Behind Twitter’s historic Art Deco headquarters on San Francisco’s Market Street, in a narrow plaza, a round firepit encourages tech workers to mingle. It feels like a gathering place that would have fit in villages hundreds of years ago, with a little less polished stone. Sure, those tech workers might be checking their smartphones, but they’re also talking to each other and, maybe, building a community beyond the digital.
The building on the other side of the plaza houses Nextdoor.com, a different social media company that connects users based on their physical neighborhoods. It’s the former workplace of Steve Wymer (’01 Comm.), who until recently headed up communications and policy for the company. Neighborhoods and building real community, particularly in our era of ubiquitous technology, is something that’s often on his mind.
In the past, says Wymer, people in communities joined service clubs and met each other in person. “People didn’t have things delivered to their house; they went to the store where they saw each other. They went to the post office where they saw each other. Now those things have shifted in a way that disconnects people. But the size of the shift is not as obvious, because we feel so connected to others through social networks.”
As social media companies come under increasing scrutiny for their role in our lives, Wymer and other tech executives like Visa’s chief technology officer Rajat Taneja (’92 MBA) are facing fundamental questions: Can technology build community? What role should it play?
Wymer didn’t jump right into the technology world, but he did understand community from a young age. He grew up as part of a large family in the small, tight-knit town of Chewelah, in the forested northeastern corner of Washington state. Wymer never really thought about college until high school, and then he set his mind on Washington State University.
It took an extra math class at a community college in nearby Colville, but Wymer made it into WSU. Along the way to a communications degree, he became the only ASWSU president to serve three terms, from 1998–2001, and led the effort to build the new Student Recreation Center on the Pullman campus.
Wymer went to work for former WSU athletic director Jim Livengood at the University of Arizona, but soon pursued politics. He first returned to Washington state to join the staff of Secretary of State Sam Reed (’63, ’68 Poli. Sci.), then moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for U.S. Senators Gordon Smith, Wayne Allard, and Mike Johanns.
Wymer married and started a family in D.C. After nearly a decade in the nonstop world of politics, he decided to get into the private sector. After an introduction to the CEO of TiVo, he was hired following a 90-minute interview.
The family moved to San Jose, California, and that gave Wymer a chance to dive back into community. He enthusiastically joined nonprofits and organizations in the Bay Area, and eventually that passion became professional when he took on the Nextdoor.com position.
Wymer speaks exuberantly about the importance of community-building. Riffing on the 2000 book Bowling Alone by sociologist Robert Putnam, he notes that local anonymity can be a real danger.
“We feel connected to our brother who lives in Germany, because we can stay in touch with him and we see real images. It makes us feel like community hasn’t disappeared but, in fact, real community isn’t as strong as it used to be,” says Wymer. “And we see that rear its head in the face of catastrophe. You get a hurricane or a flood, neighbors don’t know each other, and a community is in a really bad spot.”
Instead Wymer wants to find ways to connect physical interaction with technology, something Nextdoor also wants by building local-only social networks. Although Wymer left the company to join eBay in January as senior vice president and chief communications officer, he still holds true to his desire to bring people together and get them to care about what’s happening around them.
It could possibly stave off some of the bitter partisanship in the country, says Wymer. “People have all these opinions that other people or politicians are either angels or devils, but they don’t know the person who actually impacts their kiddo’s bus stop. They don’t know the school board members.
“This is a different kind of political process. It’s called community.”
Rajat Taneja always loved technology and its ability to make an impact. He grew up in India, where he got an electrical engineering degree from Jadavpur University in Kolkata before he traveled around the world to get an MBA in Pullman. Over the course of his career, Taneja has seen technology’s importance grow in every aspect of life.
“Technology’s not a tool anymore; it is a part of the environment,” he says. “It’s like oxygen; it’s like water. Whether you’re pursuing a passion in art, in commerce, or in science, I think there has to be an understanding of technology.”
Looking through silver-rimmed glasses past his office window in Foster City, south of San Francisco, Taneja reflects not only on tech, but on how he grew to love the community at WSU.
“I have a very soft spot in my heart for the school,” he says. “Everybody I met at the University welcomed me. It’s a community; it’s like an extended family.”
Alumni mentors from WSU and his interest in tech brought him to Digital Equipment Corporation, Microsoft, and then video game giant Electronic Arts. In 2013, Taneja became executive vice president of technology at global payments technology company Visa, Inc.
He’s aware that the role of technology at Visa comes with heavy responsibilities, such as protecting data, ensuring secure transactions, and possibly implementing new technologies. There’s a level of power in technology that must be weighed carefully, says Taneja.
“Any technology has the ability to be used for good and for not so good, so we have to think about it very carefully. Not just technologists but ethicists and others need to work through the implication of this power,” he says.
Still, both Taneja and Wymer are hopeful their role in the industry can make some difference in the world and their communities. As Taneja says, “I want to be part of doing work in technology that can have a big impact. I’ve always tried to use a litmus test of where I can find the most meaningful impact in the industry and hopefully in society.”