A Book Review of The Boy Kings

Cornelia Beckett ‘14
Opinions Editor

In my last article, I excoriated Sheryl Sandberg for being a vapid, out-of-touch twit and Mark Zuckerberg as a man-child. And this is the portrait I got from the official PR. The unofficial, far juicier and more literary version is The Boy Kings, Katherine Losse’s memoir of life as Facebook’s 51st employee for five years.

The title hints at what Losse details in captivating, absurdist prose: grown-up boys with fancy toys and too much power, hell-bent on creating a techno-capitalist utopia. Losse hammers home the metaphor of her childhood favorite song, “Hotel California” by the Eagles, as a parallel for Zuckerberg’s blue monster: you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. You can log out any time you like, now, but the site’s social landscape, digital market and redefinition of the word “friend” are already finely woven into the 21st century landscape.

In 2005, Losse was a disillusioned grad student of English literature at Johns Hopkins University. She predictably draws parallels to The Wire, David Simon’s HBO series chronicling life in mid-aughties Baltimore, but the parallel doesn’t stop at using a TV show’s desolate landscapes to evoke modern American deindustrialization. Losse continues to use the metaphor of the drug trade and its kingpins, evoked in that show, to draw a parallel to the laws of power and business that fueled Facebook’s upstart success.

The Boy Kings, if at times dramatic and heavy-handed, is a bracing and thrilling counterpart to the bland boardroom platitudes of Lean In. Far before Sandberg swept in like a corporate fairy godmother, Losse was subject to sexual harassment, a third of the pay of her coworkers (as a customer service representative, her salary and security were far less important than those of engineers) constant surveillance of what little of a private life she could carve time for, and a work environment in which all female employees had to wear a t-shirt with Zuckerberg’s face on it for his birthday. Losse called in sick that day, physically sickened by a mob mentality that she refers to as a cross between a cult and the regressive office politics of Mad Men.

Losse’s feminist, pro-worker stance is thrilling and redeeming. Ever astute, she notes that “in a society in which we are wage workers and paying customers more than we are members of a community, we yearn to be understood and loved for who we really are.” She also calls out the white-boy frat culture of the office, and notes that were it not for the hard work of programmers and engineers of color, the white All-American figureheads would not have a product for which to be the poster boys.

The Boy Kings sharp insight isn’t just limited to office culture but pop culture, too.The ubiquity of vintage t-shirts, jeans, sneakers, raucous acoustic Green Day sing-along sessions and pre-2008 financial fearlessness are telling details that perfectly capture the culture of young, ambitious techies in the last decade. Losse gives the sense that she was watching the unfolding action at all times, and even Zuckerberg and another higher up made similar and separate observations: she was clearly banking on writing a book one day. For a corrective to Lean In, to The Social Network and to every tech evangelist promising salvation by social media, this is the perfect read.

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