TJ Miller’s Crunchies disaster shouldn’t have surprised TechCrunch, or anyone else


pinataAttendees of this week’s Crunchies award ceremony were shocked at host T.J. Miller’s tone deafness on the matters of gender and race in Silicon Valley. After days of outrage, TechCrunch COO Ned Desmond’s finally sort-of apologized for Miller calling a female audience member a “bitch” and for saying “Asians aren’t supposed to be this entitled in the U.S.”

Wrote Desmond:

The use of derogatory slang to refer to women or minority groups is unacceptable at any event TechCrunch runs, period. And we know many others feel the same way, even if it’s hard to find the words to say so. We’re sorry…

We won’t be asking T.J. back next year, and we’ll be thinking hard about the steps we can take to improve the experience for everyone across the program.

But if AOL-TechCrunch had bothered to do the slightest due diligence, they wouldn’t have been caught off guard by Miller’s idiocy.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Saturday afternoon panel at SF Sketchfest featuring four of the leads from HBO’s Silicon Valley — Miller, Thomas Middleditch, Zach Woods and Kumail Nanjiani — and one thing became quickly apparent:

The stars of Silicon Valley don’t have anything to say about Silicon Valley.

I should start by disclosing that Miller and PandoDaily have tangled before. It was for that reason that Paul Carr asked me to go along to Sketchfest and give Miller another shot.

The stated aim of the panel was to dish behind the scenes insight about life on Mike Judge’s already beloved satire of valley life and all it speaks to about the mostly white, male, socially awkward yet tremendously powerful influence of the tech sector on the Bay Area. Not that they cared to stick to that point, or anyone watching wanted them to stick to it, or that they had any insight to dish anyway.

The intellectual tone of the panel was set from about minute five, when host Matt Braunger asked the four actors how they view the impact of the real Silicon Valley on San Francisco, with “the Google buses and things like that” and Miller responded with a long, puerile dialogue that involved some talk of “fucking his way” through fans in the Tenderloin, a little vague racism about getting treated suspiciously in Japantown and a joke about LSD and the Bay Area that is about 40 years out of date.

“Difficult thing about San Francisco is that you seem to have a sense of humor about everything except for yourselves,” Miller finished up. His go-to joke then became mashing a string of tech words together and looking proud of himself. “Netscape was the LinkedIn of Friendsters,” he said.

Throughout the event, Miller was an overpowering presence, unwilling, or potentially too enraptured with himself to want to let anyone else on stage speak for long. Apparently this is part of the joke with Miller, that his noisy lack of consideration for meaning, or others, is a comment in itself on comedy. But if both the joke and the joke behind the joke aren’t funny, you’re still not left with much.

When they did get a moment to talk, Woods, Middleditch and Nanjiani at least had a genial nerdiness that gives you the feeling that if cast out of comedy and thrown into tech life they’d probably fit in. Unfortunately their role on the panel seemed to be to fill the what few silences fall in and around Miller.

Miller laughed about talking to Elon Musk at a party and having no idea who he was. Musk wasn’t taken with Silicon Valley, as has been reported.

“Elon Musk wouldn’t have a good time at a party on the moon,” Miller said. “You can feel his billion dollars burning hatred behind his eyes.”

“We all love Elon Musk,” Nanjiani chipped in, as an awkward leveler.

“I don’t give a fuck,” Miller insisted, quickly.

But most of the first hour, before the floor opened up for a question and answer session, was taken up by discussion of everything but Silicon Valley.  Braunger seemed oddly unsuited for directing a conversation in a straight line. The four actors had recently seen a documentary on comedian Paul Lynde and talk about him at length without any regard for interest from the crowd. Zach Woods (Jared) joked about a childhood love of musical theater and an unfortunate fedora he used to wear. Nanjiani (Dinesh) remembered listening to the Titanic soundtrack as a kid and having childhood friends in Pakistan with names that sound like “Star Wars villains.” Middleditch (Richard) repped being from Canada.

The four of them all seem like fast pals, which is maybe all people want and need when they see celebrities come together in real life. Whenever the panel did stray back towards its supposed topic Miller demonstrated a hostility toward the subjects of Silicon Valley that set him apart from his costars. He was very much the loud guy in a conversation who finds himself a step behind and tries to distract everybody from his intellectual shortcomings by yelling.

The caveat of course has to be that these guys are actors. Two of whom weren’t born in America and two born nowhere near Silicon Valley. All are comedians first, social satirists a distant second. Silicon Valley’s on the nose portrayal of valley culture is Mike Judge’s brainchild, not theirs.

At one point, Nanjiani openly tuned out of the panel to look at his phone. When called out, he defensively pointed out that he was on Twitter. “I’m an artist. This is my art,” he said.

All four Silicon Valley stars have a force of personality that the crowd of 650 clearly had a good time soaking up. It was like being privy to four co-workers who spend too much time together make injokes for 90 minutes that don’t really involve you.

As soon as the event opened up to questions, it became apparent that most of the audience did want to talk about Silicon Valley.

One man asked Zach Woods, whose character in the show gets trapped in a self-driving car, a question on his thoughts on the vulnerability and security of self-driving cars.

Another question was directed at Nanjiani about his thoughts on the parallels between the colonization of Pakistan with how tech companies like Google have taken over towns like Mountain View.

That last question was interesting to Miller, but not for the obvious reasons. “Mountain View is near Silicon Valley?” he asked.

The earnestness of the questions, in the face of the rampant silliness of the actors gave the distinct impression that, to the people being satirized at least, the questions railed by Silicon Valley are important.

Are we selling our souls to technology? Is the Valley a humorless land of false idols and deified technology, draining the region of character and amplifying old world divides?

“You don’t belong in Silicon Valley, we tried to make that clear with the lack of important parts for you on the show,” Miller roared at a woman who revealed she didn’t watch the show.

“Do you guys feel like Lehman Brothers employees?” Middleditch asked the crowd towards the end.

But perhaps the most telling comment came when an audience member asked a particularly technical question. Miller jumped right in: “I didn’t understand a fucking word he said.”



This year at the Crunchies: Class tensions and tech-charity



This year at the Crunchies, which, as host John Oliver once noted, is all about ”giving nerds the opportunity to do what nerds do best: sit back and judge each other,” there will be an interesting juxtaposition. In addition to a star-studded line up — and by that I mean entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, tech media mavens, and others who populate the startup ecosystem —  there will be a session on philanthropy.

With some of the most powerful and wealthy people in Silicon Valley — and the entire country — in attendance, San Francisco mayor Edwin M. Lee and VC Ron Conway will take the stage to discuss socioeconomic relations in the Bay Area. Alongside will stand Theresa Preston-Werner, founder of new charity Omakase and wife of GitHub President Tom Preston-Werner. She’ll introduce her charity, Omakase, and a new program called “Tech Cares,” which is an effort to get the tech community to start giving. Meanwhile, outside the building, a group of activists will reportedly protest the gentrification of the city.

If that isn’t a perfect symbolic scene for the collision of tech and social justice, I don’t know what is. “Given the discord in San Francisco, it feels weird for all of us to be in City Hall, having this big awards show about these amazing companies and not acknowledging the connection to the rest of the city,” Preston-Werner says.

The Crunchies session on philanthropy was her idea. With more than seven years experience volunteering and working in non-profits, Preston-Werner is stunned by how few techies donate to charity regularly. There are the big givers, of course, the Gates, Zuckerbergs, and Omidyars of the tech world. But the little people, many of the well-off developers and founders who haven’t exited yet, are more stingy.

Of course, San Francisco is one of those places where a millionaire with a mortgage, car, and private school for the kids can feel cash-strapped. There are plenty of millionaires with mountains of debt. And a $ 50 million gift from a Gates or Omidyar would be like a $ 5,000 gift from one of Silicon Valley’s rank-and-file.

Still, Preston-Werner is driven — some might say consumed — by one mission: to close that gap in giving.

She has all the ingredients necessary for igniting a philanthropic fervor in the startup community. Connections to the right people. A deep understanding of how non-profits work. Data on why people in tech do or don’t give. Money to get the ball rolling. Perfect timing.

If she can’t do it, who can?

Preston-Werner has a PhD in Cultural Anthropology, a degree she earned while volunteering for a few charities and then working full time as Director of Evaluations at Guatemalan-focused non-profit Women Work Together. She did all that while having a baby and supporting Tom in scaling GitHub.

“Our philosophy is you just gotta see how far you can push yourself until you break,” Preston-Werner says. “And we haven’t broken yet.”

She eventually decided she wanted to run her own charity, one that would focus on transforming techies into givers. She believes if you get 25-year-olds to become educated and consistent donors, their giving will expand exponentially down the line. Particularly in a place like San Francisco, where it’s not unusual for a 25-year-old to turn into a millionaire overnight.

Unfortunately, the young single twenty-something is historically the hardest charity nut to crack. Nevertheless, Preston-Werner likes the challenge. “It’s not necessarily where the money is going right now. It’s where it’s coming from,” Preston-Werner says.

That said, she added, “It may take a few tries to figure it out.”

To get started, Preston-Werner collected information from 263 people who self-identified as being in tech by tweeting a survey to Tom’s 23,000 followers. She wanted to find out how often they gave to philanthropy and the reasons why or why not.

“The number one thing that came back was that they didn’t feel like charities were transparent enough,” Preston-Werner says. “People were afraid of being scammed.”

Thus came the idea for Omakase — a subscription donation charity. Preston-Werner would vet different non-profits and choose five featured ones each quarter. “We don’t fund programs built by well meaning white folks who visited somewhere on vacation once and decided to create a non-profit,” Preston-Werner says. “That’s not an organic sustainable organization.”

Instead, she looks for a unique “wow” element — a charity doing a job in the region that no one else is providing. For example, the charity for February is Medic Mobile, which helps healthcare volunteers in underserved populations distribute resources via text messages.

Then people — in the tech community or elsewhere — can sign up to pay $ 10 on a monthly basis, knowing that the money was going to a vetted organization. ”I spent the entire summer reading 990 tax forms,” Preston-Werner says. She was looking for smaller charities without big marketing budgets that were run like startups.

She had a whole range of requirements: Their executives couldn’t make absurdly high salaries, they had to be transparent about their financials, they had to incorporate some type of innovative or technological business model. Most importantly, they had to have systems in place to measure whether they were meeting their goals and iterate if they weren’t.

Sound familiar? Preston-Werner’s connection to the tech world shined through her approach. She wanted those in Silicon Valley to get excited about the non-profits selected each month. She wanted giving to be fun and to feel like an investment in something innovative, not a chore.

At the same time, having worked in non-profits for years Preston-Werner says she understood the ins and outs in a way someone from the tech world wouldn’t. “I know non-profits,” Preston-Werner says. “I know what questions to ask, what their pain points are, where they’re bullshitting.”

With the right idea behind her, she built initial prototypes “funded by the Preston-Werner family” and then raised a seed investment from prolific angel investor Ron Conway. She recruited her husband’s former business partner — Rob Cameron — to serve as her CTO.

The timing couldn’t be better. With tensions between the haves and the have-nots in San Francisco tightening, Preston-Werner is in a position to bridge that gap, although in a small way since the protesters who mass outside the Crunchies will not be interested in charity. They want affordable housing.

Getting nouveau riche engineers to tithe some money to charity is a nice gesture and may do some good, but it probably won’t impress protesters and certainly won’t make a dent in escalating rents and property values.