With her new company, Chou wants to fix some of the problems she’s experienced firsthand in the tech industry—including the sort of online harassment of which she has been a target. Here, we check in with Chou, who is based in San Francisco, to learn more about what it takes to make change in the tech sector and what entrepreneurs like her are up against.
Tracy Chou, as told to Wudan Yan: When we last spoke, I had just left Pinterest. I’ve always been drawn to smaller companies: I joined Pinterest when it had about 10 employees and left when it had about 1,000. It felt like time for me to move on and do something new.
I’ve worked for so many startups and have come to recognize some of the structural issues around startups and funding and how those factors influence what problems get solved. A lot of founders naturally work on problems that directly affect them: it’s easier to know what’s important or what could be improved by technology.
In thinking about my next steps, I thought about products I’ve worked on and checked that against questions like, Do I care about this? Is there something to be made that can be commercially viable? There are lots of really important issues that will not be solved naturally through a startup.
I ended up on Block Party, which pulls together a few different threads from my background. I’ve worked as an engineer at various social platform companies, and I’ve worked on monitoring, moderating, and increasing the quality of content, and figuring out how product design influences community behavior. Not only did I build moderation tools at Quora that reviewed content quality, but I also took punitive actions against people who violated the site’s policies.
I’d also spent a lot of time looking at how the lack of diversity and representation in teams meant that products were built in a skewed way. For instance, nondiverse teams of people who generally don’t get targeted with abuse and harassment don’t tend to build protections against that in their apps.
The last part of my background that led me to Block Party was just getting targeted more with harassment. Over the last year, I’ve definitely gotten more anti-Asian harassment online. Some of it was truly targeted at me by individuals, and other times I would attract trolls just by having a presence online.
If you could be reborn as anybody in the world tomorrow, how would you design the world today? You wouldn’t want to design a world that’s vastly unequal, where most people are at the bottom, because that could very likely be you if you were born as anybody tomorrow.
I got online very young, and at first the internet was a fun way to connect with friends. I was on AOL Instant Messenger, which was a better way to chat with my friends in high school: I didn’t have a cell phone, and I couldn’t hog the phone line that I shared with my family. I was also on some of the blogging platforms, like Xanga and LiveJournal. They were nice outlets at the time.
Pretty early on, though, someone set up an anonymous Xanga page dedicated to hating me. I think it was someone from school, because it referenced things from high school. A lot of it was hating on me because I did well academically. It didn’t bother me as much at the time as it did when I got older and looked back on it. Back then, I thought this person was just insecure and jealous. I thought it was a bit sad and messed up that someone would write full posts dedicated to trying to take me down.
I didn’t report it. Who would I have reported it to? It didn’t even cross my mind to go to my school and report it. And I didn’t necessarily want my teachers or school administrators to see the page either, since it was pretty hateful content.
My parents didn’t raise me to be someone who was outspoken and challenged the status quo. I definitely wasn’t encouraged to speak up against the system in any way. Like many other children of Asian immigrants to the US, I grew up believing that this is not my country, and my parents and I are here trying to find opportunities for ourselves. We didn’t have a safety net. I grew up more with a head-down mentality of do good work, work hard, and try to make it.
My dad, who’s an engineer, gave me a philosophical thought experiment when I was quite young: If you could be reborn as anybody in the world tomorrow, how would you design the world today? You wouldn’t want to design a world that’s vastly unequal, where most people are at the bottom, because that could very likely be you if you were born as anybody tomorrow. You’d want to design a much more equal world. That got me thinking I didn’t like that the world was so unequal and so many people were much less lucky than me.
That feeling has made me take the privilege that I have and pay it forward to make the world a little more just. I went to Stanford; I’ve worked at companies that people within tech find credible. So I can try to amplify more voices or different perspectives.