So there was a big power outage in downtown San Francisco today and as a result the South Park neighborhood is out of power. Eh, you say? Well, South Park is well known for being the heart of Web 2.0 startups: Technorati, SixApart, Craigslist, Yelp, Satisfaction, Wallop, etc. are all headquartered within a five block radius of each other. A big datacenter/colo has failed as a result of the power outage and so many of these sites are down.
I’m doing fieldwork for my status project here in SF, and it’s amazing how closely connected all the startups are. This may seem immensely obvious to any geek who works at one of them, but as someone who (as closely connected as I may be) lives in NY, where startup culture just isn’t the same, it’s very clear that the Web 2.0 world is in many ways a provincial one. People who work on Web 2.0 hang out together, go to the same parties, date each other, know the same people, collaborate on projects, start companies together, and talk about technology together (this includes many bloggers, academics studying social media, etc.). This has several effects:
1. It normalizes what is really edge case/early adopter behavior, like Twitter or del.icio.us
2. It creates assumptions about users based on a primarily white, upper-middle-class San Francisco userbase
3. It encourages people to seek approval from their peer group (e.g. following what’s cool)
People = technologists. Developers = people. The human element of social media creators should never be underestimated. Many (most?) 2.0 startups are created by teams of ~10 people, and many people design for themselves and their friends. Even usability testing, which has become a core part of application development (thank goodness), is often conducted on tech-savvy people. The same with beta testers, who tend to be technology-nerds to whom beta-ing is a status symbol.
When several core 2.0 startups are so closely interconnected that they are all in the same freakin’ neighborhood, it begs the question of what effects this has on the larger social media landscape. Furthermore, many of the movers-and-shakers of 2.0 who aren’t based in SF, the people Dopplr was invented for, people who frequently travel around the country, may be home-based on Florida, New York, or LA, but they still orbit a tiny world of technologists who all know each other. SXSW, foocamp, etc. then become summer/spring camp for this crowd.
I’m not saying this is a terrible thing, etc. etc. There are plenty of studies of tech-heavy not-as-urban neighborhoods like Silicon Valley or Boston’s Route 128 that show that lots of nerds in one place = lots of advantages (good school systems, lots of money going into the neighboring community, etc.- think Redmond, Palo Alto). (Tangent:) As Douglas Coupland wrote in Microserfs in 1994:
The Safeway was completely empty save for us and a few other Microsoft people just like us – hair-trigger geeks in pursuit of just the right snack. Because of all the rich nerds living around here, Redmond and Bellevue are very “on-demand” neighborhoods. Nerds get what they want when they want it, and they go psycho if it’s not immediately available.
And the reason I came to SF in the first place was because this city inspires me and it makes me think deeply about technology in a way that New York does not. BUT: It also overestimates the importance of technology because it is working with a skewed sample of people. It is wonderful here to be a nerd, but it is not at all normal.