(c) 2013, Slate.
(c) 2013, Slate.
PALO ALTO, Calif. — It was a day that ends in Y, so last week Sam Biddle, editor of Gawker's tech-gossip site Valleywag, decided to post a quick hit on Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. In a profile of Mayer in Vogue — a piece by The Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg that had already merited a Valleywag post — Biddle found a nugget proving that the chief executive of a multibillion-dollar company does not live like you or me.
In June, Mayer and her husband bid $33,000 at a charity auction for a children's playhouse designed to look like the Peninsula Creamery, a popular hangout spot for Stanford students. (Mayer studied at Stanford, lives in Palo Alto, and loves the Creamery's pineapple malts.) The playhouse was big enough to require a forklift to deliver it to Mayer's backyard. Valleywag was scandalized. "While Yahoo! struggles to recreate itself, aimlessly, out from the shadow of the 1990s, its glam CEO is forklifting mini-houses," Biddle wrote. "How the other half of a percent lives!" Biddle's headline hemorrhaged populist ire: "Yahoo! CEO's Backyard Playhouse Is Bigger Than Your Apartment."
There are two problems with this post. First, Biddle glosses over some important facts about Mayer's playhouse. She bought it at a long-running Bay Area charity event called Dreams Happen, where local architects donate their time to create elaborate play structures, and local millionaires and billionaires compete with one another to bid on them. The event is a win for everyone: The playhouses sit out at Stanford Shopping Center for a few weeks, raising awareness for the sponsoring charity, Rebuilding Together Peninsula, which pays for home repairs for seniors and low-income residents across Silicon Valley. The architects get to show off their creativity. And the wealthy people get to keep playhouses in their backyards. Dreams Happen has raised more than $3 million to fix up low-income housing. (Also, the playhouses aren't bigger than your apartment: Their maximum footprint is 8 feet by 10 feet.)
Second, let's aside these mitigating factors. Mayer bought a $33,000 playhouse — so what? What's wrong with a wealthy woman spending a tiny fraction of her riches on her kid? Is it really newsworthy — any more newsworthy than, say, a wealthy person taking a private jet, sending her kid to private school, or buying an expensive car? Biddle didn't elaborate in his post, though on Twitter, he argued that "buying your kid a play mansion is obscene, period." But Mayer's $33,000 playhouse wasn't even the most expensive structure at this year's auction; several sold for more than $50,000, and the top-earning playhouse, a replica of AT&T Park, went for $101,000.
But Valleywag didn't need to explain to its readers what was so terrible about Mayer's playhouse, because according to its worldview, a rich techie doing rich-people things is self-evidently worthy of mockery.
I was excited when I heard, earlier this year, that Gawker Media was resurrecting Valleywag, which it founded in 2005 and later shut down. Valleywag is necessary. The tech industry is a hype-fueled wonderland of money and ambition, a place as central to the world economy as Wall Street, and one whose globe-changing ambitions are often ridiculous. When I heard Biddle would be running the site, I was even more thrilled. A longtime Gawker Media writer, Biddle worked for Gizmodo for many years, and even when I disagree with him, I find him to be a lively, hilarious writer and a dogged reporter.
But in the few months it's been online, the new Valleywag has been a disappointment. Too often, it squanders its resources by shooting designer fish in a gold-plated barrel, rather than taking on more important problems in technology and the tech industry. In a recent profile of the site in The New York Times by Nick Bilton, the writer Paul Carr — a frequent target of Valleywag — summed up its failings this way: "Valleywag's mission was to expose criminality, hypocrisy and corruption, but it isn't doing any of that. . . . Instead you have a guy in New York pointing to Silicon Valley from thousands of miles away saying: 'Look at that rich guy. Isn't he rich? That rich guy is a loser.' "
A stroll through Valleywag's archives bolsters this assessment. Here's one rich guy having the sort of expensive wedding you'd expect a rich person to have. Here's another rich guy who paid to have his daughter meet Miley Cyrus. Here are rich techies paying for boat rides to avoid a transportation strike, and here's a company hoping rich people will pay for laundry service. Rich techies are especially vulnerable to a Valleywag attack when they engage in that favorite rich-person pastime of giving away their money. Whether they donate to charity auctions, go on African charity expeditions, or try to teach homeless people computer programming, rich techies are ridiculed for what's taken to be their obvious insincerity, naïveté and clear efforts at self-aggrandizement.
My primary beef with Valleywag is the way it spins the smallest bits of tech gossip or punditry into a larger, stereotypically skewed narrative about the tech industry. The narrative is generally about the amoral politics of techies or, as Biddle calls them, the "techno-libertarian goon squad." In Valleywag's worldview, every civic confrontation in Silicon Valley is a Manichean choice between the interests of techies and nontechies, and the techies are always cast as rich, tax-and-government-hating baddies who want to pull one over on the rest of us. Not only is this simplistic; often, it's just wrong on the facts.
I wish Valleywag would take on some of these real issues. I'm not saying it has to become Wonkblog. But I do think it can be funny, snarky and substantive rather than strident for stridency's sake. I know it's fun to mock techies. But as Marissa Mayer's kid will soon find out, even the biggest playhouse eventually becomes monotonous.
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Manjoo is Slate's technology reporter and the author of "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society." Twitter: @fmanjoo