Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Weird Redemption of SF’s Most Reviled Tech Bro

[ed. Pretty much confirms everything you've read or heard about Silicon Valley's approach (or cluelessness) to solving large social issues. See also: The Moral Economy of Tech]

In the hours before Greg Gopman lost control of his image — going from “killing it” to the city’s most reviled tech bro — he was munching on a Show Dog on Market Street. Maple sausage, egg, grilled onions: his fave go-to in San Francisco, his fave city in the world. It was December 10, 2013, and he gazed out the window of the gourmet sausage shop, flanked by the startups that had recently accepted a city tax break to open on a stretch of hustlers, homeless people, and payday loan shops. Nowhere were the city’s two polarized income brackets — sleek tech wealth and a shambling underclass — in closer contact.

Gopman belonged squarely in the first group, as the 29-year-old founder and outgoing CEO of AngelHack, a hackathon host and startup incubator that hooked up young developers with connections and, sometimes, money. Gopman had already had some brush-ups with the homeless. When he first moved across the country in 2011 to San Francisco as “such a nobody,” he’d actually sought them out. One of his initial startup ideas had the working name Herobi (a play on “Be a hero”), inciting people to pay forward good deeds. Gopman would post photos on Facebook of cash he’d tucked in homeless people’s cups, hoping it would catch on. (“I learned people don’t actually get inspired by you posting good acts on Facebook. It looks pretty bad.”) He’d also doled out leftover pastries from AngelHack’s early hackathons to folks on the street.

Yet as he now passed the homeless on his daily walk to the office, a growing sense of #WTF set in. One morning, a bedraggled lady had kicked him in the shin. Another time, a guy had flashed him a fistful of heroin needles, which really grossed him out. That day at Show Dogs, he spotted a guy whose pants were falling down past his bare buttocks.

Gopman got out his iPhone, opened Facebook, and started to type.

Maybe it was inevitable that in 2013, as San Francisco was mired in Peak Backlash against its influx of highly paid newcomers, a techie would take the fall.

Decades of NIMBY housing policy in a cramped city meant there was no room for the tens of thousands of incoming tech employees unless someone with less money was kicked out. Protestors circled a Google bus. They stood in front of Twitter carrying a coffin labeled “Affordable Housing.” In another two months, a dude in a dive bar would famously rip a pair of Google Glasses off a woman’s face.

Gopman had dismissed the headlines as the work of a few zealots, and wasn’t thinking about potential opposition as he typed out his thoughts. After all, his instincts had transformed him, in just two years, from an ambitious 27-year-old dude who’d driven out from Miami Beach into a minor Silicon Valley kingmaker — an anointer of princelings. In South Florida he had been itching to bust through the glass ceiling he’d reached: paying himself more than $100K while selling repaired cellphones on eBay. In San Francisco he’d built up AngelHack from a DIY event at Adobe’s headquarters to a global hackathon juggernaut with himself as its public face, enough of a pulpit for him to have Mark Cuban in his contacts and many thankful founders who credited him with their lucky break. In a TEDx talk just a few months earlier, Gopman had said, “Nice guys finish first. The startup world is small.”

Right there in the hot dog joint Gopman hit publish on his Facebook post:

That evening, friends came over to his Soma Grand 15th floor pad to welcome him back to town. Drinking. Smoking. Gopman checked his phone, and saw that his post had set off a comment war on Facebook. Some responders quipped that tech bros like him were ruining the city. Other tech people shared his grievances. His profile was public — he used it as a self-promotional tool — and Gopman had never gotten so much traction on a post. He’d always wanted to be a thought leader, and here he was, leading a raucous debate. “I was like fuck yeah!”

So Gopman typed out a new boozy message, going even deeper than the last:

“The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it’s a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that’s okay.

In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city…You can preach compassion, equality, and be the biggest lover in the world, but there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us. It’s a burden and a liability having them so close to us. Believe me, if they added the smallest iota of value I’d consider thinking different, but the crazy toothless lady who kicks everyone that gets too close to her cardboard box hasn’t made anyone’s life better in a while.”

Gopman went to bed, happy with the attention. The next morning, a text message pinged.

Dude, you got Valleywagged. And it’s bad.

Valleywag licked its lips: “Happy Holidays: Startup CEO Complains San Francisco Is Full of Human Trash.” A photo showed Gopman at his most duck-face douchebag, modeling a hackathon’s giveaway sunglasses. The cyber pile-on began in the story comments and spilled onto social media. Some folks took the opportunity to announce that Gopman had always struck them as arrogant. “Silicon Valley groupie.” “Pretentious Florida party boy.” “Eugenicist.” The Huffington Post’s headline joined the metastasizing media coverage: “AngelHack CEO’s Attack On Homeless May Be Biggest Social Media Blunder Of 2013.”

Bevan Dufty, the city’s homeless czar at the time, had his own view of Gopman’s post. “What would we call it?” he muses. “‘Bromlessness.’ They’re like the bros and they’re just aimless and concerned about homelessness — affecting them.” He chuckles.

For San Francisco, Gopman’s rant was the delicious schadenfreude that the city was thirsting for: the unwitting techie who wandered into this class opera, shooting off his mouth to reveal a slimy, elitist core.

Gopman hovered over his laptop. “Pure. Adrenaline. Terror,” he now recalls. “I’m like going through and deleting and reading shit. It was the worst fucking moment of my life.” Gopman dashed off an apology. A media friend gave it some tweaks: it came across sounding corporate and hollow. Gopman wondered where the bottom was.(...)

The day after Gopman got Valleywagged, a city bureaucrat from the mayor’s office emailed him, wanting to talk about how to “leverage the potential of the tech community for good in our city.” A PR company asked him to face off with a homeless-helping reverend at a church: “a chance to build some bridges in a city that’s under some pressure right now, and, a chance for you to help shape your story/message as well.” Gopman interpreted all these offers to mean: save your skin, and hook us up with your rich contacts.

A Facebook DM from a city economic development worker named Ellyn Parker (unsanctioned by City Hall, she says) struck him as more sincere. They met on the roof of Soma Grand while Parker explained the web of nonprofits and city departments that spends $241 million a year on the city’s more than 6,000 homeless residents, a population count that has stayed nearly unchanged for 25 years. “He was in education and humbling mode,” Parker says. She suggested that maybe he could create a database to track each homeless person as they get services from various entities. Maybe he could help a nonprofit that was getting evicted.

Gopman may well have been the lightning rod that took the highest-volt hazing of all the tech victors of San Francisco’s boom. But he wasn’t going to follow anyone else’s idea on how to dig his way out. Gopman decided he had to go Full Gopman: some amalgam of save-the-world hubris and save-my-ass savvy, and an indefatigable belief in the startup mentality curing all.

by Lauren Smiley, Backchannel |  Read more:
Image: Molly Matalon and uncredited