The internet of the late 1990s was like Manhattan in the 1970s—not just because it was super grimy and there was an air of lawlessness, but because it had the tacky neon intensity of a pawn shop that’s open 24 hours a day. Suffice to say, the internet was no place for children back then; pop-up ads would accost us like aggressive show promoters with inappropriate fliers on busy sidewalks.
Much like Times Square in the 1990s, big brands eventually recognized the economic opportunity of the World Wide Web. But even once larger commercial interests merged onto the information superhighway and seedier elements scurried off into the shadows, a systemic lack of diversity in tech continued to shape our user experience.
From harassment on Twitter to easy access to pornography on Google, the Web 2.0 landscape reflects the interests of the men who informed it. Compound the nuances of these mainstream platforms with a proliferation of hook-up and sexting apps, and it’s hard to discern Silicon Valley from a raunchy 1980s sex comedy. Revenge of the Nerds, indeed.
The tech industry is by far America’s most insidious expression of patriarchy to date. Apps like Tinder and Snapchat are far more than just icons for the muted misogyny of the industry; they at once capture America’s ingenuity and the limitations of its social consciousness.
There are signals that tech is progressing in this respect, but not without its own distinct challenges. Almost unsurprisingly, Whitney Wolfe Herd, the former Vice President of Marketing at Tinder, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit after she left the company in 2014. As the dust settled, Herd went on to found Bumble, the female-focused social and dating app.
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Bumble gained notoriety by iterating on the card-stack model that made Tinder a huge success. Beyond that now-conventional swipe left/swipe right model, Herd added an extra layer of friction that provides women with more control over the dating experience: when both participants are heterosexual, women have to make the first move after they match with a man on Bumble. In defying established gender dynamics through product design, Bumble suggests that greater diversity (concerning gender, ethnicity, orientation, age, and so on) among chief executives would lead to technological innovation that could improve society by addressing more urgent cultural interests.
Apps that disproportionately solve the problems of young white men are backed by a venture capital ecosystem that looks just like them. The whole industrial stack―from the investors, to the entrepreneurs, to the designers―can’t help but manifest its bias in the software that’s dictating our lives in ever more subtle ways each day.
Greater diversity in tech would not only change who builds what; it would improve how we express ourselves through design. The modern web may no longer be Times Square in the 1970s, but the mood on Twitter isn’t all that different from Martin Scorcese’s film Taxi Driver. The problem isn’t the sketchy side characters—the reply guys, to give an online equivalent—who make DeNiro’s character appear well-adjusted by comparison. They’re just a symptom; we need to address design choices that reward bad actors. We need to confront the industrial power structure that leads to those user experiences in the first place.
Design choices are like word choices in that they can encourage or inhibit behavior in nuanced ways. No matter how much a designer wants to make their product inclusive, the bias of these platforms is predetermined by the lack of diversity at the companies that hire them, as well as the venture capital firms that fund the companies themselves. It’s not just more likely that Twitter would have more protections against harassment if there had been greater diversity on the original product team; the design language itself would be more inclusive and less abrasive.
A lack of diversity in tech imposes a low ceiling on user experience design.
Have you ever signed up for a platform, only to be inundated with an overbearing set of tasks as if it suddenly owns you? As a former privileged young white dude in his twenties, that experience bears a striking resemblance to the stereotype of dating a privileged young white dude in his twenties. There’s an oppressive arrogance to the unsympathetic aggression with which these platforms demand you to do things on their timeline.
Even if each design choice is rationalized in an effort to increase engagement, we can and should do better. The next time you receive a push notification that’s a little too pushy or you’re prompted to upload a profile picture immediately, reflect on how much less domineering UX design could be if we had greater diversity in tech.
Theo is the co-host of Techlash. This week’s guest, Lisa Marrone from Revel explains the importance of building for underserved groups. Sign up for the newsletter and listen to the podcast on Spotify, or wherever you get your shows.