Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hey Bravo, Silicon Valley is too boring for TV

120410073730-randi-zuckerberg-story-top The tech world has been up in arms this past week about "Silicon Valley," an upcoming Bravo reality show documenting the lives of five aspiring entrepreneurs making their way in the world of Bay Area startups.

The TV show is co-produced by Randi Zuckerberg, former marketing director of Facebook and sister of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Its brief preview showcases the glamorous life of a tech startup founder: Lots of parties, alcohol, attractive women and a social scene that is like "high school, but it's only the smart kids."

The problem: The tech industry isn't like that at all.

Here's how tech-company founders usually succeed in Silicon Valley: They spend endless hours in front of a computer building products people want to use. Alas, this doesn't make for interesting TV.

Hence all the Hollywood cliches. Computers on TV shows and in movies beep when a button is pressed. Characters seem able to type at a frenetic pace. Passwords can always be guessed within three attempts -- and always just in time to prevent a disaster.

These cliches once existed only in fictional shows and movies. Alas, as Silicon Valley continues to power a digital revolution that's changing the world at a rapid pace, camera crews are increasingly trying to capture startup reality and bottle it as entertainment. And they're finding it converts to film about as well as paint drying.

Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook through thousands of hours spent in front of a dimly glowing screen. His motive? He "likes to build things." And yet in 2010's "The Social Network," the Zuckerberg onscreen is more concerned with girls, parties and getting into Harvard's most exclusive social circles.

Therein lies the second issue with bringing startups to the big or small screen: Startup founders rarely have interesting social lives. Building a company takes almost every minute of the day, leaving little time for a personal life.

TV viewers demand drama: If it can't be found, it's manufactured. The small screen loves a performer, too. A celebrity. An exhibitionist. Can you dance? Sing? Act? Even once the show is over, these outgoing stars convert well to a world of tabloids and celebrity magazines.

Startup founders, however, do not.

So now comes the time to pick a side. Is representing Silicon Valley as a party haven doing a disservice to those who work countless hours to build products we'll all love? Or is there nobility in Randi Zuckerberg's mission to "make accessible and to humanize the increasingly important tech community for the average consumer"?

Perhaps it's both. Translating tech for those not living in its epicenter is a noble effort that will surely bring more new people -- and more diversity -- to Silicon Valley. And yet this can't be done in a literal way: Bringing technologists' stories to TV and movies requires a little creativity to make the subject matter fit the medium.

My science teacher didn't get our class interested in a science career by telling us that most chemists work long hours on repetitive tasks. No, he showed us explosions. And crazy, color-changing reactions. And non-Newtonian fluids dancing on speaker cones.

It's unfortunate that the story of tech revolution doesn't convert well to the dominant medium of the day. And it's regrettable that some viewers will wildly misinterpret what entrepreneurship is all about. But after grabbing the attention of viewers with dramatic exothermic reactions -- or scenes of wild parties -- perhaps we'll be able to teach them what it really takes to build a company.


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