TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco hackathon is happening now, pretty much, and it is an event where app makers get to show off their great ideas to great people. One such app is Build-a-buddy, an idea created by Elaine Ou and Warren Mar, which creates a buddy in your phone. Think Siri or a virtual assistant meets Tamagotchi, but with the added bonus of a personality that you can chat with. You define the Big Five personality traits you want, and the build-a-buddy rummages through the personalities it has, created using the autobiographies of famous people from Benjamin Franklin to Tina Fey. You can chat with your buddy, who will be oddly abrasive and a bit of a megalomaniac if you chose Donald Trump type personality (see chat images below for how entertaining a buddy that gets to be).
But Elaine Ou and Warren Mar discovered that their Build-a-buddy Hackathon app entry was blocked from the submission gallery. They were then contacted by a writer at Techcrunch who gushed that the app "looks awesome", but could they "please use another personality example other than Ann Frank" (sic).
Elaine explains that "We had chosen to include Anne Frank to illustrate diversity. There’s no shortage of autobiographical material to profile powerful white males. With Anne Frank, we gain the personality of a persecuted 13-year-old girl." There really aren't all that many biographies in the world written by teenagers, and Elaine admits that Anne Frank is indeed the youngest woman among the biographies their app has loaded.
Tired, the Build-a-buddy team replaced Anne Frank with Ben Franklin for their presentation and alerted Techcrunch on the change. The response Elaine got was :
Thanks for removing it. It's potentially offensive and there are countless other individuals you can use instead.
Perplexing. How could the voice of Anne Frank be "potentially offensive"? The voice in her diary is that of a child living in the shadow of the threat of genocide, mentally maturing beyond her age before her life was cut short. It's not potentially offensive as, say, a drug-addled 60s rock 'n' roll star biography, with constant mentions of hookers and blow, now is it? Other well known personalities from the second world war loaded in the app include Winston Churchill and Viktor Frankl, whose biographies pale in fame next to the Anne Frank diary which has been read by schoolchildren worldwide for generations now. Surely, the "potential offense" here was some sort of overcautious misunderstanding? It appears not, Elaine describes the moments before their presentation:
"When it came time for presentations, three separate hackathon organizers approached our team to ensure we would not include or display anything about “Anne Frank”. A TechCrunch editor stopped us (and only us) to review the app before we could be allowed on stage."
How did one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century become grounds for controversy?
I’m sad about the state of Silicon Valley. I’m sad that an event that awards $5000 to a Donald Trump drinking game finds Anne Frank “potentially offensive”. I’m sad that an industry that bills itself as “disruptive” needs to police its public image.
And most of all I’m sad that writers for a leading tech publication can’t even spell “Anne Frank”.