Wrong side of the apps

I’ve been thinking about something Anil Dash published a few weeks back on his brilliant blog: “You Can’t Start The Revolution From The Country Club” – read it here.

The post was about the new generation of communications tools like Svbtle, Medium and App.net that seem, by accident or design, to be pitched at a pretty exclusive audience.

App.net shuns the usual ad-funded model in favour of a relatively hefty $50 $36 a year subscription fee. The others are mainly guilty of being exclusive on account of the narrow demographic they currently serve (predominantly wealthy urban white males on the west or east coast according to this semi-scientific study of these new platforms).

Anil put it like this:

In today’s world, where the social web is mainstream, innovating on the core values of tools and technology while ignoring the value of inclusiveness is tantamount to building a gated community. Even with the promise that the less privileged might get a chance to show up later, you’re making a fundamentally unfair system.

I think his point is absolutely right. This is a slippery slope. The moment we start putting the velvet ropes up is the moment many of the fundamental ideals of the open internet start to fail.

But here’s the thing. The reason so many of those early adopters are wealthy urban white males on the coasts is because the founders of these new companies are wealthy urban white males on the coasts – their friends from a similar background are naturally the early adopters.

Maybe the problem that Anil is talking about is a symptom rather than a cause. Maybe the real problem is that the profile of many (most?) people that get to launch successful tech companies is representative of a tiny proportion of the broader population. People with the connections and funds.

I looked up a few of the most high profile internet businesses and guess what – each of these founders went to fee-paying private schools: Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Kevin Systrom (Instagram), Kevin Rose (Digg), Jack Dorsey (Twitter, Square), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla), David Karp (Tumblr), Matt Mullenweg (WordPress).

In a recent interview I was asked what would I say to the Prime Minister if I had two minutes. I said that I would say this:

Invest in education. You only have to look at the proportion of people with private education that have excelled in everything from industry to the arts, politics to technology. Even Team GB at the Olympics had a way above average representation from public schools [note to US readers, in the UK ‘public’ schools are fee-paying].

Is that because the kids of rich parents are smarter? Of course not. It’s because they have opportunities children from less well off families do not. But it’s also more than that, it’s a state of mind, a confidence that comes from knowing you can stand up and get your point across. Education is the best competitive advantage we have, we need to do more to ensure we have the skills necessary to invent the technologies and create the ideas that will move things forward.

Of course it can be done without the advantages of a privileged education. There are countless examples of entrepreneurs that have overcome extraordinary obstacles to succeed. But there is no doubt that more young people could build great things if the playing field was just a little more level.

PS: While researching this post I asked Jason Fried, founder of 37signals, if he’d gone to private school (he didn’t). And for the record, neither did Anil Dash.

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Wrong side of the apps