Fresh-faced Stanford grads yapping about their startups. Ruthlessly capitalist billionaires in their fifties. Soulful, shaggy-haired billionaires in their forties. Greedy venture capitalists. Earnestly liberal social media critics. New York political candidates who don’t work in tech.
What do all these disparate characters have in common? They are all routinely, casually labeled “tech bros.” A term that once mocked a particular Bay Area cultural phenomenon has become an all-purpose epithet. In the process, it has lost whatever analytic value and rhetorical punch it once had. If tech bros are everywhere, then they are nowhere.
The tech bro is, of course, a species within the broader bro genus. Generic bro-ishness is properly understood as a form of performative male camaraderie, typically involving an ostentatious commitment to partying and a mildly ironic preppy aesthetic. Bros are the opposite of hipsters: aggressively conformist, intentionally unfashionable, proudly loyal to institutions (whether it’s Penn State or Deutsche Bank). With its roots in fraternity life, bro culture can include a darker undertone of misogyny, although the textbook bro is more buffoonish than menacing.
“Tech bro” was a logical adaptation of the concept, as a generation of overwhelmingly male college grads who before might have sought their fortunes on Wall Street flocked to high-paying jobs in San Francisco. To many Bay Area residents, the term conjures a specific image: a twentysomething guy, usually white, in all likelihood wearing a quarter-zip Patagonia fleece vest branded with the logo of his Silicon Valley workplace. (These vests are also popular with his cousin, the finance bro.) This quintessential tech bro appears to have few interests outside his high-paying job, Bitcoin, and perhaps biking. Callow and callous, he is an irresistible target of mockery, blamed for driving up the cost of living in San Francisco while deadening its spirit with his acquisitive lifestyle and cultural cluelessness. While not necessarily sexist himself, he is an emblem of the boys’ club culture that permeates the tech industry.
The tech bro meme hit a nerve in a city jolted by an influx of wealth and commerce, and in an industry where very young men held outsized influence while women felt like second-class citizens. All along, however, there was a certain ambiguity to it: Did tech bro, like finance bro, refer to the industry’s rank and file—no one calls Lloyd Blankfein or Steven Mnuchin a bro—or to its C-suite? The answer was both. That cocky 24-year-old getting drunk in the Mission could be an entry-level Facebook engineer, or he could be Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, who in 2014 became the world’s youngest billionaire just a few years removed from sending emails to his Stanford frat brothers featuring lines like, “Hope at least six girls sucked your dicks last night.” (One can see why he would go on to invent a disappearing-message app.)
Somewhere along the line, however, the tech bro label began being asked to do too much. It is used to mock the pretensions of Silicon Valley’s upper crust: thus Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, a middle-aged man who has been in the Bay since the Clinton administration and is far from the stereotypical transplant, becomes a tech bro when the subject is his strange diet or world travels. It is applied to straightforward displays of sexism: When the Google engineer James Damore was fired for publishing an internal memo suggesting that workplace gender disparities stemmed from biological differences, it was hard to find an article on the subject that didn’t label him as a tech bro (or, alternatively, a Google Bro.) Don’t get me wrong: The male dominance of the tech industry is a problem. It’s just one that calling everyone a tech bro does little to illuminate. The term is even invoked when the very fate of American democracy is at stake. “Don’t make social media tech bro billionaires the arbiters of truth,” declares one recent op-ed headline. In short, “tech bro” has become the go-to term for any man in tech who merits criticism. As the industry’s reputation plummets ever further, that gets closer and closer to any man in tech, period.