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The rise and fall of TechTok: How San Francisco tech workers lost their luster on TikTok

A combination of TikTok videos by Kat Alcaraz, far left, and Emily Zheng, center and far right, document daily life as tech employees in San Francisco.

Maggie Zheng became a TikTok sensation in 2022 for her videos lifting the veil on work life at Meta. 

In one video, the research scientist posted a clip of herself stuffing snacks from the company cafeteria into her work backpack, using a snippet of rapper Quavo repeating the line “major bag alert.” In another, she shared that she spent no money over the course of an entire workday because of the amenities provided to her by Meta, including food, transit and fitness benefits. 

The videos earned Zheng more than 20,000 followers, and she was hardly alone. Kat Alcaraz, a San Francisco resident, hit a nerve online after she started posting about her work-from-home, four-day workweek as an employee at payments startup Bolt. 

Alcaraz posted snippets of herself on her computer at home, interspersed with outings to brunch or boutique fitness classes.  

Zheng and Alcaraz were among the scores of tech workers—mostly younger women—that made up TechTok, which pulled the curtain back on the rarified lifestyle inside Big Tech during the pandemic. But now, with layoffs having rocked the industry for the past nine months, the phenomenon has all but disappeared owing to a combination of gender-based harassment, social media fatigue and a broader “techlash.”

From Fascination to Furor

Zheng started posting on TikTok as a bit of a lark, a way to make friends as a recent transplant to San Francisco who wanted to make more female friends—ideally, some who shared her interest in fashion. The chance of going viral didn’t hurt, either.

Maggie Zheng poses near her workplace in San Francisco on Monday. Zheng used TikTok to document her life while working at Meta before she was laid off. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

It worked, sort of. Although she began to garner a following by posting videos of her ’fits and explorations of San Francisco’s food scene, she drew more engagement and followers by posting about her work at Meta.

“There's always been the sort of fascination with life in Big Tech and what that looks like,” she said. “I just wanted to capitalize on that and see if I could also similarly make this content.”

TikTok helped accelerate people’s discontent with their work during the pandemic. As thousands of lives were lost due to the virus and the boundaries of work and private spaces blurred, many began to reconsider their relationship to their jobs.

The videos on TikTok normalized the notion that San Francisco’s dominant industry was glamorous and easy: You could work from anywhere, and if you ended up having to go in, you got free lunches and snacks in a cushy, modern office space. 

“On my TechToks, people asked more questions,” Alcaraz said. “Because it's a lot of people that aren't in tech, they're like, ‘How and where do you work? How much do you get paid?’”

A combination of screenshots from TikTok videos by Kat Alcaraz shows her last day at a tech company where she filmed a few of the perks of her tech job, including a free lunch and a lounge featuring swing chairs. | Source: Courtesy Kat Alcaraz

But those curious about breaking into the industry started to become outnumbered by detractors. Outsiders were seemingly cynical about the influx of capital in an industry where job titles like “scrum master” are not easily explained. Complaints began to flood comment fields and forums. 

Rick Chen, the head of public relations at anonymous tech job forum Blind, said critiques from those within the industry posted on the forum fell into two categories. One group made the argument against blowing up their spot, so to speak. 

“It’s kind of a good thing that we have going on,” Chen said, summarizing their case. “‘Don’t tell everyone how little we work or how easy we have it.”

The other cohort were people who accused the TikTokers of “ruining the reputation” of hardworking techies. The attacks tended to come from those in technical roles who targeted TikTokers in nontechnical roles like sales, human resources or product management; they also tended to fall across gendered lines.

Even women who were in technical roles—like Zheng—endured misogynistic attacks calling their qualifications into question. She recounted people on Blind accusing her of sleeping with her manager to get a promotion.

“People [were] just looking for literally any way to show that I should not have this role or somehow got it through unfair means,” Zheng said. 

Michelle Serna, a Bay Area influencer who went viral after she got fired from her startup for inadvertently recording a TikTok during a company meeting, got hit on both fronts. People criticized the recklessness that got her fired in the first place, while others relished in her downfall. 

“Obviously, there was a backlash there, where people were like, ‘How big of a fucking idiot do you have to be to like get fired from a six-figure job because of posting videos on the internet?’” Serna said.  

The layoffs that hit the tech industry earlier this year turned up the volume of criticism. Even though the reasoning behind the layoffs became evident—untenable growth targets coinciding with rising interest rates—online detractors placed blame on these young women glamorizing their lifestyle.

The fascination that once surrounded working in tech soured along with some of the job prospects. When the 2023 layoff rounds at Meta, Salesforce and other big tech firms hit, Zheng was one of the workers who were cut. 

A composite image shows a portrait of Maggie Zheng and her iPhone, which was an essential tool when documenting tech life in San Francisco. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Videos started being deployed against their creators. A post by a product manager made the rounds in mid-2022, showing what appeared to be the employee working inside a hot tub with her friends. When Microsoft, Salesforce and Amazon conducted wide-scale layoffs, one employee on Blind reveled in the schadenfreude: “Looks like the world of hot tubs is over.”

And it didn’t stop, even as layoffs started cooling down. As recently as this summer, the video recirculated again after one commentator quipped, “this was the moment the tech industry collapsed.”

The content itself became stale, while the creators grew tired of the attacks blending their work with their social media personas. 

“Like the fitness influencer on Instagram that shows their oiled-up muscles or their really tight abs, it’s kind of the highlight reel,” Chen said. “There was a group of professionals, certainly on Blind, that saw these videos as too literal.”

Maggie Zheng sits near her new workplace in San Francisco. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

All three TikTokers noticed a pronounced drop-off in tech workers sharing their day-to-day lives on TikTok—and engagement in those videos. Zheng and Alcaraz are more reluctant to post about work on social media, pivoting to lifestyle-oriented content. Serna used her brush with viral infamy to help launch a new startup, but mainly posts about her passion for horses. 

Although the three creators still work for tech companies or in tech-adjacent roles, their jobs have taken a back seat when it comes to their TikTok personas. 

“Tech, for all that it takes away from people, affords them the ability to monetarily live a better life than most people,” Serna said.

Just don’t expect her to be posting videos about it anytime soon.