the underdog, now it’s the establishment and users have a harder time feeling warm and fuzzy towards them. The fix here would be to allow more time for genuinely interesting company ideas to grow and mature without being snapped up by a competitor or bought out to reduce risk. In other words, “create the condition for the little guy to thrive” – then creative disruption might actually happen once again.
Lastly, many tech giants have not been honest or even realistic in owning up to the problems that they have not only made worse—but created themselves. Mark Zuckerberg will likely never live down the moment when he denied that Facebook had anything to do with influencing the US election, but one can only hope he’s genuinely changed his thinking since then. The simultaneous hubris and laissez faire attitude of big tech has to go. If they want to rebuild their image, it’s time for these companies to adequately grapple and take accountability for the immense amount of power they have.