My name is Anil Dash. I am cofounder of a com­pa­ny called ThinkUp, and I’m a blog­ger. Which is a great, fun way to intro­duce myself these days, because it’s a lit­tle bit like say­ing, I’m a Facebook user,” right? It does­n’t real­ly say much about me. But, the rea­son I still say it is because ten or fif­teen years ago, when I start­ed blog­ging, that actu­al­ly meant some­thing. It meant that you were part of a com­mu­ni­ty not just of the peo­ple that were going to share their lives online, or post pho­tos to look at for one anoth­er, but that we were also build­ing the tools and the technology.

It was a very small, close-knit com­mu­ni­ty. And peo­ple in that com­mu­ni­ty of ear­ly blog­gers that I was part of would go on to build things like Twitter and Flickr and Blogger and LinkedIn, and then lat­er on stuff like Tumblr and Foursquare. All these dif­fer­ent apps. So it was a real­ly real­ly fer­tile time. It was like a small close-knit com­mu­ni­ty like the one that comes here, all talk­ing about their ideas and things that we had learned. So, stuff like if you change a set­ting for whether the default of infor­ma­tion is pub­lic or pri­vate, that rad­i­cal­ly changes what peo­ple will share. And if you change whether it defaults to pho­tos or text, and whether it stays for­ev­er or is just ephemer­al and dis­ap­pears, these things real­ly real­ly impact what peo­ple share and who they share it with.

And so we found that fea­tures define cul­ture. Software influ­ences cul­ture at a very deep lev­el. And that sounds obvi­ous now in hind­sight, but it was­n’t obvi­ous to all of us. And nat­u­ral­ly what hap­pened is those tools took over. I don’t need to tell all of you about this rise.

But there are names and voic­es and ideas that weren’t as well-known. I think of one of the ear­ly sto­ries that stuck with me all these years is my late friend Brad Graham had one of the ear­li­est blogs, a site called Bradlands. And one of the first things Brad did—and this is in 1998, very very ear­ly in the social media era. He would orga­nize every day on World AIDS Day an obser­vance across the then-entire blo­gos­phere (because that was a thing you could do back then) of every­body par­tic­i­pat­ing in observ­ing this day and speak­ing up for a community. 

And notably, his voice, an LGBT voice, was one of the most promi­nent and influ­en­tial voic­es right from the begin­ning of the medi­um. It was always a diverse medi­um. And even as those projects and those lit­tle apps that peo­ple were build­ing turned into real com­pa­nies, we had investors and peo­ple that were involved that were from the com­mu­ni­ty. Folks like Joi Ito, who you heard from ear­li­er, were peo­ple that used the tools, and that’s why they want­ed to see them suc­ceed. And the man­date from them was get as many peo­ple using these things and con­nect­ing, express­ing, as pos­si­ble.” And in that way, the mod­ern social web was born. And inter­est­ing­ly, almost the entire rest of the tech indus­try shift­ed to focus on what had been built and on learn­ing the lessons from that world.

And this is a strik­ing thing, that this small group of inno­va­tors caught a tiger by the tail. Because to that point, keep in mind, we had thought soft­ware was basi­cal­ly just tools. It was like, spread­sheets and things that you’re going to use to com­plete a task. It was­n’t a way of con­nect­ing with one anoth­er. But as it turns out, the high­est and most impor­tant use of soft­ware would turn out to be the thing that humans have been doing for ten thou­sand years. Building com­mu­ni­ties, con­nect­ing with one anoth­er, com­mu­ni­cat­ing in more effi­cient and effec­tive ways. All of the pri­or sev­er­al decades of com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy his­to­ry had sort of been pre­lude to what they were real­ly meant to do best.

And the suc­cess of all those social tech­nolo­gies is some­thing real­ly real­ly strik­ing to me, because what it’s meant today is most of us (all of us in this room, cer­tain­ly) by the time we reach the end of our lives, will have spent at least three years of our lives with our thumb on the glass of our phones. Think about that.

And we know what Google and Facebook and Yahoo and all these folks, we know what they get from it. They get our atten­tion, and some of that they auc­tion off to adver­tis­ers. And good for them. That’s great. But what do we get from it? What do we have to show for three years of our lives invest­ed? Put more sharply, what is mean­ing­ful about all this time we spend online?

This ques­tion haunts me a lot, because I can now look back at a decade and a half of my life, and I’ve got a young son, and I know pret­ty soon he’ll be old enough to be able to read what I’ve writ­ten. And I think a lot about what we have to show for it. I think one of the recur­ring con­ver­sa­tions that’s hap­pened here today is think­ing about self-reflection and obser­va­tion of what’s mean­ing­ful to us.

And this was part of the work that I set out to work on with my cofounder Gina Trapani sev­er­al years ago, build­ing an app to answer some of these ques­tions. And we built this app that was just sort of answer­ing things like, how much did I spend tweet­ing? In my case this was six months ago. I’d spent like over two days tweet­ing in my life. And that was just out­bound, not count­ing how much I read com­ing in.

But there were oth­er ques­tions we want­ed to ask like, how much of the time that I’m talk­ing on my social net­works am I talk­ing about myself? And is it more or less than it was last week? And what does that mean? Is that good? Is it bad? Should I be pro­mot­ing myself more? Should I maybe be lis­ten­ing a lit­tle bit more?

How often am I thank­ing peo­ple or con­grat­u­lat­ing them? And why isn’t Facebook telling me that? Isn’t that some­thing that they could tell me? They have all the data, right? 

Who are my biggest fans? In my case, being an Asian son, my moth­er is my biggest fan on Facebook. That was inevitable. But, for some peo­ple it might not be as obvi­ous, and so that’s some­thing you want to tell people. 

And then as a New Yorker, how much am I curs­ing was a pret­ty impor­tant ques­tion. And was that going up or down? And again, with my moth­er watch­ing, should I prob­a­bly tone that down a lit­tle bit?

These are the ques­tions I had about mak­ing my time mean­ing­ful. Some of them were sil­ly. Some of them were friv­o­lous. But all of them were mean­ing­ful, because they had me think­ing about what my time spent on these net­works was going to mean.

And this is the point where I’ve talked a lit­tle about about an app I’ve built, and I’ve dropped the names of folks that I came up with that are wild­ly suc­cess­ful, where I’m sup­posed to talk to you about how we all lived hap­pi­ly ever after. And social net­works helped peo­ple have a rev­o­lu­tion in Egypt. And isn’t that great? There’s this real­ly inter­est­ing sort of tri­umphal streak in the tech indus­try, where we say, Now you can put cat videos on YouTube. Thank me lat­er.” That’s great. I’m all in favor of cat videos.

But then the self-reflection has to con­tin­ue from that point. And what I looked at is what hap­pened to the tech­nol­o­gy indus­try when it shift­ed its focus to try­ing to ape the behav­iors and pat­terns of the social web, of social net­works, of mobile apps. When the entire indus­try decid­ed this is what its pri­or­i­ty was going to be, and the new wave of com­pa­nies came along to follow.

And this is where hope­ful­ly the con­ver­sa­tion gets a lit­tle uncom­fort­able. Because hon­est­ly, a room­ful of peo­ple as com­fort­able and priv­i­leged as all of us, if we’re talk­ing about rebels, we’re talk­ing that rev­o­lu­tions, we’re not the ones on the bot­tom com­ing up. This room should be pret­ty uncom­fort­able about what it means. We should be think­ing about what we have to change in our­selves. And I say this par­tic­u­lar­ly to those of you who like me are in the tech world.

One the most uncom­fort­able places to start is the terms of ser­vice. These are the things you don’t read when you upgrade on iTunes and it says I agree. I read these.” And what they say in them, essen­tial­ly, is they can take the con­ver­sa­tions you’re hav­ing and do what­ev­er they want with them. Change them, delete them, delay them, slow them down, erase your account for no rea­son or for any rea­son at all. There’s no recourse, there’s no appeal. 

And the rea­son this is espe­cial­ly strik­ing is because the major­i­ty of con­ver­sa­tions that are tak­ing place in our coun­try today are tak­ing place through the medi­a­tion of a small hand­ful of giant tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies. The major­i­ty of con­ver­sa­tions are tak­ing place under the terms of ser­vice of a small num­ber com­pa­nies that have no recourse to you. And this is true even for civic con­ver­sa­tions. We see the President have a town hall at Facebook. We see it dur­ing dis­as­ters, munic­i­pal­i­ties tweet­ing out infor­ma­tion about how to get res­cue supplies. 

Now lis­ten, I’m glad those social net­works pro­vide those ser­vices. I think it’s impor­tant for the dia­logue to hap­pen that way. But it can’t be the only way for us to have pub­lic dis­course. Online, we only have these spaces that are owned by pri­vate com­pa­nies. We don’t have pub­lic parks.

And this would­n’t be as big a prob­lem if the tech indus­try had a sense of what I think of as old-fashioned civics. You see, that civic respon­si­bil­i­ty that hap­pens when a local car deal­er­ship spon­sors the pee wee foot­ball team. There’s a sense that there’s a com­mu­ni­ty that they’re serv­ing. Well, tech indus­tries are pret­ty young and full of very very priv­i­leged peo­ple. And they’re actu­al­ly pret­ty lousy at think­ing about what their civic oblig­a­tions and civic duties ought to be. In some cas­es they active­ly shirk them. This is a strong state­ment. Let me talk to you about how it actu­al­ly [?] impact in the real world. 

The tech indus­try today is proud to trum­pet the fact that smart­phones are near­ly ubiq­ui­tous around the world. But if we look at the tech indus­try itself, who gets a chance to sit at the table, build these tools, and prof­it from their cre­ation? The sta­tis­tics are pret­ty alarm­ing. As you might imag­ine about the pop­u­la­tion of the United States or California, where most of these tech com­pa­nies are based, is about 50/50 male/female, a cou­ple peo­ple of oth­er gen­ders. But real­ly, over­all, it’s pret­ty bal­anced. But with­in these tech com­pa­nies, it tends to be very fre­quent­ly 23 of the employ­ees are men. In many these com­pa­nies if you look just with­in the tech­ni­cal staff, the peo­ple who make the prod­ucts and actu­al­ly deter­mine the cul­ture of the com­pa­ny, com­pa­nies like Twitter, 90% of the employ­ees are men.

Now let’s look at it from oth­er break­downs, like eth­nic­i­ty. Obviously, white men and Asian men are doing pret­ty well in tech­nol­o­gy. A lot of these com­pa­nies look a lot like this room. But take some­thing like a state like California, where 40% of the pop­u­la­tion is Latino. Within tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies, it’s very com­mon for 2% of their employ­ees to be Latino. Same thing with African-Americans. 1214% per­cent of the American pop­u­la­tion; with­in tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies, again 2% of their tech­ni­cal staff is fre­quent­ly African-American.

And this at the same time as they’re crow­ing about how high adop­tion is of smart phones by minor­i­ty pop­u­la­tions. And the impli­ca­tions of this are that the sys­tem­at­ic exclu­sion on the cre­ation of the tools, as we said, impacts the cul­ture. So it is no doubt—it was inevitable that on an aver­age YouTube video that could be about how you made a peanut but­ter and jel­ly sand­wich, you’ll start to see strings of racist com­ments. And peo­ple say, Oh, that’s just how YouTube is.” Or sys­tem­at­ic harass­ment of peo­ple on Twitter. Right now, there’s a group of angry misog­y­nist gamers try­ing to chase away the major­i­ty of video game play­ers who are women from their indus­try, from their lit­tle club­house. And there aren’t good tools for pre­vent­ing that abuse, even as women are get­ting chased out of their homes, because most of the peo­ple who are impact­ed by this don’t have a seat at the table to cre­ate these technologies.

And it’s not just about these abus­es hap­pen­ing because peo­ple in tech are bad. They’re not. They’re good peo­ple. They’re well-intentioned. They want to help peo­ple. But above all, they’re meant to pur­sue effi­cien­cy. And the way effi­cien­cy is designed in the tech indus­try today is around this mod­el that looks like an Instagram or a WhatsApp. Instagram, when it sold for a bil­lion dol­lars to Facebook, had about a dozen employ­ees. WhatsApp, when it sold to Facebook for twenty-two bil­lion dol­lars, had about twen­ty employ­ees. That’s the effi­cien­cy they’re opti­miz­ing for.

I’m not anti-tech, because we can look at good exam­ples in tech. Something like one of my favorite New York com­pa­nies, Etsy, build­ing a mar­ket­place that is explic­it­ly inclu­sive, where peo­ple can trade crafts and things they cre­ate, and sell to one anoth­er. And the major­i­ty of their cre­ators are women. They’ve done a tar­get­ed and struc­tured way of actu­al­ly encour­ag­ing women to par­tic­i­pate in Etsy as employ­ees. And it’s working. 

So I’m not say­ing the tech indus­try is bad. I’m say­ing how we define what suc­cess is and what our goals are for effi­cien­cy, we have to be thought­ful about. We have to be mind­ful about. Because when we look at the impli­ca­tions of what tech impacts. Things like our pri­va­cy. It affects all of us every day. It’s not just that your nude pic­tures might leak out from Apple servers, although obvi­ous­ly that’s a seri­ous issues. But also, even though the tech indus­try right­ful­ly object­ed to the NSA vio­lat­ing our civ­il lib­er­ties and mon­i­tor­ing all of us, they also made it pos­si­ble. If we had­n’t put all our eggs in one small bas­ket, it would­n’t have been so easy to col­lect them.

And so what I’m ask­ing for all of us to do that are in the tech indus­try, and for all of you who are just con­sumers of tech to hold us account­able to do, is encour­age us to respect the insti­tu­tions that tech could be pay­ing atten­tion to. I look at com­pa­nies like Uber, which is the cur­rent dar­ling of the tech world, get­ting hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in fund­ing. And they’re try­ing to make it bet­ter to flag a car down so you can trav­el some­where. And every­body’s in favor of that.

But the way they’re doing it is sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly going into new cities and vio­lat­ing tran­sit pol­i­cy, vio­lat­ing taxi laws, while they’re mak­ing cars avail­able. And lis­ten, I don’t care how out of date the reg­u­la­tions are, you can’t have a prece­dent set where indus­tries are built on vio­lat­ing laws at large scale. These rebels build­ing tech start to look a lot more like rob­ber barons when you look at it through that lens. And it’s not too late to fix it, but only if we hold them accountable.

But there are excep­tions. There are still a lot of apps and a lot of web­sites that are made by one or two folks work­ing on their own, by mom and pop com­pa­nies. But I ask you, all of you in this room are the kind of folks that say, Oh, I’d much rather go to an inde­pen­dent cof­fee shop than that big chain. I don’t eat fast food for every meal. Sometimes I have home-cooked meals.” How many of you know who made the apps on your phone? How many of you know who those peo­ple are? Are any of the apps on your phone made by minori­ties? Do you know who? You cer­tain­ly are the kind of peo­ple that say, Well, there’s a new restau­rant in town and they’re new immi­grants, and I want to help them get a foot up so I’m going to go and patron­ize that restau­rant.” Do you do that as a con­sumer of tech­nol­o­gy? Couldn’t we?

Because there’s this ques­tion about what we care about in the tech indus­try. And we are very very eager to take cred­it for the pos­i­tive things that hap­pen from con­nect­ing peo­ple togeth­er, and we should be. I’m proud of the role I’ve had. I’m proud to see my friends have had incred­i­ble impact. 

But we can’t take cred­it for the good with­out also tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for the bad. And I look at some­thing like twenty-two bil­lion dol­lars spent on WhatsApp. That’s great. It’s a very use­ful mes­sag­ing app for peo­ple. I’m glad they find val­ue in it. And I think about one mil­lion unem­ployed African-American women in this coun­try, each of whom could get a $20,000 train­ing schol­ar­ship to learn to be coders or pro­gram­mers or what­ev­er they want to be in their careers, for the same cost as one WhatsApp.

So I say to the tech­nol­o­gy indus­try, if you want to change the world, change the world. Don’t wait. There’s an urgency here. And I ask you to hold me account­able, too. Because I was com­pla­cent for a long time to coast on, Well, aren’t we doing great? Isn’t every­body hap­py about these net­works they’re using?” And then I spent some time to reflect. And thought about what’s going to last. I’ve now had maybe ten or fif­teen years to look at what my life online is going to look like. But think about today’s tech­nol­o­gy. The apps we use, the ser­vices we use. And look for­ward ten or fif­teen or fifty years to what we tell our chil­dren, our grand­chil­dren, great great grand­chil­dren about the rise of this indus­try, about the rise of the influ­ence of this tech.

Because unlike the oth­er media like tra­di­tion­al jour­nal­ism that had a role that was enshrined in the Constitution, clear­ly defined in its rela­tion­ship with our civic insti­tu­tions, we’re still nego­ti­at­ing what the role of the tech indus­try is going to be. And believe me, the tech indus­try will be a fifth branch just as much as the press is the fourth branch of gov­ern­ment. There is a check and a bal­ance that is hap­pen­ing that has not tak­en place yet, for the tech indus­try to use its pow­er for good. But only if all of us hold every­one in tech accountable.

And so I want to make a call for all of us, every sin­gle time we put our thumbs on our phones, every sin­gle time we share an image, think about first, what are we doing for our­selves? What will this mean to us in a few years? Will we be proud of what we shared? Is the mes­sage we’re telling one anoth­er the one that we care most about? And then for the apps and the sites and the ser­vices we use, to say to them, I expect you to live up to your oblig­a­tions, com­men­su­rate to the incred­i­ble priv­i­leges and rewards that you’ve been giv­en.” And for all of us togeth­er to look at this world that’s being shaped by these new tech­nolo­gies and say we can do bet­ter. Thank you.

Further Reference

This ses­sion’s page at the PopTech site.