There are two ways to look at the sleazy emails Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegal wrote when he was the social coordinator of his fraternity at Stanford. The emails describe him urinating on a girl, and talk about shooting fat women with laser tag guns.
The first is that they don’t matter: They’re merely the kind of hijinks we all get up to in college and it’s unfair that they have come back to haunt him years later. A huge section of the tech industry feels this way. Two of the most widely read tech blogs within the business pointedly failed to mention the emails when they were published yesterday. They’re not “tech” news, after all.
The second is to admit that they do, in fact, matter because they’re an extreme example of a long, painful debate about how women are treated in the industry and whether male tech workers are discriminating against them. And these are emails written by the founder and CEO of possibly the single most valuable standalone mobile app company on the planet. They are not representative of all tech CEOs, but they are an extreme example from a very prominent tech CEO.
So yes, it really is about the “optics” and the atmosphere in tech. The emails came on the same day that Google disclosed that 70% of its employees are men. So this idea that tech is some sort of boys club has basis both in anecdote and fact.
Spiegel’s youthful indiscretions ought to be forgiven. (There’s a separate debate to be had about whether it’s forgivable to behave like this in college, obviously.) But the history of them — and how Snapchat is linked to them — is worth noting.
Spiegal founded Snapchat while he was in that frat. His cofounders were his fraternity brothers. One of them, Bobby Murphy, is actually mentioned in the emails. By definition, this was a club that women can’t join. So Stanford, which is a huge incubator of tech talent, has clubs where huge tech startups are formed, but those clubs ban women.
Women are not banned from joining frat brothers in tech startups, of course. But women have played an odd, marginal role in the growth of Snapchat.
It’s worth remembering that, basically, the original intent of Snapchat was to allow people to send sexts — nude photos and racy messages — that can’t be saved. Clearly, Spiegel was doing this in college and he now wishes those messages had disappeared. It’s not a coincidence, surely, that Spiegel thought a self-deleting messaging app would be a good idea.
The earliest version of Snapchat was marketed at women. In fact, Snapchat’s first press release addressed women as “gurl,” “betch” and “betches,” a slang term for bitch. An early piece of branding for the company showed two blonde girls gawping mindlessly at a pink phone.
The messages also refer to “FutureFreshman,” the company that Spiegel created that preceded Snapchat. When Spiegal changed the name of FutureFreshman to Toyopa Group, and made that company the legal owner of Snapchat, he allegedly carved out of the deal a third partner, Reggie Brown. Brown is now suing Snapchat for his alleged share of the company.
So there is a direct link between these emails and the company we know today as Snapchat.
If you’re a young woman considering a career in tech, you might sense that you’re just not welcome here. Or that if you are welcome, it’s only in the most sexualized way possible.
Spiegel has made moves to demonstrate that Snapchat isn’t just a frat boy’s sext tool. He hired Emily White, a former director of emerging business at Google and an executive at Instagram, as his COO. That sent a clear message: This company will have adult supervision, from a woman.
That’s where the story ends, for now.
And that’s why we should take Spiegel at his word when he told us, “I’m obviously mortified and embarrassed that my idiotic emails during my fraternity days were made public. I have no excuse. I’m sorry I wrote them at the time and I was jerk to have written them. They in no way reflect who I am today or my views towards women.”
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