The Hidden Assumptions That Neuter Criticism in Silicon Valley

The contretemps of the day comes courtesy of TechCrunch, where Professor Vivek Wadhwa has published a guest post addressing a Twitter debate he had with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo (now how’s that for meta?):

The controversy began with a quote that Wadhwa provided to the New York Times for a story on sexism in Silicon Valley:

“This is the elite arrogance of the Silicon Valley mafia, the Twitter mafia.  It’s the same male chauvinistic thinking. The fact that they went to the I.P.O. without a single woman on the board, how dare they?”

Clearly stung, Costolo responded on Twitter:

“Vivek Wadhwa is the Carrot Top of academic sources.”

More substantively, Costolo’s argument was that simply applying a gender quota to management was a “check the box” approach that failed to address the deeper issues.  Wadhwa’s response was that leading companies needed to take the lead in addressing those issues in a visible way.

I have a lot of respect for both Costolo and Wadhwa; Costolo has done a great job of leading Twitter to its IPO, while Wadhwa has done valuable work in exposing the racism, sexism, and ageism of Silicon Valley.  As a result, I feel like their exchange is a great illustration of some of the hidden problems that afflict criticism in Silicon Valley.

1) Lack of nuance.
As I’ve pointed out in the past, 140 characters doesn’t allow for nuance. Twitter is a medium designed for outrage, not reasoned discourse. Clearly Costolo was angered by Wadhwa’s NYTimes quote (which, in my opinion, was over the top–more on that later) and fired off an ad hominem attack (“the Carrot Top of academic sources”) without thinking.  The two then proceeded to talk past each other for the rest of the day.

2) Taking things personally.
Wadhwa’s NYTimes quote seemed designed to provoke. His words took a legitimate point (shouldn’t Twitter have a female board member or senior manager) and turned it into an attack (arrogance, chauvinistic, how dare they?).  Costolo would have been wiser to take the high road; instead, he fired back in kind by attacking Wadhwa’s reputation, rather than his argument.

3) Airing dirty laundry in public.
In the old days, the idea of the CEO of a soon-to-be public company trading insults in public with a respected academic would be unthinkable.  Welcome to the Twitter era!

4) Making achievement the only source of credibility.
One of the most pernicious things about Silicon Valley is the tendency to act as though critics ought not be allowed to criticize those who have achieved more than they.  This flows from the top (think of the contempt with which Steve Jobs treated the press) and is deeply embedded in culture of the Valley.

It’s true that journalists aren’t as experienced in the ways of building billion-dollar companies, but they are intelligent and skilled writers.  Moreover, attacking them based on their lack of experience is a convenient way to ignore the validity of their ideas.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the only people allowed to criticize Twitter would be folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page.  That’s insane on the face of it, but that is the crux of the “what does he/she know?” argument.  The only people allowed to criticize the powerful are the equivalently powerful.  Convenient for the powerful, not so much for the rest of us.

In the end, this controversy, like so many others, will blow over and be forgotten.  But I hope that by highlighting some of the hidden assumptions that you and I are making, this post will make you more mindful in the future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *