Do IT entrepreneurs have a socially embedded set of similarities in lifestyle and values? And what do the colourful stickers on startup geeks’ laptops say about their owners? In the first part of our series “From the sociologist’s notebook“, our contributor Manon Pierre applies Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus on this “species” to offer an explanation.
Whether you attend a startup all-weekender in Vienna a conference for Ruby developers in Krakow or a tech summit in Bucharest, there will always come a point where the interest for the session’s topic can no longer make up for the lack of sleep and hectic schedule of the past days. Wandering around the crowded venue, your eyeballs are very likely to get attracted by the discreet glow emanating from a legion of Apple logos, half covered with colourful stickers. The similarities among these laptops belonging to individuals descending from different cultures – defined by company as well as by location and language – yet all happily gathered under the IT crowd flag are particularly salient in the web startup scene.
This basic observation has become the starting point of a reflection on the social reality behind the archetype of IT entrepreneurs. The question is to establish whether we can talk about a socially embedded set of similarities in lifestyle and values, once we start scratching the moderately glamorous surface of geek clichés about IT entrepreneurs attending startup events.
Pattern #1: the not-so-unique laptop
Besides their practical aspect – the stickers prevent confusion and/or theft; these little adhesives also provide information about the laptop’s owner, including his/her – although usually it will be a he – affiliation to certain groups or communities (startup events, Pirate Bay, Anonymous, GitHub), tastes (pop culture, brands, music), and sometimes convey political messages as well (Reclaim your data). Thus, the act of customisation, which essentially amounts to an aesthetical mess of names and logos on the back of a computer, can actually be considered as one of the numerous sociological patterns in contemporary IT culture.
Pattern #2: sweet disposition and open-mindedness
Concerning the aspect of values and morals, liberal and progressive views tend to prevail, relatively fairly distributed among both moderate left and right wings on economic and political questions, coupled with a rather pro-American position. The advocacy for open-source and free circulation of data, ideas and software within the community and with the general public is another prominent characteristic. The majority of IT enthusiasts demonstrate keenness on improving the high-tech experience for the greater good by creating applications, programs and free hosting sites. The motives behind such behaviour are to be found in both general altruism and in the personal satisfaction of addressing technological challenges.
Pattern #3: the well of nerdy knowledge
Regarding their academic background, the vast majority of these startup founders and employees belong to a generation of well-educated individuals, particularly aware of the latest happenings in the tech field. Although university degrees are not a prerequisite to success in their sector, these individuals usually possess extensive IT knowledge acquired through higher education and years of self-teaching via forums and exchange with the online community. The latter is closely related to a personal passion for high technology, online gaming and social media. Compulsive reading for this group includes Hackernews, Reddit and Quora as well as blogs from fellow entrepreneurs and investors.
Pattern #4: the cool geek lifestyle
This interest for informatics and hobbies popularly labeled as geeky stuff, is reflected both in the private and professional spheres, and particularly visible in the typically male IT entrepreneurs’ workspaces. The desk often doubles as a displayof lifestyle preferences and tends to feature a mix of cubicle war supplies, such as Nerf guns, merchandise from comics and TV series, and bottles of various energy drinks and hip independent sodas (Club Mate, Makava, Fritz-Kola etc.). Foosball tables and Wii consoles are typical social bonding devices that are currently trending in co-working spaces inhabited by IT startups.
In spite of the steady popularity of hoodies, jeans and sneakers, we can observe a certain lack of consistency within the dress code and physical appearance among IT entrepreneurs. This is mainly caused by their affiliation to different urban subcultures and age groups. The “startup hipster” has been a particularly interesting phenomenon in recent years. It is mostly found in startup centres such as London and Berlin, but increasingly prevalent in the periphery region. Male individuals of this species often sport facial hair, thick-framed glasses, lumberjack shirts and t-shirts with ironic prints, while females – an underrepresented species in the scene (some sources talk of a male-to-female ratio of 95:5 at startup events, while others estimate a more optimistic 75:25) – tend to have a liking for eclectic vintage styles. Meanwhile, employees that are older or higher in hierarchy show a preference for neat V-neck sweaters and crisp black shirts.
Pattern #5: the technical gobbledygook
While styles differ, language seems to be a form of unity for IT entrepreneurs, reflected by the jargon these individuals use with their peers, which remains obscure to most members of the general public. This specific lingo consists almost exclusively of English words, regardless of the company’s country of origin. Far from being exhaustive, the list of frequently used terms include: pivot, bootstrap, pitch, API, tooling, UX, lean, log file, twitter leverage, feature freak, cloud-based, repo(sitory), value map, business model canvas and perhaps most importantly: awesome.
From a social process…
Photo credit: Ina CiobanuThe recurrent patterns emerging from these observations encourage, thus, the idea of an archetype of IT entrepreneurs, conforming to existing characteristics set by the occupational group, as we cannot talk of a social class per se. Drawing from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, we can establish that the set of values, language and codes that are common to IT entrepreneurs of different origins is socially embedded.
In a nutshell, Bourdieu’s theory is based on the general idea that in any society, there is a logic of social reproduction, which maintains and perpetuates the system of social classes through the notion of habitus, consisting of the added value of social capital, economic capital and cultural capital inherent to each person. The similarities in lifestyle and values of IT entrepreneurs that we observed thus appear as framed by a field-prescribed habitus, which resonates within a generation of individuals sharing these capitals.
… to a generational phenomenon
However, the analogy with Bourdieu’s theory stops at the intergenerational reproduction process. Due to the fact that the field of new technologies the IT startup entrepreneurs operate in is constantly changing and evolving, professional vocations cannot be inherited from the family or reproduced from past generations, as it often happens with lawyers, doctors, and bankers. Although entrepreneurial skills and innovative mindsets are likely to be inherited from the parents; in our case, the reproduction process mostly happens at the same generational level. It is thus a horizontal rather than a vertical transmission phenomenon, which occurs through learning from peers and through communication within the community.
So, whether this happens via people sharing the same office space or by programming in the same language, the increasingly fast and hyper-connected process of exchanging ideas, know-how and free knowledge shapes the IT entrepreneurial culture and the associated practices, keeping the growing dematerialised community of startup geeks somehow united.
About the author:
Manon Pierre is a French citizen, yet based in Hamburg and working in English. As if all this wasn’t confusing enough, she’s a graduate of the University of Hong Kong, with a double degree in journalism and sociology. In 2012, after five hectic years in China, she decided to put down her chopsticks for a while, and headed to Germany for a refill of European hedonism. When not clattering about startups, she writes about architecture and design for various magazines, ponders the merits of German climate and attempts to sketch her surroundings.
Read more about the origins of the “From the sociologist’s notebook” series by our co-founder: Introducing: From the sociologist’s notebook