Can We Stop Pretending Everyone with a Website Is 'in Tech'?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg Reuters

New York has a burgeoning tech scene. We’ve got Foursquare, MakerBot, a giant Google outpost and a Chief Digital Officer as well as a Cornell campus coming to Roosevelt Island (finally, someone is excited about going to Roosevelt Island!). There are dozens of start-ups popping up all across Manhattan and Brooklyn and everyone seems to be a VC or a-soon-to-be VC these days. (I’m pretty sure VC is the new thing you pretend to be when you’re rich but unemployed. Previously: handbag designer, gallery owner, consultant.)

But New Yorkers are never happy with what they have, they always want the future faster and they always want the better selling point. As a result, the sites, investors, politicians and media folk here often pretend everyone with a website is "in tech" when really they just have a blog or own a flower delivery business that takes orders over the internet.

Part of this is Mayor Bloomberg’s doing. New York’s tech sector is a major aspect of his carefully-crafted legacy as evidenced by this report commissioned by his private foundation. Notice that "media production" is considered part of the tech world and tech itself has been rebranded "tech/information" so it can absorb everyone in the news business who has ever touched a computer. I refuse to believe that a whole bunch of reporters are now technologists because their writing appears on a tablet instead of print (sorry, Marshall McLuhan!)

Part of it is also the investors and investees. Where a clothing company may have looked to the fashion world for funding 20 years ago or gotten a small business loan, if that company exists in the digital space instead of a retail space they can get start-up capital from a very eager investment community that doles out money for some...niche ideas. This has led to an oft-discussed tech bubble in which organizations without clear business plans get acquired for billions and news sites obsess over it bursting. It also means companies that use tech, but their products are that of traditional commerce, are more likely to classify themselves as a technology enterprise for the money and press that affords them.

This brings us to the last part: The publicity. Being part of "the New York tech scene" means you get on lists, on buses, in the Times, and invited to conferences with social and political leaders (see: Davos, Renaissance Weekend, Techonomy, et al). This is not to say these companies and their founders don’t deserve the attention--it just means that the innovation they offer is often more in the finance, media, entertainment, or commerce space than it is in the tech sphere. It's a blurry line between tech and business or tech and media, but it usually comes down to whether a company is using existing technical systems (or augmenting existing ones) versus creating new ones as a mission. It’s the difference between Bauble Bar—my absolute favorite place to spend money on the web—and an ecommerce platform like Shopify that enables companies to use their off-the-shelf product to start their own online companies. The former has an amazing business plan, uses the digital space well and has a great web site, but does that make them a tech company? Who can blame them for categorizing themselves as such? I would. When was the last time you saw the Gindi family or Marcia Kilgore on some chic listicle?

Maybe it’s because media and tech have been lumped together and those groups cannot avoid navel-gazing for the life of them (see this and this by me, Alex the Navel Gazer) but a new company run by a 30-something with an app is easier to pitch to an editor and feed to a reader than a piece on the best new bagel shops in NYC (although I would read that).

In the end this stifles the way we think and talk about technology augmenting existing businesses and sectors in favor of pretending everyone selling something online is part of a new sector devoid of history and context. I love tech and media and New York commerce, but I’m not convinced this framework serves any of those fields to the fullest.