Inside the life of a tech activist: abuse, gaslighting, but ultimately optimism

Tracy Chou has been a tech activist for almost a decade. Her story reveals what it’s like to fight Silicon Valley’s establishment.

Inside the life of a tech activist: abuse, gaslighting, but ultimately optimism
[Photo: Brennan Bucannan]

Tracy Chou should have been writing code.


It was the spring of 2019, and the tech founder had just returned to San Francisco after a sojourn in London. Instead of focusing on her nascent startup, though, Chou was on Bryant Street in the SoMa district, filing a police report at the Hall of Justice. A stalker who had relentlessly pursued her on social media had flown to San Francisco to seek her out in person—hardly the first time an online threat had spilled out into her physical world. After an initial submission to the police was rejected, Chou had called on a friend of a friend of a friend, who got her an audience with an officer who could file a report. “Victim believes the suspect is obsessed with her,” he noted in the report, despite evidence that the suspect in question had passed through the San Francisco airport and stayed at a hotel in the city.

“I was like, ‘Can you stop gaslighting me?'” Chou recalls. “I’m fighting with the police to be like, ‘Stop making it seem like I’m a crazy person.'”


Chou had been scared even to leave her apartment complex, which had little to no security. “I just want to sit at my desk and write code,” she says. “I’m so angry that I have to deal with all this, on top of just trying to build a startup.”

As an Asian-American woman who has spent much of her career calling out the gender inequities and racism embedded in Silicon Valley, Chou is all too familiar with this sort of abuse and harassment. Since 2013, when she famously urged tech companies to share data on women in technical roles, the 34-year-old software engineer has been a key figure in the industry’s prolonged reckoning with its culture of exclusion. But whatever progress she’s made has come at great personal cost—especially as her Twitter following has ballooned to more than 100,000 accounts. “In doing this diversity and inclusion activism work,” she says, “I built more of a profile that then exposed me to more harassment.”

Chou’s story, alas, is not an outlier. Silicon Valley’s leaders have spent years touting their ability to solve problems they helped create or exacerbated, all the while marginalizing the people most affected by those issues and wringing their hands over the dearth of female and non-white tech workers and founders. “When you’re a white man in tech and you speak up and you have visibility, and you have contrarian views or you’re critiquing the system, you get rewarded for it,” says Ellen Pao, who sued the VC firm Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination and faced harassment after shuttering some of Reddit’s most noxious forums when she was its CEO. “You get a podcast; you get capital. I think the opposite has happened for Tracy.”


Yet Chou is still here, still grinding, still using her platform to critique Silicon Valley’s establishment, often via subtweet. “there is something SO noxious about tech & vc folks who brag about how much money they’ve made while actually contributing very little to society,” she tweeted last year. “a little hard work but much more privilege and luck netting you 10s or 100s of millions does not make you a more worthy person.” The online abuse she has encountered as a vocal woman in tech has taken a toll, but she’s poured her feelings into seeking a solution that not only solves her own problem but allows anyone to secure the basic decency that they deserve in any forum.

But Chou is not a burn-it-all-down radical. She doesn’t believe the industry’s problems and products are beyond repair—yet. In her new avatar as a solo female founder, Chou is confronting a fresh set of challenges. Her startup, Block Party, a subscription service that builds anti-harassment tools for consumers, has been mostly ignored by investors amid arguably the hottest market to raise capital in history. Venture capitalists usually reward entrepreneurs who are passionate about solving their own problems—even more so if their resume boasts Stanford credentials and a stint as an early engineer at a company that grew into a $40 billion market cap. Yet potential backers have doubted whether there was really a market for Block Party, even as Twitter’s own transparency report reveals that hateful conduct and abuse/harassment are by far the most common complaints by users. Between July and December 2020 (the last period for which Twitter has shared data), more than five million accounts were reported in each category, but less than 20% of those complaints resulted in any action. Meanwhile, Chou has raised only $1.5 million, in part from investors like Pao.

Over the last eight weeks, much less the last eight years, activist tech workers within companies have witnessed what it’s like to take on the Silicon Valley power structure. Apple has fired two employees who were seeking to address workplace harassment and discrimination issues. (Apple has said these employees violated company policies that led to their dismissal.) Netflix employees staged a walkout in response to Dave Chappelle’s anti-trans comedy special, and the company responded by firing one of its organizers. (Netflix reportedly dismissed the employee for leaking internal metrics.) As The Verge reported, “The employee, who is Black and currently pregnant, asked not to be named for fear of online harassment.”


In other words, Chou’s story is increasingly that of a number of activists trying to change Silicon Valley’s culture from the inside, against all odds. But Chou has no intention of giving up.

Chou’s success in the tech industry might seem preordained. She grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants and engineers who both held PhDs in computer science. They were “very Asian parents,” Chou says, which meant she understood from an early age that good grades were of paramount importance.

She had always seen software engineering as a viable career path, though she wasn’t especially drawn to it. The ubiquity of consumer products like Facebook and Twitter has since demystified software engineering, but this was the early aughts; all Chou gathered about her parents’ line of work was that it involved floppy disks and database software. “I didn’t have any appreciation for what kind of work they were doing,” she says with a chuckle during one of our many conversations over Zoom, “or why it should be interesting.”


When Chou started taking engineering classes at Stanford University in 2006, she was one of just a handful of women. “I would say my understanding of gender issues [and] general structural issues, bias, and discrimination was very minimal,” she says. “It wasn’t until I started working full time that I started to understand what was going on. It took a little bit of soul searching. In the beginning, I thought I was not cut out for engineering work.”

After a few computer science classes, Chou decided to major in electrical engineering, in part because it seemed “suitably hardcore,” but also because she felt like she couldn’t keep up with peers who had been coding for years. “There were people in my classes who had software engineering internships in high school,” she says. “So I felt like I was already really far behind.”

[Photo: Brennan Bucannan]
In reality, all Chou had fallen behind in was the art of self-promotion. When Chou later became a teaching assistant for a notoriously difficult computer science class, she realized she had underestimated her own coding abilities. “It was classic imposter syndrome,” she says. She eventually got a master’s in computer science, even graduating at the top of her class.


Along the way, Chou did internships at Facebook and Google. But upon graduation and entering the job market, she still wasn’t seen as a serious contender for software engineering jobs. “I realized in hindsight [that] nobody in school ever encouraged me to be a software engineer,” Chou says. “They encouraged me to consider product management, program management, and marketing: ‘You can be a really great marketing person because you have a technical background, and you can talk to people.'”

Ultimately, she became the second engineer at Quora, then a nascent question-and-answer platform founded by two early Facebook employees. Because Quora only had a few thousand users at that point, Chou and other employees started creating content for the site. When she began sharing her experiences as a woman in engineering, it didn’t take long for her to attract harassers—so one of the first projects she took on at Quora was building a block button. “It was so empowering,” she says. “And I also thought, if it weren’t for me being on the team this early, this would not have been built. This is not something that would have been prioritized.”

While she was at Quora, it also became obvious to Chou that content moderation and online abuse couldn’t be addressed with machine learning alone—and that the engineers making critical decisions about those issues should reflect the world around them. “It [was] so clear to me that a very small handful of us are making all the product decisions,” she says. “We’re trying to figure out what is going to be good for our user base, for the community, for the product. We’re making a lot of assumptions.”


A decade ago, at the height of society’s optimism for Silicon Valley as a force for good, even the biggest players in the data-obsessed tech industry refused to divulge the makeup of their workforce. When CNN tried to obtain data on race and gender from a handful of tech heavyweights in 2011, the inquiry was met with stony silence from all but three companies. (Many tech firms also thwarted Freedom of Information Act requests from CNN and other media outlets.)

In the fall of 2013, Chou headed to the Grace Hopper conference, an annual gathering of women in tech. She was troubled by a keynote conversation with Sheryl Sandberg, who claimed the number of female engineers was actually falling. “not to be morbid,” Chou tweeted en route back to San Francisco, “but if this flight out of minneapolis goes down, silicon valley is going to be down a substantial % of female engineers.” The Medium post that Chou wrote soon after asked the uncomfortable questions, “Is the percentage of women in engineering going up? What’s working? Is anything? Does anybody know?” Chou then implored companies to share data on the number of women in technical roles. “For me at that time,” she says, “it was, I’m just writing down some thoughts occasionally. That ended up getting a life of its own.”

By then, Chou had decamped from Quora to join a buzzy new social media startup called Pinterest. “I remember one of the things [Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann] mentioned was how excited he was about hiring her—how she was an exceptional engineer,” says Benchmark general partner Sarah Tavel, who was an investor in Pinterest and then joined the team as a product manager while Chou worked there. “She really knew and understood our product and our users,” Tavel adds. “What really differentiates the great and special product engineers are people who are very grounded in the user.”


Pinterest supported Chou speaking out about tech’s diversity issues, which she had been writing and speaking about intermittently and discussing with other female engineers behind closed doors. It was a symbiotic relationship: Chou bolstered Pinterest’s public reputation, praising it as a nurturing environment for female engineers. In turn, the company helped elevate her advocacy. “Not to say things [were] perfect,” Chou quickly adds. “Obviously, lots of issues have come to light in more recent years.” (She’s referring, of course, to the allegations of racism and gender discrimination brought against Pinterest last year.)

Her Medium post, which was approved by Pinterest leadership and disclosed data on the gender makeup of its engineering team, sparked a movement across the tech industry that Chou didn’t foresee. The initial response was so enthusiastic that she created a GitHub repository for crowdsourced data on other companies’ engineering teams. “Tracy’s focus on data and how we could use that to raise awareness was so groundbreaking at the time,” says Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion strategy firm which she was driven to start, at least in part, because of Chou’s work. “I can’t tell you how many companies have told us, especially at that time, that it was her work that inspired them to start thinking differently about this.” (Paradigm partnered with Pinterest in 2015 to help the company work toward its diversity goals.)

The net result of Chou’s catalyzing manifesto helped to unwind the fallacy that employee demographics should be trade secrets. “She was so early in her career and had so much at risk, and yet was still willing to take this on,” Pao says of Chou’s advocacy. “And she could clearly see how broken the system was, and she wasn’t afraid to speak out and call it out. She was a very effective advocate for change.”


Soon enough, Chou became the face of the emergent diversity movement within Silicon Valley. The media was quick to embrace a telegenic, attractive woman in her late twenties. In December 2014, Chou appeared in the pages of Vogue, clad in a black and white Calvin Klein Collection trench coat. The profile described her as “a stylish young woman with the soft, wry smile of a confident student and a scientist’s avidity for facts.” In 2015, she would grace the cover of Wired and then in 2017, MIT Technology Review. Chou become a fixture in the tech media and on the conference circuit, recognized for both for her advocacy work and engineering prowess.

It’s hard to talk about the impact of Chou’s call to action without acknowledging that she may have also been the right messenger at the right time. Chou herself reluctantly concedes that her cosmetic appeal played a role in her newfound celebrity. “It’s really uncomfortable to talk about, especially when part of the message is: We should get to do things independent of traditional gender expectations,” she says. “At the same time, if people are more willing to write about this stuff because they feel like a picture of me is palatable to their audience, then I will take advantage of that.”

She was also a Stanford-educated engineer with shiny credentials. “If I didn’t have that exact background, it would have been easier for people objecting to this message to undercut it,” she adds. And she happened to be Asian American, rather than Black or Latinx.


Asian Americans occupy a rather complicated place in Silicon Valley. At companies like Google and Facebook, more than 40% of the workforce is Asian American. They’re so visible in the tech industry that some people consider them white-adjacent, even as many of them report facing bias and discrimination and being passed over for leadership roles. “Asians are very well represented in the tech industry, so it’s not threatening and very comfortable to see,” Chou says. “Given my position as a sort of activist, I was not actually being a leader in the sense of running an organization—so it was not objectionable in that way.”

Even in 2015, when few people were candid about the role Asian Americans played in tech, Chou grasped that it could also be a position of privilege—that she could agitate for systemic change, rather than quietly reap the benefits of her place in Silicon Valley’s racial hierarchy. “To my fellow Asians in tech,” she wrote in a Medium post at the time, “It’s time for us to start caring, to start talking, to start doing something about the racial disparities in our industry.”

Not that it was easy work. As glowing press swirled around her advocacy efforts, Chou drew both admirers and detractors, from anonymous commenters on the Blind app to a colleague who accused her of being insincere and using her advocacy as a power play. “i hope that the person who doubted me then,” she tweeted in 2019, “now sees that i did and still do truly care about diversity and inclusion.”


As big tech companies finally released their first diversity reports, starting with Google in 2014, each was bleaker than the last, with women accounting for less than a quarter of leadership and technical roles at most companies; Black and Latinx representation in those departments hovered around 3%. The tech industry proclaimed that diversity, equity, and inclusion were important, spawning a cottage industry of DEI consultants and experts, training sessions, and hiring initiatives, and throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at the problem.


Around this time, Pao lost her gender discrimination suit against Kleiner Perkins and then was pushed out of Reddit. Meanwhile, Erica Joy Baker—an engineer who’s now CTO of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—had compiled a spreadsheet of salaries while at Google to help stamp out pay disparities. Chou’s blog post had prompted diversity reports and a wave of admissions from tech leaders that their numbers were disappointing and as they reflexively admitted, there was more work to be done.

But not much had really changed in the intervening years. “We were going through this phase where companies were doing unconscious bias trainings, and they would put out these big press releases,” Pao says. “They would pat themselves on the back and feel great about themselves. And we all looked at these announcements and were like: This is not the right answer at all.” Pao and other advocates realized there could be value in pulling together resources for companies that were genuinely committed to doing the work. “If we all take the effort to put something out that directs companies on what they should be doing, it could be very powerful,” she adds.

The idea was also to streamline the advocacy that many of them were doing in separate channels, Chou says. “All of us in this group [were] constantly being called upon to give commentary for press pieces,” she says. “[We realized] it would be helpful if we coordinated on the message we want to hit home.”

So Chou and Pao teamed up with Baker and five other prominent diversity advocates and women in tech—including Freada Kapor Klein, cofounder of social impact firm Kapor Capital—to create Project Include in 2016. The nonprofit organization pulled together 87 recommendations for companies and leaders, including guidance on how to craft an effective code of conduct and root out biases in performance reviews. Since then, Project Include has started convening small groups of CEOs and conducting industry-wide surveys on issues like harassment in remote workplaces.

And yet, in an industry that typically demands returns from billion-dollar investments, there has been minimal progress on the composition of the tech workforce. Apple, Facebook, and Google have made incremental progress hiring women, but the share of female technical workers has hardly budged. Much of the increase in Black and Latinx employees is in nontechnical roles. “While there was a bit of a reckoning around the murder of George Floyd, it for the most part has not resulted in sustained activity,” says Kapor Klein, who laments that there has not been “any widespread soul-searching about the role of venture capital in furthering systemic racism, wealth inequality, income inequality, or the increased segregation of cities and neighborhoods.”

By the time Project Include came to fruition, Chou started noticing that she didn’t recognize most of her colleagues at Pinterest anymore. The company had 1,000 employees, as compared to just 10 when Chou joined. “It was just big enough that you no longer know everybody,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, it’s just a different type of company now—and I like the really small companies.'” It was time to move on.

But what would she do next? She was intrigued by the challenge of building a company from the ground up, and she also thought firsthand experience as an operator would help inform her advocacy work. “Now that I’ve actually been a founder for some number of years, I’ve had to go through fundraising,” she says. “I can speak much more authentically to [how] it’s not great to be sexually harassed while fundraising. And apparently it still happens—even in my case, where I have made a partial career out of calling people out for their shit.”

The process of getting to Block Party was a meandering one. “This is the thing that a lot of media reporting doesn’t usually cover around startups,” she tells me. “There [were] a few areas in which I might have been interested in creating a startup, and I spent a lot of time doing the research to understand: ‘Is there an opportunity here?'” She explored ideas relating to childcare—because she had realized that caregiving responsibilities were a major driving force behind inequities in the workplace—but Chou wasn’t convinced that was a problem tech could solve, especially without adequate support from government policy. “I [felt] like I should work on something where I have some particular advantage,” she says.

Then it struck her: She was, in fact, the right person to tackle a problem that had disrupted her own life, as her follower count and celebrity had grown. At the time, her harassers had multiplied to include someone who was peddling an absurd theory that Chou was romantically involved with a public figure, and they had even manipulated images in an effort to prove it. By the fall of 2018, Chou had done extensive research on the market for anti-harassment and moderation tools and set her sights on what would turn into Block Party, a suite of tools to screen out online abuse on platforms such as Twitter.

Chou’s path didn’t get any easier once she’d settled upon the idea. “There’s all this advice for founders,” she says. “I discovered that a lot of it is just irrelevant for female founders. The farther you are from the archetype that Silicon Valley thinks of as the ideal founder, the less applicable the advice is.”

Consider the canonical example that a cofounding team is better than a solo entrepreneur. Usually a founder following that wisdom would recruit that person from former colleagues, which would be mostly men in Chou’s case. If some of those men happened to be outright sexists, they wouldn’t have any appreciation for the problem Chou is trying to solve, and would not respond well to her superior technical skills. Among the much smaller potential pool of female and underrepresented tech workers, it could be a big risk to give up a lucrative job at a major tech company for an early-stage startup with minimal funding.

By 2020, Block Party had opened up to beta testers on an invite-only basis. Chou had been disappointed by startup accelerators in years past and was rejected by perhaps the most famed program in Silicon Valley, whose “stamp of approval” she hoped would counteract investor bias and create some momentum. But one of the major browser companies had recently launched a new incubator whose stated mission was to invest in startups that aspire to “fix the internet.”

The opportunity ultimately seemed too good to pass up, and she joined in the summer of 2020. But Chou’s skepticism proved to be well founded when a mentor she found “condescending and aggressive” pushed her to scrap her deliberate, gated approach to bringing in new users.

It was paradoxical for Block Party to compromise on safety and security for the sake of growth. But Chou felt pressured to take the advice, so she hosted a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session. It was promptly overrun with trolls, sparking an onslaught of abuse across Twitter and email, and polluting the Block Party waitlist. “There were thousands of trolls that descended on me, and Reddit’s response was: ‘We don’t condone harassment. You can report any harassment you see,'” she says. “I was like, ‘Why is the burden on me?'”

None of this seems to have shaken Chou’s resolve, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise when you’ve spent enough time with her, or hear from people who know her. Chou’s tweets might sound off the cuff, but much of her public persona is carefully calibrated. As honest as she is about the harassment and sexism she encounters—and how that weighs on her mental health—she frequently shows restraint, choosing not to reveal someone’s name or withholding a piece of information until the right moment. When you get her talking, Chou is thoughtful and nuanced, and even a little optimistic.

“What am I gonna do about that, if I’m really depressed about the state of the ecosystem?” she says, when I note that her optimism doesn’t exactly square with her own experiences. “Do I complain on Twitter about it? Do I try to get people to do something differently? Or do I just change my mindset? Even if it is bad, I just have to keep going. The only way it will get better is if I keep a more positive mindset and keep pushing forward. So it’s a little bit of a psychological trick on myself, too. If I let myself be overcome with the pessimism, then maybe nothing changes at all.”

She is also the sort of person whose persistence and pursuit of self-optimization can make you feel a little inferior. For most of its life, Block Party had virtually no capital, and Chou had no full-time employees, relying largely on her own formidable engineering talents to create a product from scratch. “If I was not technical,” she says, “there is no way we could have built those products.” Chou spent most of her days coding, while also squeezing in her myriad other duties as CEO, from recruiting to press interviews. She took breaks primarily to eat, sleep, and hop on her Peloton or go for a run. She also managed to read 85 books in 2020. (Naturally, she tracks the demographics of the authors: Most were female, nearly half of them women of color.)

When Block Party launched in public beta in January, it allowed Twitter users to mute accounts entirely, rerouting any messages from them into a separate folder that they can check as needed. Unlike Twitter itself, Block Party did not (and does not) rely on machine learning to filter out abusive content. Users can choose the types of accounts they’d like to block, which means that they could send tweets from new accounts, for example, straight to a lockout folder. Users could also recruit a “helper” to sift through the folder on their behalf if they needed to do so.

Some skeptics have argued that Twitter could more or less replicate these tools. Or that AI could solve the problem. As Chou struggled to raise funding, a startup called Sentropy whose stated mission was “to protect digital communities from hate and harassment using AI,” raised $13 million from several VC firms. It didn’t seem to matter that according to the Pew Research Center, more than 40% of Americans have experienced some kind of online harassment. (It was acquired this summer by Discord, which then shut down Sentropy’s products.) Or that social media companies have been slow to take any action, and even those that have finally responded to pressure—like Twitter—have just scratched the surface.

But the initial response to Block Party speaks for itself: Many power users found that the tool radically changed their Twitter experience. “Block Party has made a significant difference in my online life,” says Karla Monterroso, the founder of consultancy Brava Leaders and former CEO of nonprofit Code2040. “I notice that I no longer worry when I’m going to tweet something. Before I was like, ‘Okay, what are the repercussions? Do I have the emotional bandwidth? What do I need to do to protect myself?'” A few months back, one of Monterroso’s tweets about incarceration and marijuana went semi-viral. “I looked at my Block Party and it was, like, 96 accounts blocked,” she adds.

In October, Block Party finally came out of beta and introduced a paid premium tier that costs $12 a month, or $120 annually. (Previously, Block Party has been free, though a portion of its users elected to pay for the service.) Chou says that few people have complained about the new pricing model so far, and some users have even asked to pay more. “To save yourself the mental trauma of seeing some of this stuff,” she says, “you can be willing to pay quite a lot.”

Chou is also thinking about how Block Party could harness and monetize interest from people who may not face too much harassment themselves but want to support this type of work. “There’s more for us to think about in terms of how we can get more creative with how other people can support folks in the ecosystem,” she says. “Do you gift subscriptions? Can you pay into a fund to help other people?”

Block Party also launched with a new feature that many users had requested: curated block lists. When you’re building anti-abuse tools, Chou says, you always have to think about how they can be misused or have unintended effects. If a block list includes thousands of accounts and many other Twitter users adopt the same list, any account blocked by the original list creator could be silenced on a much larger scale. This is called the dragnet effect, and bad actors can exploit this sort of functionality to sneak marginalized folks onto block lists, potentially cutting them off from their online support networks. For now, Block Party is limiting block lists to 100 accounts, a number Chou believes is manageable enough that users can review the entire thing; the block lists also can’t be shared easily.

The positive public reception also created some potential relief for Chou having to build Block Party effectively by herself. “I hope I’m not jinxing it by telling you,” she says, “but we have two senior engineers who have signed, and I’m super excited.” These candidates had sought out the company on their own and applied. “It feels like finally, a lot of the work I’ve been putting in—building awareness of Block Party, continuously tweeting about it and just being out there, and also getting [the product] to a point that people are using it and appreciating it—it’s finally starting to pay off. It is very rewarding to see that candidates of this caliber, who truly could work at any place, want to come work with Block Party.”

If Chou embodies how the tech industry fails so many women, she also represents a cohort of tech workers—entrepreneurs, organizers, and activists—who are trying to find real solutions to problems not of their making. When she takes the long view, Chou says there’s a glimmer of hope. Over a decade ago, when she started working in tech, the term “diversity” was usually shorthand for only gender diversity—not racial diversity, or anything beyond that. “A lot more people know the concept of intersectionality, or at least have heard the phrase,” she says. And far more people are now willing to speak on issues of diversity.

“In the day to day, at any given moment, if you ask me how I’m feeling about diversity and equity, I’m usually very pessimistic,” Chou continues. “But when I widen the aperture a bit and look at the last five years or last 10 years, I actually am impressed by how much things have shifted. Change doesn’t happen overnight.”

Still, the latest flashpoint in the tech industry’s labor awakening makes clear that, despite the surge in activism over the last few years, speaking out as a marginalized tech worker is no less risky. Terra Field, a trans engineer who was suspended from Netflix for tweeting about the Dave Chappelle special, has said that Block Party is the only reason that she was able to continue using Twitter. “If we hadn’t made judicious use of Block Party (with help from my partners in reviewing the cesspool that my mentions had become) and some custom tooling my partner wrote, I don’t think I could have made it through this week,” she recently wrote on Medium.

Field’s experience encapsulates Chou’s greatest hopes for Block Party: to both provide a tool for the people most vulnerable to harassment and help protect anyone as they speak up about the systemic inequities that can marginalize them. “Whenever someone needs Block Party as much as Terra has needed it, I am disappointed and sad—though not surprised—that that’s the state of the world,” Chou says. “I’m also glad that we can be of some service in shielding them from the vitriol, and helping them to stay online if they want to be.”

During one of our last conversations, Chou seems more excited about the future of Block Party than she has been since we started speaking. I had asked if she felt like the long hours, the funding challenges, the new strain of online abuse were worth it. Did she ever fantasize about a cushy engineering job at a big tech company?

It does cross her mind at times, she admits, but “I feel very lucky to be working on a product that serves exactly the type of people I most want to help—women, minorities, and people who I think should have a voice.”

Modern problems: A status update on the tech industry’s progress ameliorating the issues it’s exacerbated

[Illustration: Fernando Cobelo]
Algorithmic bias
How it started: A 2018 paper by MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini exposed skin-tone bias in facial-recognition tech, and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, in 2020, Big Tech either halted (IBM) or paused (Amazon) selling these AI services.

How it’s going: In May, Lemonade, the AI-powered insurance firm, boasted it could identify fraud by analyzing customers on video, sparking backlash about profiling. Police forces still assess citizens using predictive-policing AI.

[Illustration: Fernando Cobelo]
Gender diversity
How it started: Big tech companies like Apple refused to release their workplace demographics until pressured (by Tracy Chou and others) to do so, starting in 2014.

How it’s going: Slow! Apple, for example, has grown its “global female representation” from 30% to 34% between 2014 and 2020. In technical roles, women made up 23% of the team in 2020, up from 18% in 2014.

[Illustration: Fernando Cobelo]
Online harassment
How it started: In 1985, the online community the Well launched. It required real names and prohibited content deletion—prioritizing free speech. The Well ultimately imploded into flame wars, presaging social networks’ content-moderation woes.

How it’s going: According to Twitter’s second-half 2020 transparency report, the most common user complaints are for hateful conduct and abuse/harassment. Twitter took action against approximately 20% of reported accounts.

[Illustration: Fernando Cobelo]
Racial equity
How it started: A 2014 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report revealed that Black and Hispanic workers made up 1.9% and 4.4%, respectively, of tech and non-tech employees at the 75 largest Silicon Valley companies.

How it’s going: In June, Google confirmed it would end its Engineering Residency program that gave underrepresented software developers a path to a full-time job, because the effort resulted in graduates being systematically underpaid.

[Illustration: Fernando Cobelo]
Device/app addiction
How it started: In 2013, Tristan Harris, then a Google design ethicist, made a presentation called “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention.” It initiated the Time Well Spent movement, advocating for reducing tech’s ability to hijack users’ brains.

How it’s going: In 2021, brokerage app Robinhood went public on the strength of its gamification of complex options and crypto trading. TikTok is the most downloaded social media app because of its highly addictive algorithm.


About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.