Tech laughs at itself in video touting volunteerism

Ron Conway, founder of SV Angel
Noah berger | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Ron Conway, founder of SV Angel

The recent technology resurgence, in addition to spawning a new generation of devices, apps and billion-dollar companies, has been something of a public relations nightmare for the Bay Area.

The story looks a little like this: Newly rich programmer kids pay exorbitant rates for San Francisco apartments, gentrifying once diverse neighborhoods while blaming the city's blight on an unloving homeless population. Couple that with high-profile protests against the Google buses and legendary venture capitalist Tom Perkins comparing the treatment of today's techies with Nazi persecution of the Jews, and it's no wonder that tech is taking the kind of heat normally reserved for politicians and Wall Street bankers.

Sf.citi, a nonprofit organization whose members include Twitter, Airbnb, Dropbox and Zynga, is doing its part to fix that. Founded in 2012 by prominent angel investor Ron Conway, Sf.citi (short for San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation) is pushing local tech workers to get involved in civic activities focused on issues like education, transportation and public safety. The latest initiative, called Circle the Schools, encourages tech companies to adopt a public school.

To draw awareness to the project, Sf.citi is making fun of itself. On Tuesday, the group rolled out a video that's part product launch satire and part start-up hysteria. Think of it as iPhone 6 meets the Yo app. Created by San Francisco-based digital studio Portal A, the video begins with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone being interviewed at a fireside chat. When asked if the mysterious project he's been working on is related to the "secret tablet-sized object" he was carrying with him at TechCrunch Disrupt, Stone half-heartedly nods and says, "My book."

Right away, a new product called the MyBook is all over the blogs. Mayor Ed Lee is on the phone saying, "of course I've heard about the MyBook." Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana is looking to get his hands on one, and rapper MC Hammer says he helped design it. Harrison Barnes from the Golden State Warriors has a cameo, as does the San Francisco police chief, who says that for the release of MyBook, "we're going to have to deploy additional resources" because "we're just going to have a crazy amount of nerds."

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At the end of the video, a young student is interviewed at an elementary school by the same person who started the rumor. The student has never heard of MyBook. All he knows is that a bunch of tech companies, along with Biz Stone, are donating books to Circle the Schools. The interviewer looks perplexed, a little disappointed even, before saying "Books—yeah, I could get behind that."

"We're going to make fun of a little bit of the craziness that happens around a tech product when something gets leaked," said Zach Blume, a partner at Portal A, which has worked with Sf.citi on a series of videos. "We wanted it to be self-aware."

While the video is meant to be humorous, Conway is quite serious when it comes to Sf.citi, and few people carry more clout in the local tech scene. Conway is considered a godfather of angel investing due to early bets on Facebook, Google and Twitter along with still-private companies like Pinterest and Square. He was criticized for adding air to the 1990's dot-com bubble. According to VentureBeat, Conway "threw lavish cocktail parties, and raised cash from a group of all-stars, including people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods and Henry Kissinger—which he then invested into start-ups."

Bubble excess aside, Conway has made a fortune writing early checks. But he's gaining more headlines of late for his political efforts, such as working to pass a small business payroll tax cut in 2012 to encourage tech companies to stay in San Francisco. He also enlisted Portal A three years ago to create a video supporting the election of Ed Lee as mayor. That video, to the tune of MC Hammer's "2 Legit 2 Quit," has been viewed almost 600,000 times on YouTube.

Conway is preaching non-profit work as the place where tech companies need to be spending more of their human capital. Education, he says, is an area for them to have a big and long-lasting impact.

"The most significant thing we can possibly do for San Francisco is grassroots volunteerism," Conway said, in an interview. "The video is to draw attention to the fact that volunteerism exists in San Francisco and we want it to continue to spread all across the city."

Current members of Circle the Schools include Tagged, Eventbrite and StumbleUpon.

Without explicitly saying so, Conway would clearly rather have the country talking more about progressive issues that engineers are supporting, and a lot less about Google and Facebook buses clogging up city streets. Entrepreneurs haven't done themselves any favors with a spate of blog posts defending their riches and an ever-increasing number of sexual harassment claims to remind us how male-dominated the industry remains.

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Sf.citi doesn't eliminate the seriousness of those issues. But it at least promotes the role tech can play in advancing critical areas of society, rather than just building the next gadget or viral app. The video closes with the following rhetorical questionand answer.

"What if schools were the next big thing in tech? They can be."