Girl Geeks and Boy Kings

Artwork by Imp Kerr

Facebook was, in its early days, powered by women—or rather, by photographs of women, and by the unceasing clicks of men and of women seeking out photos of women.

These were the years long before Facebook hired any women at the executive level, before a woman served on its board, which, until early 2012, was all male. This was the era when Facebook, like the college culture that birthed it, was driven by users contributing to an all-day, all-night party fueled by their updates, a party that anyone could slip into and observe, just by creating a profile.

But the frat party never ended, even if the cups have been cleared away. Though the site has long since shed this particular image and now caters to a far broader range of users, it still permeates Facebook’s culture, and—whether we ever were part of that buzzy time or any of the photos that captured it—it remains at the core of the site, still shaping our experience.

From my time in and around Silicon Valley in the mid-2000s, creating gossip product for the benefit of Gawker Media’s tech blog called Valleywag, I came away understanding Facebook as a machine for creating wealth for nerds. Which it is. But the unpaid and underpaid labor of women is essential to making that machine go, to making it so irresistible. Women and their representations are as intentional a part of Facebook as Mark Zuckerberg’s post-collegiate fraternity of star brogrammers.

I was returned to that time and its enduring frat-boy legacy when I read Katherine Losse’s 2012 memoir The Boy Kings. Losse, an early Facebook employee, stands in for the women at Facebook, moving from outsider to insider, graduate student to early start-up employee, hourly waged customer support staffer to a salaried position as Zuckerberg’s ghostwriter. She arrives at Facebook at a time when the master password to the site is accessible to any employee on the first day, and departs a company with three hundred million users passing the work day thumbing-up family photos and tending imaginary farms.

Losse’s book evokes the experience of reading a Facebook user’s News Feed: an inviting and rapidly scrolling index of cities, friends, parties, and products, a record of a time and place, and a place that I shared with Losse without sharing experiences with her firsthand. There was the town of Menlo Park, where we both worked answering email professionally. There was the dive bar in the Mission, the perpetually gentrifying San Francisco neighborhood, where Losse and I both lived and drank fernet and never met. There was the infamous Facebook conference F8 (pronounced “fate”), which Losse was allowed to attend only if she would serve as a coat girl (she refused) and which I was supposed to crash and cover as a tech gossip (I didn’t, but I did liberate a badge from a gossip target, one of a new crew of women who hung around tech men seeking attention and social media hits by association, and blogged about that instead).

After college, Losse left class-stratified Baltimore for Silicon Valley, a place obsessed with riches though populated with those deeply ambivalent about “being” rich. She has an eye for class that the men around her at Facebook pretend doesn’t matter. She confirms as fact the almost too-real anecdote with which I adorned my stories over and over: Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of a company valued at the time at $100 million, left his spartan apartment containing only a bed and a laptop for work each day wearing black rubber Adidas flip-flop sandals and a dark hoodie.

But such a modest ensemble is, for Zuckerberg, class drag. While his net worth shot upward with each injection of venture capital into Facebook, support employees like Losse scraped by with twenty dollars an hour. Facebook’s most valued employees—software engineers—relied on customer support staff largely in order to avoid direct contact with Facebook’s users. Rather than valuing their work as vital to operations, Facebook’s technical staff looked down on the support team, as if they were not much better than users themselves. “Personal contact with customers,” Losse writes, was viewed by the engineers as something “that couldn’t be automated, a dim reminder of the pre-industrial era…”

Though they pretend not to see difference, Losse, through her co-workers’ eyes, is meant to function as a kind of domestic worker, a nanny, housemaid, and hostess, performing emotional labor that is at once essential and invisible. At Facebook parties, women in Losse’s position at the company didn’t have to serve drinks, but they were expected to serve as ornaments. They posed for candid-seeming shots taken by a professional photographer hired by Facebook, shots that would then be posted on Facebook the next day for other employees and the public at large to enjoy. All employees were expected to keep active profiles on the site, to represent life at Facebook and, by extension, Facebook itself, as friendly and inviting, to perform at all times as the kinds of people users might expect to find on the website.


Keeping their profiles updated between other tasks at work may have been considered billable hours, but what of the time that waged employees spent at after-work parties or at home on weekends?

At Facebook parties, women in Losse’s position at the company didn’t have to serve drinks, but they were expected to serve as ornaments. They posed for candid-seeming shots taken by a professional photographer hired by Facebook, shots that would then be posted on Facebook the next day for other employees and the public at large to enjoy.

Losse and others worked to make Facebook human and hospitable, constantly refining features meant to keep us coming back. Now this all seems quite obvious: give us(ers) open-ended text boxes in which to perform our best selves, photo albums to share our most ideal lives, walls on which to be charming, light, easy. It’s how engineers work to coax this performance from us that first, in Losse’s narrative, gives her pause. In Facebook’s drive to draw more personality out of users and onto the site, they decided to group these updates into what even the engineers had to call “stories,” powered by the then-controversial feature News Feed.

“One minute the homepage was blank, boring, harmless, safe,” Losse writes. “The next minute it was full of stories, of what someone was doing now, of a new friendship made, of a relationship ended. The automated literature of our lives had begun.” Users switched on Facebook to experience what happens to you when “overnight, without warning… [you become] live-updating digital characters, put in narrative form for others’ enjoyment.”

More than blurring boundaries between public life and private life, Facebook re-institutionalized “second shift” work—only instead of performing child care and housework, we are caught up in the “not work” of self-surveillance and personal brand-building that are the hallmarks of social media. It was the mirror to Losse’s cheap labor as personable customer service: the users’ uncompensated outpouring of personal information.

Facebook, we know now, was never meant to be the product; we, its users were. Without us, the “product” would be worthless. Zuckerberg understood this in 2003, when he created the proto-Facebook site Facemash, built from photos of Harvard University women—Zuckerberg’s classmates and peers—and presented to users—presumed to be Harvard men—to vote on their attractiveness. In a Harvard Crimson story published after Zuckerberg beat an expulsion rap for violating students’ privacy in launching Facemash, two campus groups are reported to have opposed the site publicly: Fuerza Latina and the Association of Harvard Black Women. Zuckerberg changed course slightly, creating a site where he would not need to scrape photos off a server. We’d give them to him.

Losse herself was an early Facebook adopter, during the fall of her last year at Johns Hopkins when Facebook launched on her campus. Prior to using Facebook, she never associated her online activities with her legal name. “For women,” she writes, “there is no value in putting yourself online and offering yourself to strangers.” But women have long found ways to reap this worth for themselves, whether as fashion bloggers, porn stars, or attractive TED speakers. In performing some version of themselves online, pseudonymous or not, these women have earned their reputations and their rent.

Facebook, we know now, was never meant to be the product; we, its users were.

What Losse told me she meant is that there was no worth for a woman in sharing herself online before there was Facebook. There is a you, she said, a “Facebook you,” which is near to the real you, and an anonymous self, who is not you. For Losse, to share her “real” self online brought more risk than reward. The pseudonymous self, of course, can also be put to work, and can protect the “real” self in the process. In fact, this is precisely why to a generation of people who came online before social media, the idea of ever using your real name was dangerous—until, Losse claims, Facebook.


The reason Facebook made it preferable or valuable to be online as the “real” you, Losse told me, is also the reason why she believes people use Facebook at all—it isn’t necessarily to just look at these women, but because “women use it. And it feels safe.” That is, it’s not just the promise of women and women to look at it; it’s woman as hostess, woman as civilizer, woman not just as object of value, but, through her presence, a producer of a more valuable Facebook. The trade-off, however, to building this “safe space” for women that women never asked for, is the cut Facebook earns from our time on it. This isn’t to say Facebook is pimping us for kicks; they’re just a boss.

Women workers at Facebook, the customer service buffer between programmers and users, were charged with the social upkeep of this “safe space.” Hundreds of times a day, Facebook users would email Losse and the support team to ask, “What does poking mean?” “We always responded innocently,” Losse writes. “Being coy, not admitting the libidinal urges driving much of the site’s usage, was professionally necessary, a way to differentiate Facebook from the cheap and overtly sexual vibes of MySpace.”

The clean, smooth modular web 2.0 design of Facebook—itself a set of visual tropes that would soon become ubiquitous—was pitched explicitly as a more valuable alternative to MySpace’s fast-and-loose, infinitely customizable, and therefore sometimes loud and ugly design. The contrast extended to user norms: on MySpace, you might find media wannabes and savvy porn star marketers; that is to say, women who knew that by showing off they were working. On Facebook, women were still expected to expose themselves and yet to remain chaste. On Facebook, they may have been—we may have been—selling idealized versions of ourselves just as hard, but we had a more “respectable” venue in which to do so.

This tension, this mandate not to be “cheap” (sexy) if we want to be valuable, challenges alliances among women in tech. It hit me firsthand, as the popular wave of the “get more women in tech” cause was cresting, at the Bay Area Girl Geek Dinner hosted by Facebook in June 2008 in a posh night club across the street from a venerable old San Francisco strip club. Sheryl Sandberg had just been hired to run Facebook, the first woman executive at the company, and the one who would turn their business model sharply toward selling advertising against users’ content. The first Girl Geek Dinner had been hosted at Google, Sandberg’s former employer. This event would spotlight women product managers and app developers at Facebook—as much an ad for the company as it was for women’s worth. I sat in the middle of the room, live-tweeting for the benefit of my employer. I didn’t feel quite so out of place as a scurrilous tech gossip, but as a relatively underpaid feminist.

There had been a rumble of what felt like feminist fervor around the event—a photo sharing website called Zivity was due to snap red carpet pics of the women as they arrived, a tech party convention so expected now that you stopped questioning how it came to be that any of us thought we were famous. Since 2005, Facebook had been hiring its own party photographers to capture its employees at their smiling-est, drink-in-hand most attractive—to future investors, to the tech press, to potential sexual partners, it wasn’t clear. It was just, by this time in the tech scene, what was done.

At this Girl Geek Dinner, though, a few attendees demanded that Zivity pull out, because the site, though founded by a woman, predominantly featured nude photos and its product was a micropayment system that allowed women to get paid for their photos. To those who objected, to have a Zivity photographer shoot their photos, even fully clothed and at a public event, somehow minimized both their position as women in tech and the “cause” of getting women in tech. Something of a compromise was reached, and Zivity photographers were allowed to take pictures, so long as they would “only” be posted to Facebook.

At Facebook, writes Losse, and in the tech world by extension, a woman can either be hot or she can be smart. Women around her rigorously monitored their position on the correct side of the line. The Girl Geek protestors knew this game, too, when they demanded the ejection of the “sexy” photographers, who also happened to be the ones helping women put money in their own pockets rather than the pockets of the men behind Facebook. They played right into it.

Losse gives the impression that she knows the hot versus smart dichotomy is a damning and false one, but she played the game. Her reward? Facebook stock, the creation of her own position leading the team to translate and localize Facebook into multiple languages, a seat next to Zuckerberg’s conference room, and eventual early retirement and cash-out of her stock, netting her a place of her own in Marfa, Texas—an off-the-grid retreat she headed to in order to write her book.

It was impossible for me to read Losse’s account and not toggle back and forth between her book and my browser, my memories and Losse’s, her California and mine. The dual-screen vision that comes from constant self-documentation once felt novel and possibly unsettling, and it still is in Losse’s book, whether you were in the tech scene in those days to see it, or only read it about from afar, or ignored it until you were surrounded by it. Because you are, like the “cloud” metaphor used for networked computing now, surrounded by it, and it did not take long. Because we who populate this book, endlessly documenting ourselves as the tech bubble swelled, never thought we were making a new normal. We thought we were playing—at fame, at attention—even though we knew we were working hard at it. “We were such assholes,” is the note I wrote myself over and over in the margins, with our cameras pointed at our faces, with our thumbs on our phones, hovering over “post” and “send.” No “real people,” we thought, would want to be an auto-refreshing Internet icon in 2006, in 2007, unless they had a stake in it like we did.


But did we underestimate the stakes? In the years that Losse returns us to, those transitional years between the birth of social media and the mainstreaming of self-documentation online, there was not yet the sense that by being online one was at work producing value for someone else. If anything, we could still believe that sharing what we were doing, who we were doing it with, and how good we looked while doing it was mostly an act of creating pleasure for ourselves. In reality, we were the early wave of the permanent social media shift, always-on and never quite off the clock. What Facebook has accomplished, by Losse’s account, isn’t the erosion of the boundary between public life and private life, but our divisions between work and pleasure.

Losse, like other women who have navigated the archaically sexist halls of new technology businesses, was still required to present a pleasing front, to “sell herself” constantly while never explicitly acknowledging what was being sold and who was buying. Facebook and companies like them deny this game, claiming that anyone with the skill to ascend the ranks can do so: Silicon Valley is a meritocracy, they like to say. Women in the Valley are somehow meant to believe this, to pretend that women’s value in this industry isn’t limited to their emotional labor, even as this industry produces companies that could not succeed without that labor.

For women who come after Losse, who want to challenge this façade of meritocracy and the undervaluing of women’s labor, where will they aim: at the “cheap” photos or at all of them? Or, perhaps, at those who own them?


Melissa Gira Grant is a contributor to TheNation.com, Wired.com, Glamour, and Jacobin.

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