Characteristics Of The Celebrity Founders

In this article, we set out how the people attending the Trump summit constitute what we term a ‘patriarchal network.’ Much of the interest to readers in this article we expect to be in the detail found in the individual case studies. All of the figures whose celebrity personae we have analyzed are of intrinsic interest, due to their wealth, influence, and media profile to decode Characteristics Of The Celebrity Founders.

These analyses are the product of extensive original research, but it is only in apprehending the case studies together that we start to see the real contours of their power and the modes by which they legitimate it.

Key to being able to articulate this argument has been through our methodological approach. We have mixed classical forms of textual analysis with more quantitative literary methods (corpus linguistic analysis) and general desk research. Central to these methods is empirical evidence drawn from a ten million word custom-built (by the authors) database comprised of digital scans of 95 popular books on the technology industry and surrounding culture.

This database – or digital concordance – consists of four kinds of books – celebrity biographies, corporate ‘how-to’ books, ideological books, and polemical books. It exists as a database in the NVivo 12 software system for access to full text for the authors of this book and as a SketchEngine.eu corpus.1

We note, in support of the validity of our selection of texts, and hence of the reliability of the database for making general inferences about the ideology of tech entrepreneurs, that in a recent documentary about Microsoft founder Bill Gates, there was significant overlap between the books listed (at length) by his assistant as being taken by Gates on his travels and the content of our concordance (Inside Bill’s Brain 2019).

Similarly, Facebook investor Robert McNamee, at the end of his insider critique of Facebook, Zucked, also lists many of the books we included for further reading (McName 2019, 313–320). For more detail about how we compiled this concordance, please see Appendix.

Our decisions about who to include in this network (and thus as our case studies) were rooted in three broad criteria, as well as judgement based on our desk research. The criteria were that our case studies should be founders; should have substantial wealth; and would be available for analysis through their celebrity profiles.

We focus on founders of companies as they have a particularly celebrated cultural location in the technology sector, and thus have been able to accrue excessive amounts of corporate power; many of the companies we discuss in this book are technically ‘controlled companies’: i.e. there is no standard mechanism to challenge executive power for the company’s shareholders or investors. ‘Founder’ is an extraordinarily frequent word in our concordance, appearing 251 times per million words, 5 times the rate it occurs in the EnTenTen15 reference corpus. (The EnTenTen15 is a sample of 15 billion words of English scraped from the internet in the SketchEngine software.

Throughout the book we use reference corpora – databases of examples of English usage created by other researchers – as baselines for comparison to indicate how word use in our concordance compares with general usage.) We also chose founders who were involved in day-to-day management at the start of our project.3 Sandberg is perhaps the exception here.

While she has founded organizations such as leanin.org and optionb.org – which mainly function as extensions of her personal brand – they are not her primary activities, nor the source of her wealth. Wealth was also a criterion for inclusion. These are not just successful entrepreneurs; they are the wealthiest people in the world. All of our case studies are billionaires, though Sheryl Sandberg and Peter Thiel are not in the top 25 wealthiest people in the world.4 While these men were incredibly rich before the coronavirus pandemic of 2020–21 that started as this book was going to publication, their collective wealth has since skyrocketed.

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk particularly have seen their wealth surge by a huge amount, making them the two wealthiest people in the world by some margin. As of 21 February 2021, Bezos is listed by Forbes (2021) as possessing an estate worth $190 billion (this is after Bezos signed over 25% of his Amazon stock to MacKenzie Scott in their 2019 divorce). Musk’s wealth has increased from around $35 billion to a staggering $182 billion dollars – likely to be the greatest ever annual increase in wealth in history. At fifth in the world rich list sits Mark Zuckerberg with $95 billion and at eighth and ninth are Larry Page ($91 billion) and Sergey Brin ($88 billion). It is worth noting that no women appear in the top ten and two others (Larry Ellison and Bill Gates) also made their wealth from technology.

These figures demonstrate two things. Firstly, that to the founders go the rewards. Sandberg has been instrumental in monetizing the services offered by both Google and Facebook; but her wealth is less than 2% that of her boss and work partner Zuckerberg.

Here again, her inclusion is useful to indicate the significant differences between the founders and highly successful people who work in the same milieu but are not founders. Secondly, that technology now produces the world’s biggest billionaires, reflecting both its centrality to the economy, and the possibility that an early, lucky, insight into the market opportunities offered by the digital economy can reap vast fortunes – on a scale not seen since the 1890s.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many of us to rely even more heavily on digital technology for social and economic life, has underscored these shifts by accelerating on ongoing transfer of wealth and power from the wider economy to digital monopoly platforms that are the source of most of our case studies’ wealth. The third criterion was celebrity.

Famous tech executives full name mentions in the concordance
Famous tech executives full name mentions in the concordance

Our approach is focused on how tech founders are represented in popular media and other textual resources that legitimate and challenge their social power.

We have, in general, limited our analyses to the narratives over which they exercise some control (often with possible deniability ‘baked-in’ as a precaution in texts such as semi-official biographies), rather than discussing unverifiable or paparazzi-style gossip journalism. This is because we recognize that the celebrity of the people in our selection, the stories they tell about themselves and their companies, and the social power they exercise, are deeply entwined.5

From our desk research we understood that Thiel and Sandberg were extremely important to completing the network we had identified, and thus to understanding the ideological terrain that the others inhabit – and this was confirmed by our quantitative analysis of full names in the concordance, where the occurrence of references to these two was broadly within the range of frequency of the other figures (see Table 0.1).

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