The Speculum of the Other Brogrammer

It isn’t an accident that the term “brogrammer” gained usage around the same time as the current media obsession with tech companies, tech power, and tech money. The "brogrammer" is a media fantasy that coincides with the mass interest in programming for those outside of the industry; the term serves more to advertise the mainstream media’s fetish for a familiar model of masculinity as it does to critique tech culture's real issues.

Organic vs. Mass-mediated Tech Culture

Before the current media craze around the tech industry, media and culture around tech was largely created from within. Tech workers communicated with one another on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook (as well as forums and channels like IRC and instant message). Even the ra-ra tech blogs had a modicum of modesty given that tech was still an industry affair and not the mainstream media obsession it is today. As a result of this lack of attention from the outside, tech culture and memes came from within and largely remained within the culture, undistorted by the fetishizing lens of outside media.

Enter the bro

For most of the 2000s, the term “bro" was an unironic term for the average frat dude; but towards the end of the 00s that changed. Around 2008-2009, popular alt-culture blogger Carles began widening the usage of "bro" to refer to a range of types of people. “Bro” was modified by typological terms-- "tank top bro", “altbro", “indiebro". Bro moved from being a term for an average frat dude to being something like a unit of being within the culture, the substrate of a subculture. There were many types of bros, and with the de-articulation of the bro from its fratboy origins, there was a craze for rewriting any and all terms in "bro” to see what kinds of bros one could identify in the cultural wild. The intention of much of this early work was humorous blog play (I wrote a blog that itemized emergent bro styles in Dolores Park); at its most utopian and optimistic, the discourse of the bro was expansive, unfixed, self-aware. “Bro" was silly, playful, open-ended, a chain of cultural significations, a site of inquiry: what kind of bro is this? What kind of cultural brand is he trying to implement? What does this type of bro "mean"? Implicit in these questions was a postmodern sense of shifting identity in a branded digital landscape: a bro who was one thing might brand as something else the next season. To be a bro was to be, like everyone in our branded society, a person in search of community, however temporary.


In this play of significations, the moment when someone said “brogrammer” is where, if one were making an MTV documentary on this topic, the record would screech to a halt. In the midst of this tongue-in-cheek game of bro-ology, a few new engineers at Facebook made a Facebook page that was called "Brogramming”, taking an ambient pastime that was about mocking the importance of any particular kind of bro and centering it on one: the supposed “bro” (in the old, fratboy sense) programmer. The thing is that the “bro” programmer didn’t exist: to be a programmer at all involves an attention to detail, focus, and often a disregard for heavily masculine representation that would be lost on the caricatured “brogrammer” who bullies his podmates into going to the gym or the club.

It was thus that “bro” went from being a term of play to an aspirational term used by a few guys who wanted to will the carefree, obnoxious “brogrammer” into being. Unlike most programmers, these aspiring "brogrammers" attended to their physiques, created "lounges" in the office that simulated Vegas clubs, and listened to Pitbull, posting his videos on the Brogramming page (for historical comparison, Facebook’s original golden boy programmers were more forum-kid than gym-rat, pulling their culture from the deep internet and not from the pages of Maxim).

For a while the office was split between people who still used "bro" lightly and those who were making the "brogrammer" a caricatured reality (as the old saying goes, "first you mock it, then you stock it"). Eventually, the easy, Facebook-aided virality of the Brogramming page to outside observers meant that the term "Brogramming" had been cemented in the aspirational, unironic meaning of the term. Journalists followed the page and assumed that a stereotypically masculine programming practice was a widespread phenomenon, and at that point we entered the media fun-house tunnel of the "brogrammer", where journalists gleefully adopted the fantasy identity created by a few anomalous Pitbull-imitating programmers and extended it to an entire Valley of technologists.

The problem is that aside from those few guys reveling in their spray-tanned fantasy "brogrammer" masculinity, very few people in programming identify with the term "brogrammer". The brogrammer is always someone else-- he is THOSE Facebook guys who yell too loudly at parties and wave bottles in the air, he is not the nice, shy guy who gets paid 30% more because of his race, gender and appeal to the boy-genius fetishes of VCs. The loud and tacky "brogrammer" is a false flag-- if you are not a brogrammer, the logic goes, you must be an outcast genius who has suffered long and would never oppress a fly. The industry is full not of the former but the latter-- programmers who are smart and may present as harmlessly "nerdy" but whose sense of themselves as being "the underdog" means that it is very hard to see the ways in which they participate in unconsciously but potentially harmful ways in an industry that has coded them as kings. In reality, programmers in Silicon Valley can be fully and invisibly privileged without ever touching a Grey Goose bottle-service setup or a tube of hair gel. 

Meanwhile, the mainstream media's rapid adoption and celebration of the imaginary “brogrammer"-- imagining him as the updated version of a Wall Street man, rich, callous, and central to a new American story of wealth-- means that this fantasy character is being rapidly heroized and glorified across popular culture. This means that shows like Silicon Valley that claim to "critique" the “brogrammer” only end up re-centering the self-centered young male as American hero, failing to see or critique the deep, coded subtleties by which power in the Valley really works.

Who cares, tho?

All of this is to say that the creation of the mythical brogrammer has had very real consequences. New classes of startups in the Valley, anxious to "fit in" to a culture that is now shaped as much by external media as by internal community, are emulating the same flat stereotype imagined by the Brogramming page (a sponsored ad in my Twitter feed recently read "seeking brogrammers" :/). The "joke" becomes real, the brogrammer becomes the flat, oppressive ideal, and the fact that "bro" was originally a term of complex, critical affection within a community is lost, replaced by a distorting mirror in which people see themselves reflected as comic Hollywood caricatures, while disavowing their own, very real participation in what remain very real cultural issues.