Guest Opinion: Techies must apply talents to real world
At a turbulent moment in the online media business, the fate of Yahoo and buzzed-about CEO Marissa Mayer offers cautionary tales for policymakers and the public.
Mayer, who has been the boss since 2012, is to step down when Yahoo closes its sale to Verizon, it was announced last week. Like the industry consolidation now folding one company into another, the meritocratic hoopla undiminished amid Mayer’s departure suggests too much hype still surrounds attitude and algorithms in tech — at the expense of concrete ideas applied to the physical world we live in.
The demise of Yahoo as we know it underscores three kinds of weakness plaguing new media: too little value, too little content and too much glamor.
When it comes to value, Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo’s core assets included its search and advertising components. While search is being eclipsed by social media as the primary driver of online traffic, web-based advertising still has not proved itself as a business model with legs, leading other search-and-ad behemoths like Google to start shifting toward other revenue streams with firmer foundations.
When it comes to content, meanwhile, Yahoo failed to break out of the same trap so much of new media finds itself in. At one end of the product scale is costly, slickly produced flagship programming; at the other, low-brow click bait churned out by so-called “content farmers.” The quest to find big, mainstream audiences willing to pay for quality content has yet to be won online.
The exception is the major cable channels, which don’t have to scramble as so many smaller web-native firms do to pivot to video production when text-based content creation fails time and again to rack up the impressions funders use to assess their viability.
Yet the glamor of new media endures — for now. While Mayer has pointedly placed work above self-promotion and the can-do corporate progressivism that defines much of Silicon Valley culture, industry peers such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg have actively fueled the impression that tech titans, and those aspiring to share their power, can and should have it all.
Their “inclusive” elite culture shrugs off losses like Yahoo’s, doing little to assuage concerns that data is unsafe from the kind of hacking that caused Verizon to seek a $1 billion discount on the sale price (before agreeing to a $350 million price cut).
By the lights of some of Silicon Valley’s most glamorous moguls, it’s almost as if success is just a matter of killer self-esteem and the skill set to match. No way they’ll let their glow be dimmed by the deep structural problems plaguing new media, much of social media included.
Mayer, who faces a $23 million payout for her labors, will surely land on her feet. But if she remains in the new media business, where will she go?
Even relatively fresh faces in powerhouse media, like Megyn Kelly, set their sights on becoming the next Oprah. That’s a striking sign of just how little innovation there has been in their industry despite all the disruption. The sheer talent produced in Silicon Valley needs better and fresher outlets than that.
To find them, it’s time techies looked past screens big and small, back to the real world, where infrastructure is stagnating and people are struggling.