Tech executives came under scrutiny a lot this year, whether for remarks perceived as racist and sexist or for poor business decisions. And then they atoned. Here are the highlights.
1. When Reddit fired a beloved employee.
Reddit had a rocky year, to say the least, and its problems boiled over during the July 4th weekend when moderators closed off prominent subreddits to the public. The blackout protested Reddit's dismissal of community moderator and employee Victoria Taylor, whom Reddit moderators had seen as an ally who championed the popular "Ask Me Anything" feature. The crisis prompted then-interim CEO Ellen Pao to post a 335-word apology for Reddit's "long history of mistakes" and pledge to give moderators new tools and more support. "I know these are just words, and it may be hard for you to believe us," Pao wrote. "I don't have all the answers, and it will take time for us to deliver concrete results." But Redditors weren't interested in waiting. Pao resigned a week later.
2. When Instagram accidentally took down The Shade Room.
The Shade Room is a celebrity gossip site that publishes straight to social media, earning it more than 2.5 million followers and the nickname "Instagram's TMZ." In May, Instagram shut it down, apparently mistakenly. The account was later back online.
3. When Ashley Madison got hacked.
In July, hackers stole the data of nearly 40 million people on AshleyMadison.com, the cheating site whose slogan is "Life is short. Have an affair." The leak was, and continues to be, devastating, resulting in "at least three suicides, two toppled family values evangelists, one ousted small-town mayor, a disgraced state prosecutor and countless stories of extortion and divorce," according to Fusion. Avid Life Media, which owns the site, apologized for "this unprovoked and criminal intrusion into our customers' information," and the CEO resigned — but the company never actually apologized for its lax security practices.
4. When Google Photos tagged black people as gorillas.
Google Photos aims to make photo-organizing easier by auto-tagging people, objects, and places based on previous images — but sometimes algorithms go horribly awry. In June, computer programmer Jacky Alciné angrily tweeted that the service kept auto-tagging pictures of him and a friend as gorillas. Google's chief social architect quickly apologized, and Google ultimately removed the gorilla label altogether.
5. When Airbnb got creative with advertising.
In October, Airbnb paid for a series of outdoor ads in San Francisco implying that city services, from libraries to schools, should be grateful for the home-rental service because it generates $12 million in hotel taxes. Read one: "Dear Public Library System: We hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep the library open later. Love, Airbnb." Many observers saw the campaign as tone-deaf and arrogant, especially in the run-up to a San Francisco election that would have cut the short-term rental supply in the city where Airbnb is headquartered. The company took down the ads and apologized on Twitter: "They displayed poor judgment and do not live up to the values and humanity of our global community."
6. When IBM suggested that women hack their hair dryers.
To encourage women to take up science, technology, engineering, and math, IBM launched a social media campaign in December: #HackAHairdryer. Well-intentioned as may it have been, it didn't go over well with female scientists who accused the company of being patronizing and pandering to gender stereotypes. IBM apologized.
7. When Twitter confronted its internal diversity struggles.
It's been a tumultuous year at Twitter, between its CEO shake-ups, employee departures, and sinking stock. And its biggest problem, slowing user growth, is partly due to the lack of diversity in the company's engineering department, according to a former African-American engineering manager who wrote last month that he'd left largely for that reason. After his post, Twitter's senior vice president of engineering, Alex Roetter, admitted that his department had moved too slowly to recruit and retain diverse employees. "Twitter and our industry must make faster progress on the issue of diversity," he wrote on Medium.
8. When Microsoft's Surfaces were glitchy.
After Microsoft released its newest hybrid tablets, the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4, in October, it didn't take long for customers to run into a long list of problems, including short-lived battery life and issues in "sleep" mode. Microsoft has since issued a few software patches, but complaints have continued, causing the company to apologize this month.
9. When the head of Apple Music said women need help finding music.
Apple Music head Jimmy Iovine drew heat for a November interview on CBS This Morning, in which he discussed an Apple Music commercial that featured Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, and Mary J. Blige. "I always knew that women, some women, at times find it very difficult to find music," he said. "And this helps make it easier with playlists, curated by real people, not by algorithms alone." He added, "I just thought of a problem. Girls are sitting around, talking about boys, right? Or complaining about boys, when they have their heart broken or whatever, and they need music for that, right? And they need music for that. So it's hard to find the right music. Not everyone has the right list or knows a DJ."
He later told BuzzFeed News, "We created Apple Music to make finding the right music easier for everyone — men and women, young and old. Our new ad focuses on women, which is why I answered the way I did, but of course the same applies equally for men. I could have chosen my words better, and I apologize."
10. And when an Apple store turned away these teens.
In November, a video surfaced of three black teenagers from Sudan and Somalia who were denied entry to an Apple store in Melbourne, Australia; an employee told them, "We're worried you might steal something." Apple apologized to the trio, and CEO Tim Cook told employees in an internal email, "What people have seen and heard from watching the video on the web does not represent our values. It is not a message we would ever want to deliver to a customer or hear ourselves."
11. When KPCB partner John Doerr made a joke about diversity.
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers spent the spring at the center of the most high-profile trial in Silicon Valley: a $16 million gender discrimination lawsuit from former employee Ellen Pao that became a rallying cry about sexism in technology and venture capital. (Kleiner was found not liable for all of Pao's claims.) So things got a little uncomfortable during TechCrunch's Disrupt conference in September, when KPCB partner John Doerr joked that he had two partners who "are so diverse I have a challenge producing their names." He was referring to Swati Mylavarapu, formerly of Square, and Muzzammil Zaveri, formerly of Tencent. He quickly apologized on Twitter.
12. When Snapchat atoned for its privacy missteps.
Snapchat has been around only since 2011, but in that time it's been "cited by the FTC for misrepresenting its privacy practices, left user information exposed to intruders, and failed to prevent third-party applications from making it all too easy to archive Snaps," according to Backchannel. Late last year, the latter failure led to the "Snappening," the leak of approximately 90,000 private photos and 9,000 videos. In an April interview with Backchannel, Snapchat executives atoned for its spotty privacy record. In regard to an instance in which a hacker paired the names and phone numbers of 4 million Snapchatters, Vice President of Engineering Tim Sehn said, "I think one of the mistakes was not apologizing quickly enough. So I want to apologize to our users."
Stephanie Lee is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Stephanie M. Lee at email@example.com.
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