If you’ve ever watched professional wrestling you know that the wrestlers are actually characters with story lines that designate them as either “faces,” who play the good guys, or “heels,” who play the bad guys. The best faces and heels do a masterful job of whipping the audience into a frenzy of cheers and boos, playing them like a violin. It can all be very entertaining but also kind of disturbing to see how easily the audience forgets that the wrestlers are not actually heroes and villains but simply characters that, in many ways, have been shaped by what the audience wants them to be.
While most people in the tech world scoff at the low brow idiocy of pro wrestling, two stories played out this past week that perfectly illustrate how Silicon Valley culture is just as driven by false perceptions of faces and heels as the story lines of the WWE. A face raised a round of funding for a business entirely based on her personal popularity and was greeted with an outpouring of congratulations and supportive tweets. While a heel was derided and ridiculed for defending himself in writing. You can probably guess the people I’m referring to, but I won’t name them because I don’t want to directly contribute to the irrational love and hate that characterizes the cults of personality that have spread through Silicon Valley and our society at large.
Why do we care so much about what popular people are doing? For that matter, why are they even popular? In the case of the faces, it’s because they’ve managed to create an image of exceptionalism that the rest of us have been suckered into believing. In the case of the heels, their negative image is usually the unintended result of poor or misinterpreted messaging. But it’s still all just imagery, a giant illusion that has superseded reality. Have the faces really done anything worthy of our adoration? Are they legitimately heroic? Likewise, are the heels so evil as to deserve to be vilified? If you think about it, outside of perhaps Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, I’ll bet you can’t come up with legitimate reasons why certain people in the tech industry have been designated as heroes other than perhaps being wealthy or attractive. For the villains, can you point to actual transgressions that make them deserving of our hatred? In this regard, the heroes and villains of Silicon Valley look a lot more like the faces and heels of the WWE than Gandhi or Hitler.
If the Valley wants to continue having any legitimate claim on being a meritocracy, or for that matter being a place that values intelligence, it needs to stop behaving like the crowd at Wrestlemania. Clearly the difference between an actual hero and a face is the presence of legitimate merit. Same goes for villains and heels. A true villain has perpetrated villainous deeds, a heel just plays the part, sometimes unintentionally. Unlike most wrestling fans who know it’s all for entertainment once the show ends, Silicon Valley rewards and punishes its faces and heels in the real world. This should be blatantly absurd to everyone and yet, as we saw last week, it is a common occurrence in the current Valley culture.
The next time you jump on the bandwagon to congratulate, attack, seek advice from, or seek to discredit, some tech industry personality, ask yourself what they’ve done to deserve the role in which they’ve been cast. Are they really a hero or just a face? Are they really a villain or just a heel. I think in most cases you’ll find their public personas are as shallow as the faces and heels of the WWE. And if they are, then frankly they don’t deserve any more attention than you would give an entertainer playing a character in the ring.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]