The ins and outs of exclusivity

Head in the Cloud

Photo of Bianca Lee

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At the beginning of this year, the invite-only marketing strategy of the Clubhouse app garnered attention with its ever-increasing waitlist. I saw screenshots of the audio-based social media app being tossed around loftily on Twitter throughout December, and hype generated around the new app as venture capitalists raved about audio being the next social media revolution. Needless to say, I wanted in.

So when I finally got pinged that I had received a coveted invite, I opened the app that had already been downloaded on my phone for a month and created my account.

The power of invite-only marketing campaigns is that people will talk about the product, feel like they’re missing out when they don’t have an invite and are guaranteed to try out the product when — or if — they get the chance. Exclusivity is what initially gives a product its brand. It’s what keeps Silicon Valley churning.

And these apps only skim the surface of the exclusive all-boys club that makes up Silicon Valley.  I notice the prevalence of the tech circle’s exclusivity whenever I apply for software engineering internships and the selection options for universities are limited to the same handful that every other tech company recruits from. 

On top of the same schools, recruits are also plucked from the same nations and socioeconomic backgrounds. The job listings, pitch decks and investments that start new companies never seem to leave the tight-knit province of developers, technocrats and tech thought leaders contained within the Bay Area. Given the extent to which software eats up the world, the actual thinking behind all of this comes from a surprisingly small subset of the population. And it’s a homogeneous one at that too. 

On the receiving end of this, much of what tech builds often seems to be marketed merely for techies. Billboards in San Francisco speak solely to tech workers about microservices and cloud computing, whereas other billboards across the country advertise McDonald’s or Denny’s. This confused me as I drove into San Francisco for the first time when I moved to college from Los Angeles. One company, Twilio, had a billboard that simply teased, “Ask your developer,” as if cloud communications was some sort of inside joke that I didn’t understand.

But when techies build with other techies in mind, the narrative of the tech industry becomes a self-centered one. Suddenly, the “everyone” and “humans” who designers and developers in tech claim to be building for simply boil down to “my roommates in San Francisco.” 

In the self-centered narrative of the tech industry, exclusivity generates a sense of camaraderie. It’s why techies proudly tack their companies’ logos on their laptops and boast their company T-shirts around the city. 

Last summer during my internship at Facebook, I was nudged toward this easy feeling of belonging. I scrolled through employees’ home cooking tips for each other, photos of people’s dogs and easy banter on discussion boards. I felt comfortable in the coffee rooms that were always open for people to drop by and chat, and where everyone happened to know everyone else’s kids.

In this Bay Area echo chamber where the lines between bros and coworkers are blurred, everyone loves to frame themselves as the “good guys.” Tech heroes praise each other for revolutionizing industries: Airbnb upended the old housing market system! Uber shook up the existing taxi industry! 

But while the tech bubble believes it’s approaching what seems to be a utopia, the world outside of Silicon Valley still finds itself rooted in the same struggles it has always experienced. The convenience of being chauffeured by ride-hailing apps and private company shuttles obscures the fact that gig workers themselves are exploited without any company benefits. When I’m buying birthday gifts for friends last-minute, I find my shallow, instantaneous needs eclipse the laborious working conditions of Amazon distribution center workers.

I’ve never seen a more blatant disregard for the outside world than in the physical spaces of San Francisco, where luxury apartment high-rises blindly stack up against the backdrop of homeless encampments within the same block. Tech’s myopic view of the world causes it to center the world’s narrative around itself. And in doing so, we risk the misuse of tech and jeopardize the livelihoods of those on the outskirts of the industry.

Clubhouse’s invite-only rollout to the public is reflective of what the industry actually is: a clubhouse. And it’s always been this way –– even back in 2005 when Facebook’s membership was exclusive to a handful of universities and companies. And as those in the tech industry continue to ride multicolored bikes around tech campuses and get a kick out of generating hype around coveted invites, tech continues to hold onto the principles of exclusivity that it was founded upon. 

As much as I hate to admit it, being a computer science student at UC Berkeley means that I already have one foot inside the tech circle. So I guess I have an invite. But while tech offers an easy identity in the shape of corporate merch and company perks, I’m scared that once I’m in, I’ll shut the windows of the tech clubhouse and find myself blind to the problems outside of it. 

Bianca Lee writes the Thursday column on the intersection of technology and society.