A couple of centuries ago, Northern California was a magnet for legions of men, young and old, in search of riches. They had heard that millions could be made by anyone who showed up and worked hard. Some did achieve great wealth, but most left with nothing more than they had when they arrived.
That was the California gold rush of the mid-1800s. But now another boom is drawing in the dreamers.
The technology industry, whose spiritual home is Silicon Valley and San Francisco but whose reach is global, is a bright spot. Its entrepreneurs are international celebrities, lauded by political and business leaders alike as a new model of success. And the technologies they have created are heralded as an enabler for anyone to reach the same heights.
But is such a lofty reputation deserved? That was the question the academic Alice Marwick wanted to answer when she moved to San Francisco to conduct four years of ethnographic research on "how 'the tech scene' functions."
When she arrived in 2006, the industry "was hyped not only as a social revolution but also as a potential source of immense wealth."
But in Marwick's new book, "Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity & Branding in the Social Media Age," she poses important questions for the technology sector. The book, published by Yale University Press, makes a compelling case that the rhetoric does not always match the reality — particularly when it comes to social media.
Context and geography matter. "The history of the Northern California tech industry and San Francisco's roots in radical counterculture have created an ideology of Web 2.0 that ascribes both enormous power and profitability to social technologies," she writes.
Early idealists extolled the Web's potential to enable anyone to challenge traditional power structures. For example, people created blogs to give themselves a public platform outside the mainstream media and business world.
Marwick says this role of the sector as "meritocratic" has persisted, even as the early optimism met with the reality of trying to build commercial enterprises.
Now, as well as talking of changing the world, tech entrepreneurs believe they can make a lot of money. Moreover, an entire cottage industry has emerged to perpetuate the view that if these founders can do it, we all can, with a bit of hard work and clever exploitation of the Web's myriad tools.
Self-help-style business books offer tips on how to mimic the success of famous founders. New York-based Gary Vaynerchuk, for instance, turned his father's discount liquor store into a much bigger e-commerce wine business, in part through developing a keen following of his video blog. He is now an in-demand speaker and bestselling author.
The result is that tech entrepreneurs have achieved a mythical status as the personification of the 21st century American dream. That person — and it is almost always a he — is in his 20s, does not wear a suit to work, may have skipped college and has launched a multibillion-dollar company.
Marwick cautions that such successes are so rare that it is disingenuous to suggest everyone can be an entrepreneur. Yet being a founder has become an end in itself, irrespective of whether the company generates wealth or jobs for just a few.
The book is repetitive at times. It would also have been good if Marwick had more on-the-record interviews with founders, given that one of the few who does talk is so revealing.
Ev Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, explains why young people want to become entrepreneurs as follows: "One is you can get rich, that's pretty good. But the newer part of it culturally seems to be that you're like a hero. Steve Jobs is the epitome. You're an artist. You're a visionary. You're a hero. You're a billionaire. You have a tremendous amount of power.... It's like the fame of a rock star, but more power and more money. It sounds pretty good."
It is a far cry from social revolution.
Ravi Mattu is an editor at the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.