Written by Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova
“I don’t know what’s going on here!” said The Daily Show’s John Oliver, as he hosted (and roasted) the 7th annual Tech Crunchies award event in San Francisco on February 10. While he was likely not alone in being mystified by what some of the startup tech companies actually produced, the event was a clinic in how a group reacts to outside threats—and we don’t mean Apple vs. Samsung or electronic spying (though that topic came up too—Eric Snowden got an award in absentia).
The whole awards ceremony, while supposed to be a celebration of the tech industry and democratic innovation, turned out, at least for the first 15 minutes or so, to focus on a group protesting outside the San Francisco Symphony Hall. Reminiscent of—or, perhaps just continuing—the 1 percent controversy, this time played out in the Bay Area, these protesters directed their attention not at Wall Street but the high tech industry, that among other things, concentrates so much money in the hands of so few that real estate prices in the Silicon Valley area of California are driven beyond the reach of most people. It's not the first protest on this issue—last year, they stopped a bus of Google employees on the way to a party. So in some ways the protests have a local feel to them, as opposed to the Occupy Movement. In any case, it was impossible to avoid the protesters’ impact since Oliver repeatedly brought them up with generous dollops of biting humor and glee.
From a groups and teams perspective, the interesting part of all this was that the officials of the event, rather than ignoring the protesters and perhaps to their credit, made them in some ways the opening act of the program. The first 15 minutes or so presented no awards but instead featured a procession of tech industry angel investors and other luminaries who tried to make the case that high tech firms really were doing something about "the protesters outside" and the things that concerned them. In fact, the startups most prominent in this event of startups were more about food, housing and other "wealth spreading" efforts. This is in contrast to one Silicon Valley figure, venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who took a more adversarial approach—comparing the protesters’ hostility to Nazis, saying the best approach was to ignore them.
One common response that groups take when threatened, whether they be single businesses or, like in this case an entire industry, is to establish their legitimacy and protect their image by cultivating a perception they are trying their best to right a wrong, whether the group itself is at blame. Organizational scientists tell us there is more to this than simply public relations, though that is part of it. It is likely that tech industry leaders recognized the very things protesters bring up—income inequality and its collateral damage—could wreck the image people have of the tech industry. That image, obviously valued by the industry, is of a world where the strength of ideas is what counts, not family connections, where new money dominates and where "kids in a garage" can get rich overnight. The extent that perception is true can be debated, but the perception is what counts. And that perception must be valued a great deal, or it wouldn’t have been so prominently defended at what is one of the high profile annual events for the industry.
The lesson from this for groups is not necessarily a cynical one—it makes perfect sense for a group to protect its reputation. The question from this point is how much real impact the initiatives will have and how much the efforts can sustain the essentially positive image of the technology industry as an apolitical hotbed of innovation. It bears watching, which we intend to do. Videos and other information on the Crunchies event can be found at techcrunch.com.